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 Basic Things Tenants Should Know

There are three basics you need to know before signing a Lease Agreement. First, landlords are responsible for normal wear and tear on the premises, but if the landlord fails to keep up the premises, you as the tenant have a few options. Second, pay attention to the length of the rental term; it could be important when it comes time to terminate the Lease. Third, there are only a few times when a landlord can evict you or force you to pay more than the agreed-upon price. Read more about these tenant rights basics below.

1. Landlords Are Responsible, but You Are Too

One of the most important tenant rights is to have the landlord keep the premises in “habitable” conditions. This doesn’t mean that everything has to be perfectly clean or luxurious. However, it also doesn’t mean that you have to live in a room that’s falling apart. Uninhabitable conditions can include dangerous ones, such as holes in the floor, unsafe or exposed wiring, or non-working air conditioning in dangerously hot summer months. Gross infestations of roaches, fleas or other pests are also uninhabitable conditions. Non-working cable or out-of-date appliances typically don’t make an apartment uninhabitable, unless there is a dangerous condition associated with them, such as a gas leak.

If you, the tenant, damage the property beyond normal wear and tear, the landlord can charge you for the cost of repairs. To protect your security deposit, you should make a careful inspection of the premises as soon as (or before) you agree to the Lease. By taking careful note of existing imperfections, you can avoid being held liable for them when you leave the premises.

If the landlord has been notified about a problem with the property and fails to make repairs, you have a number of options. You can withhold a portion of rent, make the repairs and then deduct the cost of the repair from your rent, or break the Lease and find somewhere else to live. You must tell your landlord about the necessary repairs as soon as possible. If you end up suing your landlord for uninhabitable conditions, you could be in a better legal position if you have a record of promptly notifying the landlord about the maintenance problem. The promptness of your compliant shows the court that it’s a serious problem that affects the habitability of the unit.

2. Watch the Term of the Agreement

Pay attention to the length of the rental agreement and how long you need to make payments. Many jurisdictions require adequate notice of terminating the Lease. Let's say that your state requires you to give two months’ notice before the end of the lease term. If you do not give your landlord enough notice, you may be forced to pay additional rent until the proper notice term has been met.

3. Protect Against Unlawful Eviction

There are only a few times when a landlord can evict a tenant. If you know the situations, you can help protect yourself from an unlawful eviction. For example:

  • A landlord can only evict a tenant after going through proceedings designed to repay the landlord for any rent lost. A landlord must follow all of the state's eviction procedures.
  • A landlord must also have adequate cause to evict the tenant, and being late for a payment alone isn’t enough cause.
  • A landlord must also ask the local sheriff's office for help in evicting the tenant if authorized. If a landlord tries to take matters upon him or herself or fails to follow procedure, the tenant can sue the landlord for wrongful eviction.

Additional Tenants Rights

Just in case you get into a dispute with your landlord, here are a few more things to keep in mind as a tenant:

  • You have a right to due notice of any action against you.
  • You have the right to correct any breach against the landlord, including back rent, repairs, or to fulfill any remaining obligations under the lease.
  • You also have the right to appeal any decision made regarding your lease dispute if a court decides against you. Consult your local attorney for state-specific procedures and variations on these rights.

In legal terms, a tenant is a person who is occupying or possessing land by renting the property from a landlord. A tenant has obtained the right to use and occupy specific rental property because of a rental agreement or lease that has been established and signed by the property’s owner (the landlord). Tenants are allowed this right as long as they adhere to the terms and conditions set forth by the lease, which includes paying rent.

Knowing your rights as a tenant allows you to be a better tenant while asserting those rights if necessary. Each state has specific laws regarding tenant rights, as well as landlord-tenant relationships. Tenants may believe they do not have many rights, since the property does not belong to them; however, tenants are actually entitled to a wide variety of rights. Although the negotiated lease is what determines many of the rules of the landlord-tenant relationship, state laws also play a part in tenant’s rights. 

Some examples include:

  • Eviction protections, such as if the landlord goes into foreclosure;
  • Discrimination protections, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which protect tenants from being discriminated against when renting based on their protected status (age, disability, religion, etc.);
  • Property standards, such as the requirement that your unit must be kept in habitable conditions and the right to minor repairs;
  • A proper eviction process should the need arise; and
  • Return of appropriate security deposits, meaning only reasonable deductions taken from the initial security deposit payment, and in a timely manner.

Although you may be renting or leasing someone else’s property, you do have a right to privacy. Your landlord cannot enter the premises whenever they please. Rather, your landlord generally must provide you with some sort of advance notice. Each state determines the amount of time in which the landlord must notify the tenant.

What Rights do Landlords Have?

It is important to understand what rights your landlord has been granted, in order to better understand what is and is not appropriate during the course of your landlord-tenant relationship. 

Once again, landlord rights will vary by state, but there are a few general rights to be aware of:

  • Although your landlord cannot kick you out for no reason, landlords do have the right to evict a tenant from their property when it is proper and legal. This is typically due to the tenant failing to pay rent, or the tenant has violated some other term of the lease. Regardless of why the landlord is evicting the tenant, they cannot physically “throw out” the tenant, and they are prohibited from changing the locks while the tenant is away from the property; and
  • Landlords maintain the right to collect rent. This includes any agreed upon late fees for rent payments made past the agreed upon due date. Additionally, landlords maintain the right to raise your rent according to your specific lease.

Another right landlords have is the right to select tenants. Obviously, landlords cannot legally engage in housing discrimination against potential tenants if they belong to a protected class. However, landlords are legally able to make an informed decision and select or reject tenants based on the following:

  • The tenant’s past credit and bank accounts;
  • The tenant’s previous landlords, such as asking for references;
  • The tenant’s past criminal history; or
  • The approximate length of time the tenant wishes to inhabit the landlord’s property.

It is important to note that although landlords maintain the right to raise your rent, many metropolitan areas have enacted local rent control ordinances. The ordinances place a limit on the amount the landlord may increase the rent, and landlords must adhere to these ordinances. Additionally, rent control ordinances limit the reasons for which a landlord may evict a tenant.

What Else Should I Know as a Tenant?

When you are entering a landlord-tenant relationship, it is important to be prepared. This could include gathering references from previous landlords when pursuing a rental property, and providing your potential landlord with a recent copy of your credit report. Being prepared with the necessary documents can give a good impression to the landlord. It also may help establish a smooth and positive relationship, which will be essential as long as you are renting from them.

In the event of criminal acts of strangers, landlords may sometimes be held responsible. As such, it is important to find out about any crime or security risks in the area surrounding your potential future home, as well as what the landlord has done or is willing to do in order to reduce those risks. Ask if the landlord has met any security requirements. Landlords may also be held responsible in the event of criminal acts of tenants.

When you are given a lease or rental agreement to sign, it is important to read the document thoroughly and ensure you understand it well before signing it. This document is essential to protecting your rights as a tenant, and will outline what to expect from the landlord-tenant relationship. The proposed lease may have clauses that you do not wish to adhere to, in which case it would be in your best interest to pursue another property.

It is important to protect yourself and your valuable belongings from liability. If there is a fire or a flood, the landlord’s insurance will not cover your losses, whereas renter’s insurance generally will.