Each state, and many cities and counties, have their own set of laws that cover different aspects of a landlord-tenant relationship. State and local landlord-tenant laws will outline the legal requirements for the rental process, such as rules regarding lease terms, security deposits, and other basic tenant or landlord rights.
Landlords and tenants would be wise to review the applicable laws in their state since there may be other legal rights they are entitled to or legal duties with which they must comply.
In legal terms, a tenant is a person who is temporarily occupying or possessing land by renting the property from a landlord. By means of a rental agreement signed by the landlord and the tenant (commonly called a “lease”), a tenant has obtained the right to use and occupy the specific rental property. Tenants are allowed this right as long as they adhere to the terms and conditions outlined in the lease, which includes paying rent.
Knowing your rights as a tenant allows you to be a better tenant and assert your rights if necessary. Each state has specific laws regarding tenant rights and landlord-tenant relationships. Tenants may believe they do not have many rights since the property does not belong to them; however, tenants are entitled to various protections.
Although the negotiated lease determines many of the rules of the landlord-tenant relationship, state laws also play a part in tenants’ rights.
Some examples include:
- Eviction protections, including protection if the landlord goes into foreclosure
- Discrimination protections. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act protect tenants from being discriminated against when renting based on their protected status (age, disability, religion, etc.)
- Property standards. The landlord is required to keep your unit in habitable conditions and must make minor repairs
- Should the need arise, a legally proper eviction process must be followed
- Return of appropriate security deposits promptly. Only reasonable deductions may be taken from the initial security deposit payment
- Right to privacy. Your landlord cannot enter the premises whenever they please. Rather, your landlord must provide advance notice, except in an emergency. Each state determines the amount of time in which the landlord must notify the tenant.
- Right to reasonable efforts at safety. Crimes can occur on rental property. Someone may steal a car from the parking lot or may break into the rental unit. Landlords may sometimes be held responsible in the event of criminal acts by strangers or by other tenants. As such, it is important to find out about any crime or security risks in the area surrounding your potential future home and what the landlord has done or is willing to do to reduce those risks.
- Ask if the landlord has met any city-mandated security requirements.
What Rights Do Landlords Have?
It is important to understand what rights your landlord has been granted to understand better what is and is not appropriate during your landlord-tenant relationship.
Once again, landlord rights will vary by state, city, or county, but there are a few general rights to be aware of:
- The right to be paid rent installments on time
- The right to charge late fees if rent is not paid on time
- The right to enter the rental premises in the event of an emergency
- The right to collect security deposits
- The right to use security deposits to pay for necessary repairs or unpaid rent
- The right to conduct a background check on prospective tenants
One important right that the landlord has is the right to use the legal process to evict a tenant. A landlord may not evict a tenant from a rental property alone. Instead, they must either file an eviction lawsuit or an unlawful detainer case in court. Landlords must then use the eviction process defined by their state, city, or county laws to evict a tenant for cause or without cause.
The eviction process will also require the landlord to give the tenant advance notice of the eviction, serve the complaint filed in court on the tenant, and call a sheriff if the tenant refuses to vacate the rental property. The landlord cannot simply remove a tenant’s personal property unless it has been abandoned.
Other right landlords have the right to select tenants. Landlords cannot legally engage in housing discrimination against potential tenants if they belong to a protected class. However, landlords are legally able to make an informed decision and select or reject tenants based on the following:
- The tenant’s past credit record and the status of their bank accounts
- Verification of the tenant’s employment
- Information from the tenant’s previous landlords. Prospective tenants may be required to provide references to the landlord when they apply
- The tenant’s past criminal history. Prospective tenants may be required to sign a release to allow the landlord to obtain the tenant’s criminal record
- The approximate length of time the tenant wishes to inhabit the landlord’s property
It is important to note that although landlords maintain the right to raise your rent, many metropolitan areas have enacted local rent control ordinances. These ordinances limit the amount the landlord may increase the rent, and landlords must adhere to these ordinances. Some rent control ordinances also limit why a landlord may raise or evict a tenant.
What Else Should I Know as a Tenant?
It is important to be prepared when you are entering a landlord-tenant relationship. This could include gathering references from previous landlords and providing your prospective landlord with a recent copy of your credit report. Preparing the necessary documents can make a good impression on the landlord. It also may help establish a respectful and positive relationship, which will be important as long as you rent from them.
When you are given a lease or rental agreement to sign, it is important to read the document carefully and make sure you understand it well before you sign it. This document is essential to protecting your rights as a tenant and will outline what to expect from the landlord-tenant relationship. Ask the landlord questions if there is anything unclear. The proposed lease may have clauses you do not wish to adhere to, in which case it would be in your best interest to pursue another property or, if possible, negotiate with the landlord to remove the offending clauses.
Last, It is a good idea to protect yourself and your valuable belongings from liability. If there is a fire, a flood, or a theft, the landlord’s insurance will not cover your losses, whereas renter’s insurance generally will.
Should I Hire an Attorney to Help with Tenant Issues?
Let a lawyer review your lease before you sign it is a good idea, just as with any other type of contract, a lawyer’s skill in analyzing leases and negotiating desired changes can be very helpful.
IYou may want to contact a skilled and knowledgeable landlord-tenant lawyer in a dispute between you and your landlord. Landlord-tenant laws vary greatly from state to state and city to city, and an experienced local landlord-tenant lawyer can ensure your rights are being protected according to those laws. Additionally, the attorney will represent you in court as needed.