What You Should Know About Tenant Rights

Know what protections you have when you and your landlord get into a dispute.

U.S. News & World Report

What You Should Know About Tenant Rights

Couple moving into new home unpacking boxes and organizing

When you move into a new apartment it's smart to document everything in case you have a dispute with your landlord in the future.(Getty Images)

The radiator stopped working in your apartment, and your landlord hasn't responded to emails or answered the phone for two days. As much as you love your new winter coat, wearing it while you watch TV – and while you sleep – isn't your idea of fun. The arctic chill may have you thinking: At what point is my landlord required to make repairs?

That would be two days ago. At least, your landlord should have been in contact and working to make repairs as soon as possible.

The relationship between a landlord and tenant can get tense when things go awry. To protect yourself from housing law violations, it's important to know your rights as a renter and act when you feel you are being unfairly treated.

Here's what to know about tenant and landlord laws:

Federal Law Protects Against Civil Rights Violations in Housing

The Fair Housing Act dictates that no landlord can refuse housing to a potential tenant based on race, nationality, sex, familial status, religion or disability.

Many of Your Tenant Rights Are Spelled Out in State or Local Laws

You Have a Right to Livable Conditions

All tenants have a right to be provided with a space considered habitable that includes working plumbing, electricity and heat. Beyond these basic details, it varies by state how a landlord is required to provide them and what tenants may do when their needs are not met.

In mold cases where tenants are afraid for their health, leaving and explaining the claim of constructive eviction in court – in which a landlord effectively forces a tenant out because the place is no longer habitable – will at least remove any immediate danger, says David Merbaum, an attorney who handles landlord-tenant disputes among other real estate and business-related litigation in Alpharetta, Georgia.

"I can't guarantee (a judge will agree with you), but I wouldn't stay there if I didn't feel safe,'" Merbaum says. Before doing this, however, a tenant should make sure their state has legislation supporting the idea of constructive eviction.

A Landlord Must Follow Safety Guidelines

In addition to requiring landlords to provide livable conditions, many state and city laws will also require landlords to ensure their property meets certain guidelines to reduce the risk of injury, death or victimization in any way. These may include functioning locks on doors and windows, smoke detectors in bedrooms and windows that can serve as a means of escape in case of fire in any room that's deemed a bedroom.

A landlord won't be required to make an old property meet current housing code because standards change frequently. But local or state law may require the landlord include a disclosure in the lease that notes the possible existence of lead paint under modern paint layers, for example, with steps for notification if the tenant becomes exposed to the lead.

Tenants should always notify their landlord if a lock or smoke detector breaks. If the landlord fails to fix the issue in a timely manner, most state laws that specify these details include safety hazards as a condition of livability, so you should follow the same procedure as you would with a broken heater or shower.

You Have to Pay Your Rent

Landlords have a right to pursue eviction when they stop receiving rent, regardless of the reason. Some state or local laws will allow landlords to lower the cost of rent or prorate rent for the number of days a unit is unlivable. However, you cannot refuse to pay rent to provoke your landlord to perform maintenance or other duties.

Merbaum explains that rent is not a bargaining chip to get what you want from the landlord. "The obligation to pay rent is always independent of the landlord's obligation to fulfill his duties. So if the air conditioning's not working, the tenant cannot hold the rent back – the tenant will be in breach of the lease, and they can be evicted," he says.

Many states, including Georgia and California, have a “right to deduct” policy for the tenant, which means if something is broken and you have given your landlord repeated notice and ample time to fix it, you can personally have it repaired or replaced and subtract the cost from your next month’s rent. However, exercising the right to deduct can be a dangerous game, so you should seek legal advice first. A worst-case scenario could leave the tenant with the repair bill and without a home.

In times of widespread economic distress such as the COVID-19 pandemic, cities, states and federal entities may be able to establish eviction moratoriums regarding nonpayment of rent. These measures are temporary and do not cancel your rent, but they may give you and your landlord the time needed to work out a payment plan or forgiveness period to avoid eviction once the moratorium is lifted.

