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Tenants' Rights Basics

In the landlord-tenant relationship, both parties have fundamental rights and responsibilities. The landlord must maintain safe and habitable housing. Landlords have the right to receive monthly rent in full by its due date.

Tenants also have rights under federal, state, and local laws. These rights include a livable home and freedom from unlawful discrimination. Both parties must follow the terms of the lease agreement.

While prospective tenants with lower incomes have limited choices for housing, a tenant's rights are non-negotiable. These rights cover different rental properties, including family homes or mobile homes.

This article provides an overview of a few tenants' legal rights. Please note nothing in this article substitutes legal advice from a qualified landlord-tenant or real estate attorney.

Tenants' Right to Clear Terms of Lease

A lease is a binding written agreement. It outlines the tenant's sides of the landlord-tenant relationship, identifying the duties and responsibilities of both parties. While there is room for negotiation, most landlords use their own leases. For this reason, tenants must carefully review the terms of the lease.

The written lease should identify the following:

  • Amount of rent
  • The rent due date
  • Terms of occupancy
  • A description of the dwelling unit
  • Where to pay rent
  • Notice of any late fees

The lease should identify the duration of the tenancy. While most rental agreements are for a fixed period, some tenants prefer a month-to-month lease. Month-to-month leases need 30 days written notice to end the lease. The lease should also include required disclosures and if there was any lead-based paint used in the rental unit before 1978.

Rent Control

State or local laws regulate rent and rent increases for rent-controlled properties. The amounts these landlords can charge are pursuant to local laws. Tenants interested in a rent-controlled property should contact their local housing authority to ensure the rent is proper. But not all states have rent-control regulations in place.

Tenants' Rights and Discrimination

The Federal Fair Housing Act (FFHA) protects a tenant's civil rights. Under FFHA, landlords may not discriminate against current or prospective tenants based on any of the following:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Familial status
  • National origin
  • Disability

This federal law applies to advertisements that exclude any of those protected characteristics. Some states extend these protections to other protected classes.

Anyone who has experienced housing discrimination can contact the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to file a complaint.

The Right to a Habitable Home

A "habitable home" is a house or apartment that is reasonably fit to live in. There is an implicit" warranty of habitability in rental properties. This means your rental home should be free from unsafe conditions, such as the following:

  • Bad electrical wiring
  • Lack of running water
  • Infestation of rats, cockroaches, or other pests
  • Mold

Code Compliance

The rental property must follow local housing codes and health codes. For example, the rental property and common areas should be free of pest infestations. Also, the property should be structurally sound. Tenants can report any code violations to the local housing authority. Sometimes, the tenant can take care of the maintenance issue and abate their rent but be sure to check the terms of your lease agreement to see if the landlord has a grace period to do any necessary repairs before abatement occurs.

Security Deposits

Most landlords require tenants to pay a security deposit before the renter's move-in date. After the end of the lease, the landlord must return the security deposit minus any deductions for cleaning or unpaid rent. Landlords may also charge the tenant for damages beyond normal wear and tear.


Many states limit how much a landlord can charge for a security deposit. Consider New Jersey as an example. In New Jersey, landlords can charge up to one and a half times the rent for a security deposit. They must return the deposit five to 30 days after the tenant leaves.

Returning the Security Deposit

Tenants have rights if the landlord fails to return the security deposit or provide an itemized list of deductions. They can report the landlord to the local housing authority or sue the landlord, usually in small claims court. If the tenant wins, the court may award up to three times the security deposit value, attorney fees, and court costs.

Landlords should return the security deposit and itemized list to the tenant using certified mail to avoid issues. Also, the tenant must provide a good forwarding address so that the landlord knows where to send the security deposit.

Tenants' Right to Privacy

Landlords do not have an automatic right of entry to a leased rental unit. Tenants have the right to a reasonable level of privacy and quiet enjoyment of the property. The landlord can enter the rental property with reasonable notice (at least a one-day notice) to do the following:

  • Perform repairs
  • Show the rental property to a prospective new tenant
  • In case of emergencies, such as fire or burst pipes

It is the landlord's right to conduct a reasonable screening of prospective tenants. This includes checking the prospective tenant's credit history, rental history, and criminal records.

Tenants' Rights and Evictions

Many circumstances, including nonpayment of rent, lease violations, and property damage, can lead to eviction. Even if they are correct on the grounds to evict a renter, landlords must follow a legal eviction process. Self-help evictions are against the law in most states.


Self-help is generally illegal and occurs when the landlord does not follow the legal process. Self-help includes removing the tenant's personal property, changing the locks, or turning off the utilities.

The Eviction Process

This legal process varies from state to state and involves the local courts. The landlord must file a complaint with the magistrate court, seeking an eviction. Then the local sheriff's office serves the tenant with the complaint. State law usually determines the length of time that the tenant has to answer the complaint, and it is also given in the notice.

The legal process allows the tenant to present their case before a neutral party. If the judge rules in favor of the tenant, they do not have to vacate the premises immediately. If the judge rules in favor of the landlord, they give the tenant a reasonable period of time to leave. If the tenant does not show up to court, the landlord can receive an immediate writ of possession and will not have to wait to go forward with removing items from the home.

Get Help

Understanding your rights and responsibilities can help you with any disputes or legal action with your landlord. An experienced, local landlord-tenant attorney can help you navigate landlord-tenant laws.

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