I was a renter for nearly a decade before I found out about the Landlord and Tenant Act. I knew that I had some basic tenant’s rights, but I mostly just did what the landlord asked of me and left it at that. Then, a particularly rough experience with a landlord resulted in a conversation with a lawyer, who told me that beyond having basic rights as a renter, I’m protected under an entire legal act.
Nearly every state in the U.S. has adopted a version of the Landlord and Tenant Act. The act governs what you, as a tenant, need to do and what the landlord must do for you. It covers everything from moving in and paying a security deposit, to privacy and evictions. While there are minor differences from state to state, most laws are universal. As a renter, you should get to know your rights under these acts.
Key Aspects of the Landlord and Tenant Act
A lease is a contract between you and the landlord. A basic lease lists the amount of rent due and the length of time the agreement is valid. The landlord has the right to modify the lease to include anything he wants, as long as he doesn’t ask you to waive your legal rights, such as the right to hire an attorney for an eviction. Some examples of what may appear on a lease include:
- Guest Policy. Landlords have the right to limit the time non-paying guests spend on the property.
- Pets. If a landlord only allows certain types of pets, or no pets at all, it may be included in this document. Details such as the amount paid for a pet deposit should also be listed.
- Utilities. Are some or all utilities covered by your rent? What are you expected to pay separately? This information needs to be outlined as part of your lease.
- Maintenance. Policies pertaining to maintenance on the property can also be part of your lease. For example, if you have a yard, you may be held responsible for keeping it tidy. Make sure you are aware of anything you will be held responsible for.
Many states allow for both oral and written leases. However, an oral lease is almost impossible to prove in court, so the tenant should always request a copy of the agreement in writing.
2. Security Deposits
The landlord can charge a security deposit before you move into the property. Some states put a cap on the amount of the deposit, and some others specify that the landlord must place the security deposit in a separate, interest-bearing bank account. When you move out, the landlord will inspect the rental unit and deduct the cost of repairing any damages you caused, beyond normal wear and tear, from the deposit. He can also deduct any unpaid rent.
The landlord then has a certain time frame to either return the security deposit to you, or provide you with a list of deductions. Most states give the landlord 30 days to do so, but some locations give him an even shorter deadline. For example, landlords in Washington must return the deposit or provide an itemized list within 14 days of the tenant vacating the property.
The Landlord and Tenant act requires that the landlord tell you ahead of time what he will charge for rent. Most states do not allow the landlord to raise the rent during a lease agreement. However, the landlord can raise the rent before you renew your lease, providing he gives you written notice of his intent to do so.
If you have a month-to-month rental agreement with your landlord, different rules apply. Many states allow the landlord to raise the rent on a month-to-month agreement, providing he gives you at least a 30-day written warning.
As a tenant, your job description includes keeping the rental property clean, removing trash, and not causing any damage. In return, the landlord must make necessary repairs to the rental unit and the building itself. If problems arise with the plumbing, wiring, or central air system, your landlord has to make the repairs within a reasonable time after you notify him.
Unfortunately, most states do not provide much of a legal alternative for renters whose landlords do not make repairs. A few states allow the tenant to make the repair and deduct the cost from the following month’s rent, or end the lease agreement altogether if the landlord won’t provide maintenance. Before you take any action against the landlord, contact a Housing Authority office in your area and ask about the state laws regarding maintenance.
Renters want the same level of privacy a homeowner would have. Most do not look kindly on landlords who show up frequently or at odd hours, and many states have made this illegal through the Landlord and Tenant Act. In most areas, a landlord must notify a tenant in writing, at least 24 hours before entering the property.
Keep in mind, the landlord can get around this law by adding a clause to the lease stating his right to enter. Check your lease carefully before signing. If you think your landlord has reached the point of harassment, you can contact a Legal Aid organization or the Housing Authority in your area for assistance.
If you bother other tenants, break a clause in your lease, or fail to pay your rent, the landlord can evict you. To do so, the landlord will need to follow the eviction procedure laid out in the Landlord and Tenant Act in your state. For example, the landlord may need to give you a written notice and allow you time to correct the situation. If you do not fix the problem, the landlord can file a notice in a local court. From there, only a judge can decide whether or not to evict you from the property.
The landlord cannot legally evict you himself. An illegal eviction includes changing the locks on your rental unit, blocking the door so you cannot enter, removing your personal belongings, or cutting off the power to your apartment. If the landlord does try to “self evict,” you can sue him in civil court.
Renting can be tough. You don’t own the property, so you may feel like your fate is completely in the hands of a landlord. Empower yourself by reading the Landlord and Tenant Act for your state. If you do end up in a questionable situation, you’ll know when, and how, to take action.
Have you had a bad experience with a landlord? Were you aware of your rights? Share your experience in the comments below.