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The Landlord’s Guide to Tenant Rights

The Landlord’s Guide to Tenant Rights

As a landlord, it’s crucial to be knowledgeable of tenant rights (ie. those things your resident has a legal right to). Otherwise, you could face issues with your tenants and even costly legal recourse. 

Being aware of federal laws is one thing. When you factor in the various state and local regulations, it’s easy to get confused. That’s why we put together this guide — to help you make sense of the most common laws governing tenant rights. 

When you know what it takes to be an excellent landlord and care for the interests of your tenants, both your tenants and your business will thank you. 

What Are Tenant Rights?

Tenant rights, or renters’ rights, are a series of federal, state, and local laws that are designed to do two things: 

  1. Prevent housing discrimination
  2. Ensure that tenants have a habitable place to live. 

 

The rights of each tenant provide them with legal recourse if their landlord (you) violates these laws.

There are six major rights landlords NEED to remain in compliance with before placing tenants in their rental:

Right to Freedom from Discrimination

Under the Fair Housing Act, landlords cannot discriminate against a tenant or reject a rental application based upon: 

  • race
  • color
  • national origin
  • religion
  • sex (including gender identity and sexual orientation)
  • familial status
  • disability

 

In some states, these protections also prevent discrimination based on other categories. For example, as of 2019, ancestry is a protected class in 28 states, marital status is a protected class in 23, and pregnancy is protected in 40

Second, you must get an applicant’s written permission to run a credit report, according to the Fair Credit Reporting Act. If you reject an applicant based on the results of their credit check, you must inform the applicant of this. You also have to explain what factors were included in your decision to reject their application. 

Thirdly, you are required to make reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities, such as by installing ramps, assigning them an adequate parking space, or leasing them a lower unit.

If you choose to ignore or are simply ignorant of the Fair Housing Act, your tenant can file a HUD complaint against you. If it is concluded that you violated the Act, you can be ordered to:

  • compensate your tenant for damages (out-of-pocket damages and emotional distress damages)
  • provide permanent injunctive relief
  • provide appropriate equitable relief
  • pay your attorney’s fees
  • pay a civil penalty to vindicate the public interest.

 

Civil penalties range from $16,000, for the first violation to $65,000 if two or more previous violations have occurred within the preceding seven-year period.

Right to a Habitable Home

As a landlord, you have a responsibility to maintain the safety and functionality of your rental. Tenants have a right to a habitable home. This means the rental must be free from unsafe conditions, substantial pests, or other issues. It also includes ensuring the basic utilities (heating, plumbing, water, and sanitation systems) are in proper working condition.

Nearly all states also require landlords to install approved smoke detectors, and most also require the installation of carbon monoxide detectors.

Tenants are also generally obligated to keep the rental in a safe and clean condition and cannot willfully cause permanent damage to the property. If this happens, landlords can deduct the cost of repairs from a tenant’s security deposit, follow proper eviction procedures to break their lease agreement with their tenant or take legal action if necessary.

However, even if the tenant is guilty of lease violations, you are always required to maintain habitable living conditions for your tenants. 

Is it legal for tenants to withhold rent payments until repairs are made?

In many states, tenants are legally allowed to withhold rent until repairs necessary to maintain a habitable home are completed. They can also repair the problem themselves and deduct the cost from their rent payment. However, tenants are generally required to promptly inform you if there are any issues that you need to deal with. 

If a tenant is illegally withholding rent, landlords should discuss the issue with their tenants. In some states, landlords can also issue a Pay or Quit notice. This informs the tenant that they have a certain number of days to pay the missed rent in full before their lease is terminated and they will be forced to move out.

Laws On Security Deposits

A security deposit is a specific amount of money that a tenant pays upon signing the lease agreement. This money is returned to the tenant after the lease term ends unless it is used to cover the cost of any repairs, cleaning, or unpaid rent. The security deposit protects you against any damage that tenants may cause. 

