Renters' Rights 101

by J.D. Written by Team eLocal.
Business legal document concept : Pen and glasses on a lease agreement form. Lease agreement is a contract between a lessor and a lessee that allow lessee rights to use of a property owned by lessor

Everyone has heard — or lived — a horror story with a nightmare landlord who doesn't take care of things and breaks all the rules. It could be anything from refusing to fix a broken furnace to evicting you without notice.

Educating yourself on renters' rights gives you a defense if you encounter this type of landlord.

How Do Renters' Rights Vary State by State?

Renters' rights aren't the same in every state. Different jurisdictions create landlord-tenant laws that establish rights for renters. Review laws for your area to understand your rights. Some basic renters' rights usually apply no matter where you live, but the specifics might vary by state. Below are some examples of rights all renters should have.

Basic Renters' Rights All Tenants Should Know

Below are some basic renters' rights to be aware of. Remember that rights vary by state and sometimes even by city. Renters should also be aware that their rights can vary depending on which type of property they’re renting. For example, renters in a large apartment building may have different rights than someone renting a single apartment attached to the landlord’s own home. Commercial renters tend to have different rights than residential renters.

Security Deposit Protections

Asking for a security deposit at the lease signing is standard. In many states, landlords have a maximum security deposit amount they can request, such as two times the monthly rent. Landlords also generally have to treat everyone the same when asking for security deposits. It's not acceptable for them to ask certain people for more in most cases. There are some exceptions, such as asking for a pet deposit in addition to the security deposit.

Your state might also require the landlord to give you the security deposit back after you move out within a certain time, usually within 30 days or less. They can keep some of the security deposit for certain things, such as unpaid rent, property damage or an unreasonable mess left in the rental. However, you should receive written documentation that explains why the landlord kept the deposit.

Habitable Home

As a renter, you have the right to a habitable home, which means the environment is reasonably fit for living. In other words, your rental shouldn't have any unsafe conditions or things that break building codes, such as unsafe wiring, plumbing that doesn't work or a broken furnace. If something goes wrong, your landlord has to repair those issues to make your home habitable.

Protection From Retaliation

Most states offer protection from landlord retaliation when tenants assert their rights. For example, if you report an unsafe condition that your landlord refuses to fix, your landlord can't retaliate with things like raising your rent, offering fewer services, harassing you or evicting you. Each state sets guidelines for retaliation. There usually has to be an action by the tenant first, such as reporting a violation to a government agency, complaining to the landlord about a situation or joining a tenant's union. If that's followed by retaliation from the landlord, the tenant could take the landlord to court.

Notice Before Entry

Also referred to as your right to privacy, notice before entering your rented home is a basic right for renters. Even though your landlord owns the property, they shouldn't enter whenever they want. If your landlord needs to access your rental for things like repairs or showing the unit when you're moving out, they need to give you reasonable notice. Some states set a minimum time, such as 24 hours notice. However, there's usually an exception for an emergency, such as a fire in the building.

Established Eviction Processes

Landlords can evict tenants if they break the lease in any way, including not paying the rent, having animals without permission or having extra people living in the rental. However, most states require a formal notice if the landlord intends to evict you. The notice should give the reason for the eviction, and may provide the opportunity to correct the situation. For example, if you have someone extra living with you, that person would need to move out. If you have a pet that's not allowed, you would need to get rid of it within the time frame.

If you don't correct the situation, the landlord can proceed with the eviction through the courts. You should also receive a notice of this legal proceeding with the option to appear in court to fight the eviction. The timeline for the eviction process varies by state, but renters have the right to this process with official notices before getting kicked out of the rental.

Protection Against Lockouts

Nearly all states prohibit self-help evictions and lockouts. That means landlords aren't allowed to lock out tenants or otherwise try to force them out of the property without a court order. That includes things like changing the locks, physically removing belongings from the home or shutting off utilities to force the tenant out of the home. Evictions must take place through the court system. A couple of states allow lockouts if the lease has expired, and a few more allow evictions without prior notice if the landlord believes the tenant is a threat to other building occupants or the landlord.

Anti-Discrimination Laws

While many renters' rights vary by state, discrimination in housing is something that's addressed by the federal Fair Housing Act. This act prevents landlords from discriminating against renters based on race, gender, family status, national origin, ethnicity, religion or disability. Some states add other protected groups to their anti-discrimination laws. It protects prospective tenants who want to rent as well as current tenants.

Timely Repairs

If something needs to be repaired in your rental, you have the right to receive timely repairs. There's not a set timeframe for responding to repairs because they can vary in urgency. For example, frozen pipes, which prevent you from having any running water, need to be fixed as soon as possible, while an interior door that won't latch correctly can wait a bit.

How to Handle Violations

Your response to violations of tenants' rights can vary depending on the situation. If possible, communicate the issue directly to the landlord and document your communication. For example, if the landlord doesn't repair something in a timely manner, send formal communication about fixing the issue and your right to the repairs.

In some situations, you can report a violation to a government agency. If you're discriminated against, you can report it to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or a state office that monitors housing discrimination.

Another option is taking legal action. You can take your landlord to court for violating tenants' rights. Seeking help from an experienced real estate attorney helps you navigate the legal options.

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