The taxpayer - that's someone who works for the federal government but doesn't have to take the civil service examination. ~Ronald Reagan

If you're a renter, there are lots of laws on the books to protect you from improper landlord conduct, including discrimination, invasion of privacy, maintaining dangerous property conditions and other landlord wrongs. Here are some of the most common questions asked by tenants about the landlord-tenant relationship. Because state laws vary - often significantly - remember to check the specific landlord-tenant statutes for your state and any local laws that may apply.

1. Why do I need to sign a lease or rental agreement?

Your lease or rental agreement is a contract. It forms the legal basis for your relationship with your landlord by setting out important issues such as:

  1. the length of your tenancy
  2. the amount of rent and deposits you must pay
  3. the number of people who can live on the rental property
  4. who pays for utilities
  5. whether you may have pets
  6. whether you may sublet the property
  7. the landlord's access to the rental property
  8. whose job it is to maintain and repair the premises, and
  9. who pays attorneys' fees if there is a lawsuit.

It is always wise to put your lease or rental agreement in writing, even though most states allow them to be oral (spoken). While oral agreements may seem easy and informal, if you and your landlord later disagree about key agreements, you are all too likely to end up in court, arguing over who said what to whom, when and in what context. This is particularly a problem with long-term leases, so many states prohibit oral agreements that are to last for one year or more.

2. What's the difference between a rental agreement and a lease?

The big difference is the period of occupancy. Written rental agreements provide for a tenancy for a short period (often 30 days). Your tenancy is automatically renewed at the end of this period unless you or your landlord end it by giving written notice, typically 30 days. For these month-to-month rentals (meaning the rent is paid monthly), the landlord can change terms of your agreement with proper written notice (subject to any rent control laws). This notice is usually 30 days, but can be shorter in some states if the rent is paid weekly or bi-weekly.

A written lease gives you the right to occupy a rental unit for a set term - most often for six months or a year but sometimes longer - as long as you pay the rent and comply with other lease provisions. Unlike a rental agreement, when a lease expires it does not automatically renew itself (a tenant who stays on with the landlord's consent will generally be considered a month-to-month tenant). With a fixed-term lease, the landlord cannot raise the rent or change other terms of the tenancy during the lease, unless they are specifically called for in the lease, or you agree.

3. I signed a year-long lease a few months ago, but now I want to move out. What happens if I break the lease?

As a general rule, neither you nor your landlord may properly break the lease before the term ends unless the other party significantly violates the lease. This means that you can legally move out for a good cause-- for example, if your landlord fails to make necessary repairs. If you break the lease without good cause, you'll be responsible for the remainder of the rent due under the lease term. In most states, however, a landlord has a legal duty to try to find a new tenant as soon as possible - no matter what your reason for leaving - rather than charge you for the total remaining rent due under the lease.

4. I think a landlord discriminated against me when she refused to rent me an apartment. What are my rights under the law?

Under federal civil rights and fair housing laws, the landlord broke the law if she refused you the apartment because of a group characteristic such as:

  • your race
  • your religion
  • your ethnic background or national origin
  • your sex
  • your age
  • the fact that you have children (except in certain designated senior housing), or
  • a mental or physical disability.

In addition, some state and local laws prohibit discrimination based on your marital status or sexual orientation.

On the other hand, landlords are allowed to select tenants using criteria that are based on valid business reasons, such as requiring a minimum income or a good credit rating, and applying them equally to all tenants.

5. How do I file a discrimination complaint?

If you think that a landlord has broken a federal fair housing law, contact your local office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. To find the office nearest you, call (800) 669-9777. HUD will give you a complaint form and will investigate and decide whether you have a case. You must file your complaint with HUD within one year of the alleged discriminatory act. If HUD determines that you do have a case, a mediator will try to negotiate with the landlord and reach a settlement (called a "conciliation"). If a settlement can't be reached, HUD will file a lawsuit against the landlord.

If the discrimination is a violation of a state fair housing law, you may file a complaint with the state agency in charge of enforcing the law. In California, for example, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing enforces the state's two fair housing laws. Contact your state's department of housing in order to find out whether a state housing law exists that would apply to your situation.

Also, instead of filing a complaint with HUD or a state agency, you may file a lawsuit directly in federal or state court.

6. Are there laws covering how much rent a landlord can charge, and when the rent must be paid?

Your landlord may charge any dollar amount for rent, except in certain areas covered by rent control. (States with some areas covered by rent control include California, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Massachusetts (until the end of 1996), New Jersey and New York.)

By custom, leases and rental agreements usually require rent to be paid monthly, in advance. Often rent is due on the first day of the month. However, it is usually legal for a landlord to require rent to be paid at different intervals or on a different day of the month. Unless the lease or rental agreement specifies otherwise, there is no legally- recognized grace period - in other words, if you haven't paid the rent on time, your landlord can usually start eviction proceedings the day after it is due. Some landlords charge fees for late payment of rent or for bounced checks; these fees are usually legal if they are reasonable.

For month-to-month rentals, the landlord can raise the rent (subject to any rent control laws) with proper written notice, typically 30 days. With a fixed-term lease, the landlord may not raise the rent during the lease, unless the increase is specifically called for in the lease, or you agree.

7. How much security deposit can a landlord charge?

Usually not more than a month or two worth of rent - the exact amount depends on the state in which you live. All states allow landlords to collect a security deposit when you move in; the general purpose is to assure that you pay rent when due and keep the rental unit in good condition.

Many states require landlords to put deposits in a separate account and some require landlords to pay you the interest on your deposits.

