If you’re a renter, you may think the power in your relationship starts and ends with your landlord, but that’s not always the case. You have more rights than you may be aware of, but maybe not as many as you’d like. Much of the problem stems from the fact that each state has a wide latitude in regulating leases. A right you had as a tenant in California may or may not be yours in Texas or Florida.
But there are some tenant rights that hold true in every state, and the federal government also has a say in some basic rights. So Billshark will offer these general guidelines, but we also recommend you check with your state’s attorney general’s office for specific laws that apply in your state. Most states provide free PDF copies of guides to tenants’ rights.
1. Fair housing access
Thanks to the Fair Housing Act, federal law prohibits landlords from discriminating against prospective renters on the basis of race, nationality, sex, familial status, religion, or disability. This last is often the most violated provision, with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reporting that up to 60 percent of complaints about housing discrimination are based in disability claims. (Racial discrimination complaints were second, with 26 percent of complaints stemming from that issue.)
If you have a disability, landlords are required to make reasonable modifications to accommodate you. This is generally held to mean such minor adjustments as allowing you to rent on a lower floor or installing a ramp to assist with wheelchair access. It does not include major remodeling, such as installing an elevator or lowering kitchen counters.
Another area of federal regulation exists in the subject of fair credit reporting. If you are rejected for a rental unit based on a credit report, the landlord is required to say that and to tell you that you’re allowed to submit a written request to learn exactly what the negative report said.
2. Habitable residence
Every landlord must supply what is known as a “habitable residence.” This doesn’t mean a palace, but at a minimum, the place you rent must be safe to live in. This includes addressing such problems as missing windows or stairs or non-functioning locks. In addition, the unit must have all the utilities working, including plumbing, heat, and electricity. (That doesn’t mean the landlord is required to pay for these things, just that they are in working condition.)
3. Right to privacy
Except in emergency situations, no landlord has a right to walk into your home unannounced. In most cases, the landlord is required to give 24 hours’ notice before entering the premises for inspection or to make repairs.
4. In law vs. lease, the law wins
Some leases contain a clause that may say, “In cases where this lease conflicts with state law, the lease shall prevail.” No, it doesn’t. Some landlords may actually believe that if you signed a lease which contains such a clause, that makes it enforceable. Others may hope their tenants don’t know any better. Regardless, your state’s law always prevails when it conflicts with the lease.
5. State laws vary
As mentioned above, except for these general guidelines, pretty much everything else you might argue with your landlord about varies from state to state. This includes deposits, evictions, and repairs. In general, however, the law tends to favor the landlord. For example, regardless of the problem, you have to pay the rent. You are not allowed to withhold rent payment until the landlord repairs your plumbing, for example.
“The obligation to pay rent is always independent of the landlord’s obligation to fulfill his duties,” David Merbaum, a Georgia attorney who handles landlord-tenant cases, told U.S. News and World Report. “So if the air conditioning’s not working, the tenant cannot hold the rent back—the tenant will be in breach of the lease, and they can be evicted.”
How to protect yourself
There’s only one sure way to protect yourself in a tenant-landlord dispute, and that is to document everything. Write down the day and time you speak with your landlord or his representatives about any issues, as well as what you said and what was promised to you. Better still, conduct all landlord-tenant communication through email, and save the emails.
In cases where you’re having real problems, it’s worth consulting a lawyer. Don’t try to guess what your rights are in your particular state.
Often, landlords tend to be strict and/or jaded, because they’ve been burned so many times by bad tenants. But it’s important to know that you don’t surrender all your rights just so you can have a place to live.
And if you need a little boost to your budget, whether to make a rental down payment or just for little extras, let Billshark lower your bills. We save people hundreds of thousands of dollars every day! You can be one of them.