You know all about rent prices and you probably even have a pretty good idea of what your local rental market looks like. But if you’re someone who rents, you might not know everything there is to know about renters’ rights. Even if you’re a landlord, it’s important that you have a solid understanding of these things so you can ensure your tenants are being treated fairly (and vice versa).
So, whether you’re a renter or a landlord, this guide is written for you. As a renter, it will help you navigate the legalities of rental housing, avoid conflicts with property owners, and stay on top of your rights. As a landlord, it will give you practical tips to manage your property and avoid disputes with tenants.
Know Your State's Landlord-Tenant Laws
Both landlords and tenants have specific rights and responsibilities, but if you don’t know what to expect from your landlord or how to protect yourself as a tenant, it can be easy to get lost in the details.
If you’re a tenant, you need to know how to legally relate with your landlord and if any security deposits or fees are required upfront. Knowing these things will help ensure you don’t get stuck with any extra charges at the end of your lease term.
As a landlord, understanding how much and what type of information you can legally ask for from potential tenants is key to running an effective business. You want potential renters who will pay their rent on time every month, and although conducting a thorough screening report is essential for finding solid tenants, asking them for their criminal records may be off-limits in some locations. On the other hand, asking them if they own pets or smoke might be perfectly fine.
So whether you’re looking for information on security deposits or rent increases, you should first familiarize yourself with the laws in your state. The best place to start is by visiting our Landlord-Tenant Laws page, as rental guidelines can vary a lot from state to state.
What Are Tenant Rights?
Tenant rights are what you’re allowed to do as a tenant. While this can be a contentious topic, generally a tenant has the right to possess, use, and enjoy the property they’re renting. These rights ensure a tenant lives in and uses the rental unit happily and by the law. They may include:
- The right to privacy: A landlord may not enter a rental unit/home without permission and can’t come into your room without first giving you notice.
- The right to habitable premises: Your rental has to be up to par with habitability standards like heating systems, water pipes, and fire alarms.
- The right to safe and clean dwelling units: Your landlord has to keep your rental safe and clean, and they’re responsible for repairing any damage inside the rental unit.
- The right to fair housing practices (housing rights): Landlords should not tolerate housing discrimination against anyone based on race, sexual orientation, familial status, or any other legal rights.
Tenants’ rights are often established by state laws, but they may also be established by the lease agreement between the landlord and the tenant. If you want legal advice about your tenants’ rights, it’s best to seek legal assistance from an attorney or housing agency.
Defining Your Rental Property
If you’re new to renting or real estate at large, here are some key terms you‘ll need to know:
1. Lease Term
The lease term is the period you’ll be renting a property. Typically, leases are set at six months to one year at a time, but you can negotiate for longer terms if you prefer to stay in a place for a long time.
During this term, you are legally obligated to pay your monthly rent amount and abide by all the terms of your tenancy agreement. If you want to move out before the end of your lease term, you’ll need to give your landlord written notice within a certain amount of time, like a 30-day notice.
2. Monthly Rent Amount
The monthly rent amount is the amount of rent you pay each month for your landlord to maintain ownership of the property while letting you live there as a tenant with certain rights and protections under the law.
A landlord may require that all tenants pay an equal amount per month. However, some landlords charge less than others for similar units based on location, amenities, or other factors.
3. Security Deposits
A security deposit is usually equal to one month’s rent. It serves as collateral against unpaid rent, damages, late fees, or normal wear and tear during the occupancy period. This does not apply if a natural disaster causes the damage.
If you’re a tenant, know that the landlord holds on to your hard-earned security deposit money during the duration of your lease term. Your signed rental lease agreement should govern how much will be charged and how it should be returned at the end of the lease, assuming there are no damages or violations of the lease’s terms.
4. Rent Increases
If you’ve been paying rent on time and keeping your place in good shape, there’s a good chance that you’re happy with your current living situation. But what happens when your landlord decides it’s time for a rent increase?