However, you are NOT allowed to use the security deposit for anything beyond general wear and tear, cleaning, and repairs. For example, you cannot use your security deposit to complete unnecessary renovations or purchase new appliances.

Some states set limits on the amounts you are allowed to charge for a security deposit. You also cannot charge your tenant’s different security deposits without reason (a valid reason for a higher deposit would be a pet, for example).

Some states also require you to hold the deposit in a separate, interest-bearing account and return the deposit in full, along with interest, at the end of the lease (assuming there is no rent debt or lease violations). 

Rights to Privacy

As a landlord, you should provide advance notice to your tenants before entering the property for any reason. Most states require you give tenants at least a 24 hours notice, and some limit you to entering the property only during normal business hours.

However, a tenant cannot refuse you the right to enter the property if you have given the appropriate notification. And many states allow for exceptions in the case of emergencies, such as a fire or leak. 

Rights to Advance Notice of Eviction

If a tenant breaches your lease agreement, whether by not paying rent, having pets without your knowledge, having additional people living in the space without your knowledge, or by committing a crime on the property, a landlord may consider evicting the tenant.

If a tenant breaks your lease, you must first notify them in writing and provide them time to fix the issue. The amount of time you must give varies depending on your local regulations, between as little as three and as many as 30 days. If the tenant doesn’t remedy the problem, you can file an eviction proceeding in court (you must also notify the tenant of this and give them a chance to appear in court). 

There are two broad types of eviction notices:

  • For cause — You would use this type of termination notice if the tenant has violated the terms of your lease agreement or damaged the property.
  • Without cause — In some places, you can issue a notice to vacate regardless of whether or not the tenant has violated the terms of your lease agreement. However, this only applies to month-to-month lease agreements — you generally can’t terminate a fixed-term lease without cause.

 

A self-help eviction, when a landlord evicts a tenant without going through proper legal eviction proceedings, is illegal. Even if a tenant is violating your lease agreement, you cannot change the locks, remove your tenant’s personal belongings, shut off utilities, or forcibly remove a tenant from the property. 

Further Reading: How Do I Evict My Tenant?

Laws On Rent And Late Fees

Some states have laws controlling the maximum amount of rent you can charge, as well as the maximum amount you can increase the rent at the end of each lease term. Each state also has laws around how much you can charge for fees on late rent payments

Rent increases also can’t be retroactive, meaning you cannot cause a tenant to owe back rent. You must also provide proper notice for any rent increases.

Further Reading: How Does Rent Deposit Work?

Tenant Rights and Lease Agreements

A lease agreement, also known as a rental agreement, is the document you sign that outlines the terms under which you and your tenants are bound. The lease agreement cannot contain clauses that contradict federal, state, or local laws on tenant rights.

Some states also have rent control measures and limit charges for late fees and security deposits. That’s why it’s important to check the laws in your state before writing your lease agreement. 

Your lease agreement should include the following:

  • Lease term
  • Rent amount
  • Policy on late fees
  • Security deposit amount
  • Clauses regarding pets
  • Maintenance policy
  • Property inspections
  • Clauses regarding terminating the lease and causes for eviction

 

If you are in any doubt about what should or shouldn’t be included in your lease agreement, you should consult an attorney before either party signs.

And if you’re just getting started and want to learn more about lease agreements, plus how to navigate finding tenants, collecting rent, and more, we’ve got an e-book and a checklist you can download for free!

Your Tenant is Your Greatest Asset

Tenant laws are put in place to protect tenants. Plain and simple. As an investor and landlord, if you want your rental business to be successful, you MUST understand the laws regarding tenants and any changes to those laws. 

At the end of the day, your property isn’t your greatest asset; your tenant is. If your tenant isn’t cared for properly, you don’t make any money (or worse). 

Want to avoid the hassle of worrying if you’re up to date with local, state, and national laws as a self-managing landlord? Having a local property manager (like us) is a great way to remove the risk of neglecting any of your tenant’s rights. 

You can inquire about choosing us as your property manager here. >>


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