8. What are the rules for returning security deposits?

Landlords may normally make certain deductions from a tenant's security deposit, provided they do it correctly and for the right reasons. While the specific rules vary from state to state, landlords usually have a set amount of time in which to return deposits (usually 14 to 30 days after you move out - either voluntarily or by eviction). Many states require landlords to provide a written itemized accounting of deductions for unpaid rent and for repairs for damages that go beyond normal wear and tear, together with payment for any deposit balance. You may sue a landlord who fails to return your deposit when and how required, or who violates other provisions of security deposit laws such as interest requirements; often these suits may be brought in small claims court. In some states, you may recover your entire deposit - sometimes even two or three times this amount - plus attorney fees and other damages.

9. Does my landlord have the right to enter my apartment whenever he wants, without notice?

A landlord or manager may enter rented premises while you are living there without advance notice only in an emergency, such as a fire or serious water leak. Beyond that, laws in many states guarantee tenants reasonable privacy rights against landlord intrusions. Typically, a landlord has the right to legally enter rented premises in order to make needed repairs (in some states, just to assess the need for repairs) and to show the property to prospective new tenants or purchasers. Many states allow landlords the right of entry during your absence to maintain the property as necessary and to inspect for damage and needed repairs. In addition, a landlord may enter rented premises when you move out without notifying the landlord or by court order. In most cases, a landlord may not enter just to check up on you and the rental property.

States typically require landlords to provide a specific amount of notice (usually 24 or 48 hours) before entering a rental unit. In some states, such as California, landlords must provide a "reasonable" amount of notice, legally presumed to be 24 hours.

10. My apartment badly needs repairs. Isn't it the landlord's responsibility to keep things in good working order?

Landlords in all states except Alabama, Arkansas and Colorado are responsible for the physical condition of rental property, both when you move in and during your tenancy. This responsibility stems from the landlord's duty to offer and maintain housing that satisfies basic habitability requirements, such as adequate weatherproofing, available heat, water and electricity, and clean, sanitary and structurally safe premises. Even in the three states that have not adopted this habitability rule, local or state housing laws may impose substantially the same requirements on landlords.

All tenants have the responsibility to keep their own living quarters clean and sanitary. And a landlord can usually delegate his repair and maintenance tasks to the tenant in exchange for a reduction in rent. If the tenant fails to do the job, however (or does a poor job), the landlord is not excused from his responsibility to maintain habitability.

11. What are my rights if my landlord refuses to maintain the property?

If the landlord doesn't meet his legal responsibilities, you usually have several options (depending on the state), including moving out (even in the middle of a lease), paying less rent, withholding the entire rent until the problem is fixed, making necessary repairs (or hiring someone to make them and deducting the cost from next month's rent) or calling the local building inspector (who can usually order the landlord to make repairs). You can also sue the landlord for a partial refund of past rent, and in some circumstances can sue for the discomfort, annoyance and emotional distress caused by the substandard conditions. Be sure to check the laws for your state, so you know what remedies are available to you before you take action against your landlord.

12. Is my landlord liable if I'm injured on the rental property? What if a visitor is injured?

A landlord may be liable to you - or others - for injuries caused by dangerous or defective conditions on the property you rent. In order to hold the landlord responsible, however, you must be able to prove several things:

  • that the landlord had control over the problem that caused the injury
  • that the accident was foreseeable
  • that fixing the problem would not have been unreasonably expensive or difficult, and
  • that a serious injury was the probable consequence of not fixing the problem. For example, if you fall and are hurt on a broken front door step, the landlord will be liable if:
    • It was the landlord's responsibility to maintain the steps (this would usually be the case, because the steps are part of the common area, which is the landlord's responsibility).
    • You could prove that an accident was foreseeable (falling on a broken step is highly likely).
    • You could show that the repair was relatively easy.
    • You can prove that the probable result of a broken step is a serious injury (a fall certainly qualifies).

    A landlord may also be liable for your injuries and property damage resulting from the criminal acts of others, but only if the criminal incident was foreseeable and the landlord could have done something to prevent it. For example, if a landlord knows (or has reason to know) about crime in the area - and especially if there have been prior criminal incidents on his property - he may be held liable if his failure to fix a defective lock or install adequate lighting facilitates a criminal assault. A landlord can also be liable for damage or injury caused by problem tenants, such as those who deal drugs.

    13. What is the best way for me to resolve a dispute with my landlord?

    Legal disputes - actual and potential - come in all shapes and sizes for tenants. Whether it's a disagreement over a rent increase or responsibility for repairs, rarely should lawyers and litigation be your first choice when facing a dispute with a landlord.

    Here are some tips to resolve a legal dispute without immediately going to court:

    1. Know your rights under federal, state and local law.
    2. Make sure the terms of your lease or rental agreement are clear and unambiguous and that you understand each of them.
    3. Keep copies of any correspondence and make notes of conversations with landlords about any problems - for example, if you ask your landlord to make repairs, do so in writing and keep a copy for yourself. If you have a conversation about it, write down what was said.
    4. Keep communication open. If there's a problem - for example, if the landlord enters your apartment without notice - talk with the landlord to see if the issue can be resolved.
    5. If you're unsuccessful at working out an agreement, but want to continue renting from the landlord, suggest mediation by a neutral, third party (often available at little or no cost from a publicly-funded program).
    6. If it doesn't make sense to attempt to mediate, make clear your intention to move out, sue or pursue other legal remedies.
    7. If your dispute involves money, such as return of the security deposit, sue your landlord in small claims court. The maximum amount you can sue for varies from state to state, but generally is less than $3,500.
    8. Find out whether there is a tenants' union in your area, and if so, contact that organization for advice.
    9. See a lawyer. Be sure to choose someone who has experience in handling landlord-tenant matters and, if possible, is recommended by someone whose judgment you trust.

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