Entering a lease with a landlord means that both parties have certain rights and obligations toward each other. What a landlord cannot do will be specified in the lease, but there are also certain things landlords can’t do, governed by federal and state laws. You should know your tenancy rights if you are getting ready to sign a lease or have already signed one with a landlord. Landlords should also follow specific laws regulating their rights to their property and tenants.
Federal Landlord-Tenant Laws
One fundamental federal law that governs landlords is the Fair Housing Act. This bill protects the tenant from discriminatory housing practices by landlords. These practices can include discrimination based on any of the seven classes stated in the act:
- Sex (gender identity and sexual orientation);
- Physical or mental disability;
- National origin;
- Familial status (whether the tenant has children).
Things That Landlords Can’t Do
As part of a tenancy agreement, landlords are not allowed to do any of the following actions mentioned in this list below.
Discriminate against tenants
Per the Fair Housing Act, landlords can not decide not to rent to a person based on that person’s religion or physical disability. If a landlord refuses to rent to a tenant or treats that tenant differently from other tenants based on any of the seven classes in the Fair Housing Act, the landlord is breaking the law. To protect his or her civil rights, the tenant may be able to take legal action against the landlord in such cases.
Refuse to make reasonable repairs
Property owners must take reasonable steps to keep the person’s home safe for tenant occupancy. Repairs must be made promptly, especially when the living conditions affect the tenant’s physical health and safety. Conditions that may affect a tenant’s physical health and safety can include:
- Bed bugs;
- Leaky roof;
- Lead paint;
- Exposed or faulty electrical wiring;
- Normal wear and tear, such as broken floor boards or clogged toilets.
Although property owners typically wait to make repairs until their insurance company covers the damage claim, the landlord should—as soon as possible—repair damages that are caused by emergencies or natural disasters, such as:
- Hurricanes or other storms.
Withhold the security deposit for a rental unit
The security deposit that a tenant pays to a landlord is meant to reimburse the landlord for:
- Rent owed;
- Property damage (beyond normal wear and tear caused by regular use); or
- Costs of removing, storing, or returning a tenant’s property and storage left in the unit.
While most states limit the amount a landlord can collect, a few states have no such limit. However, in all states, a landlord must return the finances to the tenant if there are no issues.
Where there are damages or unpaid rent to attach the security deposit, the landlord must send the tenant an itemized receipt and return the remainder of the security deposit if any. A landlord cannot withhold the security deposit without letting the tenant know how it is being used. Some states also permit using the security deposit as an investment. However, when the lease ends, the landlord should have the deposit amount available to be returned to the tenant when the conditions are met.
Enter the rental property unannounced or without notice
Once a property owner rents their property to a tenant, the landlord’s rights over the property are limited. The tenant’s rights include living in the property without intrusion and retaliation. This right to quiet enjoyment bars the landlord from entering the home without giving proper notice to the tenant unless there is an emergency.
When a landlord is planning to enter the property to make repairs, conduct inspections, or show the property to future tenants, the tenant must know, regardless of whether the tenant will be present. If the landlord fails to inform the tenant, entering the premises can be seen as trespassing.
Provide an uninhabitable unit
According to federal law, landlords need to provide their tenants with a rental unit that is liveable or habitable. What is considered an inhabitable property generally varies from state to state? Still, all premises must have specific basic requirements, such as running water, heating, plumbing, lockable doors and windows, and smoke detectors, according to local building codes. Landlords cannot neglect to include these necessities and must attempt to address complaints from tenants within a reasonable time.
Evict tenants before lease termination
A landlord may want to evict a tenant for many different reasons, but the primary reason is typically when a tenant breaches a term or terms of the lease. To expel, the landlord must properly notify the tenant using the proper legal channels. What constitutes adequate notice may vary from state to state, but a typical starting point is at least 30 days.
To evict a tenant, the landlord is required to follow these steps:
- Serve an eviction notice—An eviction notice is a final notice served on the tenant by the landlord. The notice will specify the terms breached, such as nonpayment of rent, and state the consequences.
- File the eviction complaint with the court clerk—If a tenant fails to heed an eviction notice, the next step for the landlord is to go to court to seek an order for eviction that will force the tenant out of the property legally.
Renters may be able to defend their right to remain on the property, especially if the landlord does not follow the proper eviction process.
Change locks or duplicate apartment keys
A landlord may have a copy of the key to the tenant’s apartment, but he or she cannot use that key to invade the tenant’s privacy. Changing the locks and effectively keeping the tenant out of the property can also constitute an illegal eviction.
Increase rent without notice
When inflation grows and costs increase, property owners may need to increase rent to cover those costs. However, a landlord cannot increase rent without sufficient notice to the tenant.
Turn off utilities and other services
If any utility or other service is included in the rental agreement, the landlord may not turn off these services without proper reason and notice. Being without these services may render the property inhabitable or force the tenant to leave, which can be considered an illegal eviction.
Withhold important disclosures about the property
A landlord must disclose certain information about the condition of a property, specifically any that may affect the tenant’s health or safety.
Retaliate against the tenant
When a landlord-tenant relationship becomes strained due to problems with the landlord taking care of repairs in a reasonable time or giving notice before entering the property, for example, a tenant may need to take legal action. In those cases, a landlord cannot retaliate against the tenant for making a legal claim.
What a Landlord Can Do
Whether you are a landlord or a tenant, it helps to know what a landlord can and cannot do. The following are some things that landlords can do regarding their properties:
- Screen potential tenants—This involves evaluating the prospective tenants’ rental applications to ensure that they can fulfill the terms of the lease agreement, afford the rent payments, and take proper care of the rental property.
- Collect rent and security deposits—Some states restrict the amount a landlord can charge for a security deposit, but this is typically limited to one or two months’ rent.
- Charge for late rent based on the lease terms—The lease may specify an amount that the landlord can collect from a tenant in addition to the rent amount if the rent is paid after a specific date.
- Evict tenants for breach of contract—If a tenant is found committing illegal activities on the premises, the landlord can evict the tenant. A tenant can also be evicted for breaching any other lease terms.
- Enter the property with proper notice or in an emergency.
What To Do if Your Landlord Breaks the Rules
Tenants can take legal action against their landlords if they breach the lease’s terms. A lease is recognized as a legally binding contract between the landlord and the tenant. Therefore, the tenant can take legal action if the landlord breaches the lease terms and may be awarded damages in some cases.
It may be tempting to take legal action when the relationship with the landlord is strained due to violating the lease agreement. However, given the limitations of lawsuits, the tenant may wish to send the landlord written notice of the violation to prevent further rent agreement form breaches and allow them to correct the issue. A tenant may also opt for third-party mediation before taking other legal action.
Landlord and tenant laws generally vary by state. Therefore, renters should stay informed regarding tenants’ rights and a landlord’s obligations. Be sure that the terms of the lease are clear before signing. As a tenant, you will want to be aware of illegal things landlords do and what you can do about it. When you are in doubt, you may wish to seek legal advice from an experienced attorney to learn more about your rights.
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