Rental Laws Every Tenant Should Know

Having a good experience as a tenant starts with knowing what your rights are. While rental laws do vary by state, there are some general rules and regulations that outline what you have the right to expect as a renter—and what you might have recourse to fight back against.

More than 1 in 3 (36%) of all Americans live in a rental property, a percentage that represents about 44 million households—and 109 million individuals—throughout the country. And as that number continues to increase, it becomes increasingly important for everyone to know exactly what their rights are.

Rental laws run the gamut between obvious things that you’re probably already aware of (for example: your landlord can’t just walk into your unit whenever they please) and some that you might find surprising. They cover both the tenant’s and the landlord’s rights and responsibilities, and what expectations you can have when you live in a rental unit.

So what are they? Here are six rental laws to know about if you’re currently renting or are planning to look for an apartment soon.

The Right to Fair Housing Regardless of where you live, rental laws stipulate that you cannot be denied housing based on your race, sex, skin color, age, national origin, religion, familial status, or mental or physical disability. This right is guaranteed under the federal Fair Housing Act, which was established as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Discrimination isn’t always obvious. However, if you suspect for any reason that you are being denied a rental unit due to any of the factors above, you are encouraged to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Other rental laws related to your fair housing rights include that your landlord must make reasonable accommodations for you if you have a disability, and that a landlord must tell you directly if your application was rejected due to the results of your credit check.

The Right to Your Security Deposit A security deposit can be a major renting expense, so it helps to know the rental laws around it so you can be sure that you don’t overpay—and that you get it back at the end of your lease. The rental laws regarding security deposits vary by state, but in general, landlords are not allowed to impose higher security deposits on some tenants than others (unless there’s a specific, agreed upon factor that would raise the rate, such as a pet). Likewise, security deposits must be kept in an interest bearing account and returned—with interest included—within a set timeframe set out by your state. Also relevant: your state may set a limit to how much a landlord can charge for a security deposit, and all renters are entitled to specific documentation outlining why all or part of a security deposit was not returned.

The Right to a Safe and Habitable Home The onus is on landlords to ensure that any property they rent out is in proper condition to be considered safe and habitable housing. This includes access to utilities like gas, water, and electricity, as well as taking care of any potentially dangerous features like exposed wiring or broken stairs. Further, if your unit is in need of any necessary repairs, it is up to your landlord to arrange and pay for them—or to reimburse you for doing so. Do keep in mind that not all maintenance requests fall under this rule. So while you are guaranteed things like access to hot water and a home that’s free from bugs and rodents, your landlord is not legally required to fix general (but not un-safe) annoyances like leaky sinks or chipping paint.

The Right to Privacy No, your landlord cannot enter your unit whenever it is most convenient for them. Rental laws do vary on how much advance notice a landlord must provide you with before entering your unit for repairs, showings, or any other reason, but notice is always required. Look to your lease if you’re not sure how much notice your landlord is expected to provide, as well as your state laws. Even if your landlord put a shorter amount of time for notice on the lease and you agreed to it, they are still subject to the rental laws where you live. In most states, it is at least 24 hours.

The Right to a Proper Eviction Procedure No renter ever wants to face the eviction process, but if it does occur, there are rental laws that protect you and give you time to get your arrangements in place. These laws cover the reasons that your landlord may evict you for (examples include failure to pay rent, extensive property damage, and lease violations) as well as the reasons they may not evict you (discrimination, failure to pay rent due to an unaddressed health or safety issue in the unit, etc.). The proper procedure for a legal eviction starts with written notice, followed by a court filing and a hearing. If the judge rules in your landlord’s favor, you are guaranteed a pre-determined appeal period prior to the official lock-out. If your landlord does not follow the outlined eviction process in your state, you do have means to sue.

The Right to Notice Before Raising the Rent Your landlord cannot raise your rent on you during the course of your lease term. And while they can raise it in between terms, an increase in your rent from one lease to the next should never come as a surprise. State rental laws require notice before an increase—usually around 30 to 60 days. This is to provide you with sufficient time to find new housing if you are not able to afford the new monthly rent.

Being a Good Tenant

A good tenant-landlord relationship goes both ways. In addition to being apprised of the rental laws stated above, it’s also a good idea to follow the basics of what it means to be a good tenant.

Some places to start:

  • Be honest in your lease application

  • Read your lease and be aware of what you’re agreeing to

  • Pay your rent in full and on time

  • Keep your unit clean

  • Submit maintenance/repair requests right away instead of letting problems linger

  • Keep the lines of communication open

A little bit can go a long way when it comes to ensuring a positive rental experience. If you put in the effort to be a good tenant and your landlord fulfills their end of the bargain too, your rental experience should be a good one.

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