After the housing bubble of 2008–09, few people can say you’re “just throwing money” away by renting anymore.
I talk a lot about everything home-buying on here, so it’s high time we say a bit about renting. Specifically: I want to cover renters’ rights — the rights you have as a tenant — and how to exercise them.
When you own a home, your legal rights are evident in a lot of ways (such as all the disclosures required to complete a transaction). As a renter, that’s not always the case. Some landlords provide detailed leases that (may) cover some of these rights but, more often than not, leases simply protect the landlord. Other landlords may not require leases at all. But every renter has rights. (In fact, your legal rights as a renter begin before you even give your completed application to the prospective landlord.)
These tenants’ rights vary from state to state but, regardless of where you live, if you rent or plan to rent an apartment, you can protect your safety, health, and finances by understanding legal and illegal rental practices.
Your rights as a tenant
The Fair Housing Act, first passed in 1968 and amended since, prohibits discrimination based on race, color, origin, religion, sex, familial status, or disability. The Fair Housing Act applies to both renting and selling real estate. Therefore, you cannot be turned down for tenancy based on any of the protected classes mentioned. In some states, such as Massachusetts, this protection also applies to people who use federal or state subsidies to pay all or a portion of their rent. (To see these laws in action, just look at this case in which courts ruled against several landlords posting discriminatory advertising on Craigslist.)
All leaseholds are supposed to allow for the right of “quiet enjoyment.” This means you, as the tenant, have the right to reasonable freedom from being disturbed by the landlord. Unless there is an emergency, such as a fire or natural disaster, your landlord needs to give you prior notice before entering the premises.
Habitability and repairs
One of the big benefits of renting over owning your own home is that your landlord is responsible for maintaining the building. If the boiler breaks down in the dead of winter and requires a $1,500 repair, it doesn’t come out of your pocket.
Landlords have the responsibility of making sure that the rental is safe and habitable as well as fixing any major problems that hinder the habitability of the premises.
A rental that is considered uninhabitable (such as one without heating, proper plumbing, or electricity) is one that you can stop paying rent on, or make the repairs yourself and deduct the expenses from future rents.
There are, however, some things tenants have a responsibility to maintain, including:
- Keeping the apartment clean and sanitary
- Safely operating gas, electrical, and plumbing appliances
- Disposing of trash
- Not removing or damaging any part of the building
- Repairing any damage caused by tenants, guests, or pets
What about the issues in between a major safety repair (which the landlord is responsible for) and the minor items the tenant covers? When it comes to fixing leaky faucets, squeaky floorboards, or even burned-out light bulbs, some landlords can be notoriously stingy (or just slow).
One way to get in your landlord’s good graces (and save yourself a lot of grief) is to take care of minor fixes — like changing a light bulb — yourself.
Some things will be harder to get than others. If you’re asking for a new dishwasher, there’s not much you can do if the landlord doesn’t want to put one in. If, however, the needed repairs are serious and relate to the apartment’s basic fitness for living (such as heat or a broken lock) you should be firm in requesting repairs.
First notify your landlord, in writing, of the requested repair. Then give him or her a reasonable amount of time to make the fix. (Under most laws, 30 days is reasonable, but it depends on the severity of the repair. Two days might be reasonable if the issue is broken heat in winter.)
If your landlord doesn’t follow through, you have a couple of options:
The repair and deduct method
In certain states (check your state law to be sure), tenants may pay for any repairs that affect health and safety (such as a leaky roof, no hot water, a gas leak, or a sewage back up) and then deduct the cost of repairs from the rent (so long as it does not exceed one month’s rent).
Obviously, you must document everything (including communicating the defect to the landlord, giving him a reasonable amount of time to comply, and any repairs you pay for).
The abandonment method
If things are so bad that you cannot safely live in the apartment, you may have a legal right to abandon the apartment and stop paying rent. Obviously this is a last resort and you can expect some kind of legal struggle if you’re breaking a lease in doing so. But, if the apartment is clearly unsafe and the landlord has made no effort to remedy the situation, the law will usually favor you as the tenant.