While there are no universal rules about when and how much rent can be raised by landlords, there are some rent control guidelines that both parties should follow to avoid any legal complications. These are rules around how much rent can be increased each year and how much notice landlords must give tenants before increasing their rent payments.
If there‘s a breach of the lease terms or a nonpayment of rent, the landlord may be left with no other option but to engage in eviction proceedings with their tenants. Here’s everything you need to know about this often unpopular legal process so that neither party feels blindsided when it comes time for an eviction notice.
What Are Landlord Rights?
Tenants have a lot of legally specified rights, but so do landlords. These rights vary by state, but they can include the right to terminate a rental agreement, the right to evict tenants, and the right to collect rent from tenants.
Landlords have the right to ask you to leave their rental property for a just cause, like domestic violence. And if you don’t, they can evict you. If a landlord wants to evict you, they must follow specific steps.
If your landlord is trying to evict you unfairly or illegally, there are steps you can take. You might be able to get a court hearing if they did not follow the eviction process as stipulated by federal, state, and local rental laws.
As a landlord, you have several responsibilities and a lot is on your plate. You’re responsible for property management and keeping the rental unit safe and habitable for tenants. You need to ensure that no one is living in an unsafe or unsanitary environment; this includes ensuring that all utilities are in working order and that there are smoke detectors in each unit (if applicable).
Many states use the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (URLTA) as the basis of their landlord-tenant laws, which is a federal law that was enacted in 1972. Another important law that formed the foundation of landlord-tenant laws was the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and it’s essential for landlords to have a basic understanding of both pieces of legislation.
Here are some key responsibilities as outlined in the URLTA. Landlords must:
- Comply with the Act’s anti-discrimination laws
- Comply with their state’s landlord-tenant laws
- Collect and return security deposits based on local laws
- Provide legal written rental lease agreements to every tenant
- Provide habitable housing to tenants
- Provide no retaliation against tenants fighting for their legal rights
- Follow the law when terminating a rental agreement
- Make full legal disclosures
You shouldn’t violate any renters’ rights, and you also need to do routine repairs on your property and keep the common areas clean. If there’s a problem with something, like clogged toilets or drains, then you’ll either need to fix it yourself, arrange for a handyman to come out, or define some other reasonable maintenance process in your signed lease agreement.
Establish Consistent Communication
Regardless of which side of the rental equation you’re on, establishing and maintaining consistent communication is key to having a great rental experience. Make sure to provide the other party with your updated contact information, and when in doubt just reach out and discuss your problem. If things do progress and you have to file a complaint against your landlord, you can reach the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) here.
Evictions are an arduous process that no landlord or tenant ever wants to go through, and consistent communication can help keep everyone out of small claims court. Most rentals never result in an eviction, and in fact a majority of landlords and their tenants would recommend one another if asked for a referral.
Renters Rights FAQs
What are the consequences of a landlord’s failure to comply with the law?
Consequences for landlords can include paying damages to their wronged tenant, incurring fines due to violating anti-discriminatory laws, or even serving legal time for crimes committed. Landlords should know their federal, state, and local rental laws, and they should consult an attorney with any and all legal questions.
What are the new laws for rent control?
There are three types of rent control: no rent increases are allowed, rental rates are regulated between tenancies, and limits are placed on rental rate increases. An apartment is considered rent controlled when a landlord’s ability to raise the monthly rent is limited.
Unsurprisingly, tenants benefit enormously from living in a rent-controlled apartment while landlords can find them frustrating to operate. 37 states ban rent control outright, but 182 municipalities across the U.S. have rent-regulation rules. More about rent control.
What are the benefits of being a tenant?
Tenants enjoy the freedom of not being tied to a single location, not being responsible for the usual (and sometimes steep) costs of homeownership, and not having to perform property maintenance.
Renters can rely on their landlord for much of the day-to-day upkeep of their rental unit, and as long as they aren’t in violation of the terms of their rental lease agreement, they can choose not to renew and move to an entirely new location with relatively low cost.