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Landlord & Tenant Act Laws Explained – Know Your Rights as a Renter

Landlords and tenants alike are bound by laws at the federal, state, and local levels. But those laws tend to hold landlords to a much higher standard than tenants.

As a renter, you should understand not just your tenant’s rights and responsibilities, but also the rules governing your landlord. Those rules affect you just as much as they affect your landlord because they govern your relationship.

Keep the following in mind as you navigate the sometimes choppy waters of landlord-tenant relationships.

Federal Laws Impacting Tenants and Landlords

While most landlord-tenant law operates on the state level, a few federal laws do cover how landlords and tenants interact.

Fair Housing Act

The Fair Housing Act bans discrimination in the housing industry — including both the home sale industry and the rental industry — on the basis of seven factors. These seven factors include race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, and disability.

A few exceptions exist, such as senior living communities can bar residents under a certain age (usually 55). However, most landlords cannot discriminate against families with children, else they find themselves in violation of the Fair Housing Act.

State and local governments can expand on federal Fair Housing rules, but they can’t reduce them. For instance, some states prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in addition to the federal-level factors.

In a particularly contentious decision, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released additional guidance surrounding criminal history in 2016. Landlords may not institute a blanket ban on accepting renters with a criminal record or deny applicants on the basis of arrest records.

These laws govern not only how landlords choose new tenants, but also how they advertise. For example, landlords renting a studio apartment can’t include language such as “Small studio perfect for a single professional,” because it technically constitutes discrimination based on familial status — even if the studio wouldn’t fit more than one person.

If you believe you’ve been discriminated against, you can file a Fair Housing Act complaint.

Fair Credit Reporting Act

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, landlords must obtain applicants’ permission before running their credit report.

Further, if the landlord makes an “adverse action” against the applicant based on their credit report, they must provide the following, according to the Federal Trade Commision FTC:

  • The name, address, and phone number of the consumer reporting company that supplied the report
  • A statement that the company that supplied the report did not make the decision to take the unfavorable action and can’t give specific reasons for it
  • A notice of the person’s right to dispute the accuracy or completeness of any information the consumer reporting company furnished, and to get a free report from the company if the person asks for it within 60 days

An “adverse action” includes decisions such as rejecting your application, requiring a co-signer on the lease, requiring a higher security deposit than would be required of another applicant, or charging higher rent than would be charged to someone else.

Eviction Moratorium (Temporary)

In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) declared a nationwide eviction moratorium that bans most residential evictions and foreclosures as a COVID-19 containment measure. Originally scheduled to expire at the end of 2020, the Trump administration extended the ban through January 31, 2021, then the Biden administration extended it again through March 31, 2021.

The moratorium applies to renters who meet all the following criteria:

  • The tenant “used best efforts to obtain all available government assistance for rent or housing”
  • The tenant received an original CARES Act stimulus check, or was not required to report income in 2019, or their income in 2020 did not exceed $99,000 ($198,000 for married couples)
  • They can’t afford to pay rent due to substantial loss of income or extraordinary medical expenses
  • They are making their best effort to make partial rent payments on time
  • Eviction would render the renter homeless or force them into shared close-quarters living conditions

If you face eviction and the above all apply to you, download and complete the official CDC affidavit. Provide this form to your landlord, and if they continue with the eviction, provide it to the judge at the eviction hearing.

Note that tenants are still legally liable for their rent payments. Just because your landlord can’t remove you from the property right now does not mean you don’t owe the money, or that the landlord can’t file for a money judgment to collect unpaid rents once the moratorium expires.


State Landlord-Tenant Acts: Common Themes

Each state imposes its own unique landlord-tenant laws. Still, these laws all tend to cover similar ground, even if the exact rules vary.

Expect your state’s landlord-tenant act to set rules governing the following interactions between renters and landlords.

Security Deposit Rules

Some states limit the amount of money that landlords can charge for security deposits. In my home state of Maryland, for example, landlords may charge up to two months’ rent as a security deposit.

Beyond the amount of the security deposit, many states dictate rules for the return or deduction of security deposits. Continuing the example of Maryland, landlords must either return the security deposit or a written breakdown of all deductions within 45 days of your tenancy ending.

Note that all states prohibit landlords from deducting money from the security deposit to repair “normal wear and tear.” Landlords may only deduct money for damage. Although the line sometimes gets blurry, “damage” is typically caused by a single incident, while normal wear and tear occurs gradually over time.

Look up your own state’s landlord-tenant act for rules in your state.

Late Fee Limitations

Similarly, many state laws limit both the amount landlords can charge for late fees and the period within which they can charge them.

In Maryland, landlords may charge up to 5% of the rent as a late fee. Maryland does not require a grace period before landlords can charge late fees, but some states do.

For example, Delaware requires a minimum grace period of five days. So if the rent is due on the first of the month, the landlord can’t charge a late fee until the sixth of the month.