Most states have a statutory deadline for how long a landlord has to give you back your security deposit after you move out. In California, for example, a landlord has up to 21 days to refund your full security deposit, less deductions for specified damages. In Virginia, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, a landlord has 30 days. Make sure that the landlord has your correct forwarding address so that you can get your money back on time.
Some things that aren’t “rights”
There tend to be many misconceptions about what is a legal right and what is a privilege unique to certain apartments or leases.
Rights pertain to nondiscrimination, the safety and habitability of an apartment, and a tenant’s privacy. Everything else is negotiable.
For example, tenants do not, by law, have the right to an off-street parking space, on-site laundry, or a working dishwasher. At certain rentals these perks may be promised as part of your lease, but your “right” to these amenities very much depends on the language of the lease you signed. Unless the lease explicitly guarantees you a dedicated parking space available 24/7, 365 days a week, you might not have strong recourse if the landlord’s son starts parking in your spot.
Which brings us to the importance of getting things in writing…
Tips to protect your rights
Put everything in writing
Unfortunately, too many people think not having a lease is a perk for tenants or a sign of a landlord’s friendliness. While renting an apartment without a lease may work out sometimes, it can also backfire badly. Yes, leases enforce certain responsibilities on tenants, but they also specify the terms of the landlord-tenant agreement; if there are disagreements, both parties have guidance for how to resolve them.
Aside from leases, it’s also vital to document all of your communication with your landlord. That includes rent payments and any requests for repairs. It’s fine to have a phone call first, but always follow it up with a letter or email, for example:
“It was nice speaking with you yesterday about our apartment. We greatly appreciate you hearing our concerns regarding the leak in our bedroom roof and that you agreed to have someone look at it within the week. If anything changes, please let us know as soon as possible.”
Where to find the laws
Each state also publishes a Tenant’s Rights Handbook, usually downloadable in PDF format from either the Department of Real Estate or the Department of Consumer Affairs. Your local library is a great place to check out books related to tenant’s rights — just make sure they were published recently.
Renters insurance is similar to homeowners insurance, but it covers the loss or damage to the renter’s personal property such as clothes, jewelry, electronics, and furniture. Some renters insurance policies also cover liability due to an injury on the rental premises.
Many renters don’t bother to get renters insurance simply because they think it will be too expensive or because they think that something like a fire, earthquake, or burglary would never happen to them.
As a tenant, it’s always worth it to call a few different insurance companies and shop around for a good renters insurance rate. If anything were to happen during your tenancy, you’d be glad you chose to have that extra protection for your personal items.
Note: Even if your roommate has rental insurance, it’s still a good idea to get your own policy. Attorney Aaron Larson writes on the legal website ExpertLaw, “Typically, even where people live as roommates, a renters policy held by one roommate will not cover the property of the other.”
What to do if you believe your landlord is violating your rights
If you believe your landlord is violating your rights as a tenant, the best thing to do is pick up the phone and speak with somebody qualified to help.
If you’re unsure of what to do in your situation, contact the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD offers free counseling related to renting in all 50 states. (Here’s how to find a HUD-approved housing counselor in your area.)
If a housing counselor suspects you have a legal issue, you’ll need to speak with an attorney. Just getting an attorney on retainer can cost several thousand dollars, depending on your situation. If an attorney feels your rights have been violated, he or she may be willing to take your case pro bono, but it is unlikely unless you can prove your inability to pay. In most states, however, the Department of Justice will provide free legal services to those who are classified as being low-income. This Department of Justice legal service website can help you find local attorneys and self-help resources. Others can locate a qualified attorney using the ABA’s Laywer Referral Service.
When we rent apartments, we often feel like the landlord has all the power; but that’s not really true at all. Renter’s have A LOT of rights — most just don’t realize it. If you end up with a crummy landlord, it’s often worth a bit of research to determine if he or she is actually breaking the law and what you can do about it.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in November 2011. It has been thoroughly updated for relevance and accuracy before republication.