Tips for Protecting Your Tenant Rights
Every renter and landlord should know and understand fundamental tenant rights. These legal rights can protect tenants and ensure they are treated fairly. Landlords should understand these rights so that they don't violate them.
Landlord-tenant law is a niche area of real estate law. This article explores tenant rights in rental properties and offers tips for protecting those rights.
Sources of Tenant Rights
In any tenancy, the landlord usually has the upper hand. Landlords often set the terms of lease agreements, including occupancy limits, without any negotiation. Tenant rights offer tenants some protection in the landlord-tenant relationship. Tenant rights should not differ based on the term of the lease. These rights apply to long-term and month-to-month leases alike.
Although landlord-tenant law is a subset of real estate law, four primary sources of law contribute to tenants' rights:
- Federal law
- State law
- Local law
- Common law
For example, common law contributes to the warranty of habitability included in all residential lease agreements.
Basic Tenant Rights
Although tenant rights vary from state to state, there are a few core rights all tenants enjoy. These include but are not limited to:
- Right to live in a healthy environment
- Right to protection from discrimination
- Right of quiet enjoyment
- Right to privacy
- Right to safety disclosures
- Right to an advance notice of eviction
- Right to return of security deposit if warranted
Tenants should research local renters' rights to determine the specific rights in their city and state. Often localities offer more rights, such as rent control, which regulates rent increases, as well as the right to organize. A local legal services office may have information on local tenants' rights.
Right to Live in a Healthy Environment
All tenants have the right to live in a safe, healthy, or habitable environment. Under common law, every residential lease contains an implied warranty of habitability. Landlords must ensure each rental unit is safe for human life.
A landlord must do the following to ensure their rental property is habitable:
- Ensure the unit is free from rodent or pest infestation
- Ensure the electrical systems are in working condition
- Ensure the plumbing is in working condition, including running water
- Provide hot water
- Ensure the unit has working smoke detectors
- Ensure the unit has working carbon monoxide detectors (in specific states only)
- Ensure the building and unit meet local housing codes
The landlord's responsibilities are not limited to the rental units themselves. Common areas such as stairwells, lobbies, and mailrooms must meet local safety standards. If something breaks — say, a smoke detector — the tenant should notify the landlord and give them reasonable time to fix the issue.
Right to Protection From Discrimination
Federal law and local law protect tenants from housing discrimination. Housing discrimination occurs when anyone involved in a real estate transaction makes a decision based on a protected characteristic.
Housing discrimination laws apply to all real estate professionals, including but not limited to:
- Landlords/property owners
- Property managers
- Real estate agents
- Mortgage lenders
Fair Housing Act
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) enforces the Federal Fair Housing Act. Anyone who has experienced a violation of federal fair housing laws can file a complaint with HUD. These laws apply to private landlords and public housing.
Under the Fair Housing Act, real estate professionals cannot make housing decisions based on any of the following protected characteristics:
- National origin
- Familial status
- Physical or mental disability, including alcoholism or prior drug addiction
Some states, like New York state, go further and include sources of income and immigration status as protected characteristics.
Housing Discrimination Examples
A landlord who requires extra proof of a disability from a disabled renter using Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) violates state and federal fair housing laws. Refusing to rent to a low-income family using a voucher is another example of a fair housing violation.
Landlords and property owners must treat all prospective tenants equally. For example, they cannot ask a low-income tenant for a higher last month's rent than other tenants.
Refusing reasonable accommodations for disabled tenants is also discrimination. This includes installing ramps for tenants who use wheelchairs.
Right of Quiet Enjoyment
Tenants have the right to enjoy their homes without any obstruction or intrusions. Although tenants are renting a property, it is often their family home. Landlords who allow excessive noise or open a tenant's mail without permission violate the tenant's right to quiet enjoyment.
Right to Privacy
Tenants have a right to privacy in their homes. Landlords can only enter a renter's home without permission if an emergency like a fire or flood occurs. Landlords and property owners can enter the rental property with advance notice. Although a one-day notice is standard, the lease and rental agreements should specify the number of days' notice needed.
Right to Safety Disclosures
State and federal laws outline the types of disclosures tenants must receive. These include lead-based paint disclosures for homes built before 1978 and mold disclosures. Landlords must disclose anything that may negatively affect the health of their tenants. Landlords risk liability and fines if they do not provide such notice.
Right to Advance Notice of Eviction
There are several reasons landlords choose to evict a tenant. Popular reasons include nonpayment of rent, damage to property, criminal activity, or other lease violations. While lease termination is one of landlords' rights, they must follow the law. Landlords cannot use self-help, like changing the locks, to evict a tenant.
In states such as Maryland, landlords must give the tenant advance notice to vacate at least 30 days before the end of the lease. If the tenant doesn't move, the landlord must go to court and start eviction proceedings. Eviction cases begin with an eviction notice before a court hearing. If the court rules in the landlord's favor, it will issue a court order for the tenant to leave. The landlord can also recover unpaid rent and attorney's fees.
Tenants struggling to pay rent should research local organizations offering rental assistance and avoid eviction proceedings.
Right to Return of Security Deposit
Most landlords request a security deposit and last month's rent before tenants move in. Security deposits are reassurance for the landlord if the tenant doesn't pay rent or damages the unit. State law often controls different aspects of the security deposit, including:
- How much rent the landlord can request
- Placing the deposit in an interest-bearing account
- How to use the security deposit
- The time frame to return the security deposit
For example, in Maryland, landlords cannot ask for more than two months' rent as a security deposit, and they must place that money into an interest-bearing account. Finally, landlords must return the deposit within 45 days of the tenant moving out.
Regardless of location, landlords should send the refund to the tenant via certified mail to avoid disputes.
Security Deposit Deductions
Landlords can make certain deductions from the security deposit, but they must provide an itemized list of these deductions. Landlords can deduct unpaid rent, repair costs, and cleaning costs from the security deposit if necessary.
Preserving the Security Deposit
A tenant can take steps to ensure they receive a full refund of their security deposit. These include:
- Ask for a receipt when paying the security deposit.
- Inspect the rental unit before moving in, and document any existing damage.
- Notify the landlord of any necessary repairs during the tenancy.
- Give written notice at least 30 days before moving out.
- Conduct a final inspection before moving out, and document the rental unit's condition at move-out.
- Ensure the landlord has a forwarding address to send the security deposit.
If the landlord doesn't return the security deposit within the specified time required by your state, you can take legal action in small claims court. The court can order the landlord to pay damages and attorney's fees if you prevail.
While living in the rental unit, it is your home, and you have a right to enjoy it. If any issues arise, and you need legal assistance, a qualified local landlord-tenant attorney can help. They are experts in this area of law and can provide sound legal advice.
You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.