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 renter’s 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, although 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 even before you even give your completed application to the prospective landlord, let alone sign a lease.)
These tenant’s 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 practices in regards to rentals.
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, such as this recent case last year in which courts ruled against several landlords posting discriminatory advertising on Craigslist.
All leaseholds are supposed to allow for the right of quiet enjoyment, meaning you as the tenant have reasonable freedom from disturbances and the right to not be disturbed by the landlord unless necessary to make repairs or for another reason previously agreed upon. Unless there is an emergency, such as a fire or other natural disaster, your landlord needs to give you prior notice before entering the premises.
HABITABILITY AND REPAIRS
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. For example, if the water gets shut off and you have been paying timely rent each month, the landlord has to make the repair to get the water back on for your use, as soon as possible. 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.
When it comes to smaller repairs, such as fixing a leaky faucet, the responsibility is generally on the tenant, but it is ultimately the terms of the signed lease which would prevail in court. Just because a landlord says that he will make a repair doesn’t make it binding. Be sure to give your landlord a written, dated request when you ask for repairs to be made. If the terms of your lease state that the landlord is to make specific repairs and he is unwilling or unresponsive, contact your local chapter of the Department of Housing and Urban Development or consider taking your landlord to small claims court.
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.
Tips to Protect Your Rights
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 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.
Renter’s insurance is similar to homeowner’s insurance, but it covers the loss of damage to the renter’s personal property such as clothes, jewelry, electronics and furniture. Some renter’s insurance policies also cover liability due to an injury on the rental premises.
Many renters don’t bother to get renter’s 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 renter’s 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 renter’s policy held by one roommate will not cover the property of the other.”
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.)
Need 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.
To wrap up, when we rent apartments we often feel like the landlord has all the power, when that’s not really true at all. Renter’s have A LOT of rights, most just don’t realize it. So if you end up with a crumby 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.
Have you, or has somebody you know, had tenant’s rights violated? If you don’t mind, please share your story in a comment so other readers can learn from your situation.
This post was originally published on Feb. 1, 2011.