The Lease You Sign Doesn't Supersede the Law

In many cases, landlords may be unaware of the specifics of tenant and landlord rights or they may try to take advantage of the fact that you don't know your rights. If you sign a lease that includes a rule that violates tenant rights, the fraudulent policies cannot be enforced by the landlord or law. For example, Merbaum says major repairs needed to make a property livable, like water and plumbing, cannot be placed in the renter's hands, according to Georgia law. "If it's in the lease that it's the tenant's responsibility, it's not even enforceable," he says.

You Need to End Your Lease According to the Law

When a landlord is planning to raise rent or opts to end the rental relationship with a tenant, many states have laws about the number of days of notice required to the tenant. As a tenant, you also need to comply with laws for notifying your landlord of plans to move out – you can’t just vacate the home and stop paying rent without warning.

of plans to vacate, renew or raise rent. Sixty days prior to the end of a lease is a common period of time required for tenants with a yearlong lease.

You Should Document Everything

No one moves into a new apartment planning to get into a fight with their landlord, but it's best to be prepared for the possibility.

Your Security Deposit Should Be Returned in a Timely Manner

Landlords are typically required to return your security deposit after you’ve moved out within a certain period of time – typically 30 days. Within that time period, you should receive a check, your original canceled check or an itemized list of deductions from your security deposit and the remaining balance.

A landlord deducting for appliance replacements or renovations that weren’t required based on how you left the place isn’t looked on favorably by most courts. However, it’s reasonable for a landlord to deduct funds from the deposit for professional cleaning services, even if you think you left the place in good condition.

Avoid issues by ensuring your landlord has your forwarding address and contact information so there’s no way to claim you couldn’t be reached.

Escalating a Dispute May Take You to Court

If your landlord is violating local law when it comes to your treatment or property conditions, it's a good idea to point out that the law protects you. If the landlord still isn't willing to comply, you may want to talk to a lawyer. Many attorneys will provide advice or write a formal letter to your landlord for a fairly small fee, which may be able to resolve the issue. If not, your next step is to file with the courts. Most tenant-landlord disputes fall under small claims court.

You Have a Right to Fight Eviction

All states have clear-cut processes for landlords to file for eviction with the court. First is a notice to vacate. If you move out when you receive notice to vacate, you have not technically been evicted and don’t carry an eviction on your record. However, depending on the state you live in, this notice could be as little as three days before an eviction is filed with the court.

You have the option to remain in your home and fight an eviction once it’s been filed with the court. Most important to successfully fighting eviction is to appear in court for every scheduled hearing; if you’re not present, it’s far easier for the judge to rule in favor of the landlord. To plead your case in eviction court, it’s best to get professional legal advice.

“It’s never in a tenant’s best interest to go into an eviction proceeding unrepresented,” Romer says.

Rental Assistance Is Protected in Some Places

For many tenants, rental assistance is necessary to be able to afford a place to live, and there are federal, state, local and private programs throughout the U.S. that provide rental assistance for both long- and short-term reasons.

Maine, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington are among a growing list of states, counties and cities that have laws making it illegal to discriminate based on a tenant’s income, so a landlord cannot refuse to lease to a tenant because he receives a rental voucher. Affordable Housing Online, a site dedicated to providing information about affordable housing options and data on federal housing assistance, keeps an updated list of jurisdictions throughout the U.S. that have legislation about discrimination based on the source of income.

You Have Advocates Who Will Help

There are countless tenant rights organizations throughout the country that help connect renters to the resources they need to understand the privileges afforded to them by law. Some organizations operate statewide hotlines to field renter problems and requests for information, while others may specialize in providing tenant assistance for a specific metro area.

In the event of discrimination that violates the Fair Housing Act, you should also contact HUD directly, whether it's the headquarters in the District of Columbia or one of the dozens of local offices nationwide. HUD has its own investigators who look into possible infractions and can pursue violators.

However, not every complaint filed with HUD can be investigated, and not every investigation leads to further legal action or payment to victims. While a formal complaint with HUD is an excellent start, you should also contact a local tenant rights organization for advice and support. These can typically be found with a simple online search for tenant rights groups in your city or county. U.S. News has also compiled a list of legal aid offices and rental assistance programs for every state that may help renters unable to afford rent.

Updated on Dec. 4, 2020: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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