Habitability

By law, landlords must provide a “habitable” home. While that word leaves plenty of room for interpretation, some requirements remain consistent and clear.

The structure must be sound with no risk of collapsing walls or roofs or foundations. It shouldn’t have any major leaks, and landlords should address minor leaks as well.

All mechanical systems should be functional. Although tenants usually pay for their own utilities and they may be shut off for nonpayment, the property must be able to receive and distribute those utilities. In other words, the wiring must work, as must the plumbing and any HVAC systems.

Note that tenants must keep their landlords informed about any repair problems. You can’t blame the landlord for not making a repair if they don’t know about it.

Safety Requirements

Most jurisdictions require landlords to follow certain basic safety precautions.

The most common examples include smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. State or local regulations dictate where these must be placed, such as in the kitchen and on each floor’s hallway.

Some states or cities require additional safety features such as window guards on upper stories. Another common requirement includes lead-based paint inspections and certifications for properties built before 1978.

If your landlord fails to meet any of the requirements in your state, politely point it out to them and request that they correct the problem. If they refuse to do so, you can file a complaint in landlord-tenant court.

Tenant Privacy and Notice to Enter

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 restrict this through their landlord and tenant act.

In most states, a landlord must provide proper notice in writing to their tenant before entering, usually 24 to 48 hours in advance. All states offer exceptions for emergencies however, such as if the landlord has reason to believe there’s an urgent repair needed, like a burst pipe. Check your lease before signing for the amount of advance notice specified.

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.

Eviction Process

Each state imposes its own eviction rules through its landlord-tenant act.

Those rules start with a written warning requirement in most states, followed by a mandatory waiting period before the landlord can file in court for eviction. The waiting period may vary depending on the lease violation.

For example, if you fail to make your rent payment, you may receive a three-day eviction warning notice, giving you three days to bring the rent current before the landlord can legally file for eviction in court.

All states require an eviction hearing, where both parties can plead their case before a judge. The judge then either greenlights the eviction proceedings or dismisses or delays the case.

If the landlord receives permission to proceed, they then schedule a put-out date, usually with the sheriff’s department, although the exact law enforcement branch that handles evictions varies by state.

The landlord cannot legally evict you themselves. 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 them in civil court.

Non-Renewal Restrictions

Most states set written notice requirements for landlords to renew or non-renew existing lease agreements.

For example, in Maryland landlords must offer tenants three months’ notice of either non-renewal or an offer to renew their lease contract — at least for fixed-term lease agreements. Landlords with month-to-month renters must only give them a 30-day notice.

A few states heavily restrict landlords’ ability to non-renew existing rental agreements. They may only allow non-renewal for specific reasons, such as if the landlord plans to move into the property themselves or to make extensive renovations. As always, double check your state’s laws.

Abandoned Property

Different states and cities impose different rules about personal belongings abandoned by tenants in a rental property.

In some cases, landlords may discard abandoned property immediately. In particularly tenant-friendly states, landlords may need to store the property for a certain period of time on behalf of the tenant and must notify them in writing of where the property has been stored and at what cost.

The landlord can typically sell unclaimed property at public sale if it’s worth more than a state-specified amount.


Rules that Landlords Can Impose in the Lease Contract

A lease is a binding legal 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 lease term). The landlord has the right to write their own lease as long as it doesn’t ask you to waive your legal rights, such as the right to hire an attorney for an eviction.

Remember, everything in a lease agreement is negotiable. Don’t be afraid to negotiate for lower rent or other perks when entering a lease contract!

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.
  • Pet Policy. 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 refundable pet deposit or non-refundable pet fee should also be listed.
  • Pest Policy. Landlords can typically make the tenant responsible for their own pest control costs if a pest problem arises mid-lease. However if a pest problem exists when you first move in, that falls to the landlord to mitigate.
  • 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 cutting the lawn and keeping it tidy. Make sure you are aware of your responsibilities in the lease.
  • Smoking Policy. Landlords typically have the right to prohibit smoking inside the rental unit.

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 written agreement.


Final Word

Although every state imposes its own landlord-tenant laws, they cover similar ground. And all landlords must follow federal laws such as the Fair Housing Act and the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Aim to be the best tenant you can possibly be — and hold landlords to similarly high standards. Most landlords simply want to receive the rent on time and for their tenants to take good care of their real estate investment. But if you find a landlord that doesn’t maintain their property well or who violates either the lease contract or federal or state landlord-tenant laws, you have a choice. You can either take them to court, or you can simply sign a lease with a better landlord.

Taking your landlord to court will certainly poison your relationship and lead to long-term clashes. But if you need a little more time in order to find better rental housing, it can force your landlord to comply with the law while you look for a better arrangement.

G. Brian Davis
G. Brian Davis is a real estate investor, personal finance writer, and travel addict mildly obsessed with FIRE. He spends nine months of the year in Abu Dhabi, and splits the rest of the year between his hometown of Baltimore and traveling the world.

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