The United States derived its landlord-tenant laws from the Common Law of England. The Common Law scheme was designed to benefit the landowner, or landlord, to the detriment of the tenant. The landlord-tenant relationship in the U.S. initially bore the same characteristics of those in England. However, the passage of time observed numerous legal advances that balanced the relationship between landlord and tenant.
Landlord-tenant law is a matter of state laws and regulations. Every state has specific rules regarding the landlord-tenant relationship under their Fair Housing Act. Many cities and towns also have rules governing the landlord-tenant relationship. Occasionally, Federal law applies. For example, federal law applies to Section 8 public housing. Additionally, both federal and state laws prohibit housing discrimination based on race, gender, age, and sexual orientation. Moreover, federal law prohibits discrimination because of a physical handicap.
Tenants have several valuable rights landlords owe them. However, tenants also have a few responsibilities. Both sides must honor their respective rights and responsibilities to avoid costly and protracted litigation.
A tenancy is nothing more than an agreement between renter and landlord. The landlord provides a place for the tenant to live in exchange for rental payments. That’s all required by the common law. Federal, State and Local laws have changed to offer both tenants more certainty and greater legal protections, especially in urban areas.
A tenancy without a written agreement is called “tenancy-at-will.” In a tenancy at will, either party can end the agreement at any time, provided that both parties comply with the notice requirements under their respective state law. Additionally, the landlord cannot end the tenancy for an unlawful reason such as retaliation if the tenant asserts their rights or discrimination.
Typically, states’ laws require 30-days’ notice before terminating a tenancy. The notice period gives the tenant an opportunity to find a new home. Some states might have shorter or longer notice requirements. Consequently, tenants and landlords need to be familiar with the rules governing their relationship.
The landlord must comply with two “warranties” that the law implies in a landlord-tenant relationship. The first is the warranty of habitability. That means the landlord must keep the premises safe, and supply heat, sewer, along with hot water. Some locations might require the landlord to supply electricity as well.
The second implied warranty is the warrant of quiet enjoyment. This warranty ensures that renters can live in their home without outside interference. For instance, a renter should not be forced to leave their home because of another tenant who repeatedly throws loud parties during the week.
A lease is a contract that spells out all the rights and obligations of the tenancy for the renter and the landlord. Most states require a written lease for a rental period of one year or longer. Depending on the language in the lease, a lease can become at will after one year. Lease terms typically apply during tenancy at will. Notwithstanding, the parties are free to enter a new lease if they choose.
The lease should state the rights and obligations of each party with specificity. The document must include the start date, end date, the amount of rent, and when rent is due. The lease should also include information about:
If the terms are not clear, then a court cannot enforce them. Instead, a court might rule in a way that is different from what the parties intended. Therefore, asking questions before signing a lease is vital to protecting yourself as a tenant.
Once you know what type of tenancy you have, then you can determine your rights as a renter. At the outset, a tenant enjoys the right to the implied warranties of habitability and quiet enjoyment. Moreover, a tenant has the right to be free from discrimination. As touched upon briefly above, no landlord can use an unlawful reason to deny renting to someone or evict someone. Similarly, a tenant has the right to be free from retaliation. For example, a landlord cannot retaliate against a tenant if the tenant called the local board of health to report a rodent infestation. Tenants also enjoy a right to access utilities in their residence. Landlords cannot shut off or deny access to utilities.
Tenants also have a right against unlawful entry by the landlord. A landlord is not free to come and go from their tenants’ homes. A landlord has the right to enter with reasonable notice to the renter. However, the purpose of entry must be for a legitimate reason like home inspection or making repairs.
Landlords can increase rent if they comply with their state’s law. ‘Tenants-at-will’ have a statutory right to notice of rent increase. However, landlords cannot increase rent during the lease period if there is no provision for it in the lease itself. A landlord can increase a leaseholder’s rent at the end of the lease period. Again, rental increases must be fair and lawful.
Landlords can protect themselves from unscrupulous tenants. Commonly, landlords require tenants to pay their first and last month’s rent up front. These charges protect the landlord against delinquent tenants and tenants who don’t move in as they agreed to do.
Additionally, the landlord might charge a security deposit as well. Security deposits protect the landlord from damage the tenant caused that exceeds normal wear and tear. The landlord must refund all the unused security deposit. Also, some states require the landlord to hold security deposits in an interest-bearing account for the benefit of the tenant. Also, state laws may require the landlord and tenant to have a walk-through at the beginning of the tenancy and at the end before charging a security deposit.
Tenants have a limited right to withhold rent. A tenant can withhold rent if there is a major problem that the landlord won’t fix rendering premises uninhabitable. That does not mean the rent is forgiven. Instead, the tenant must put rent money in escrow and hold it for the landlord. The tenant might have a right to deduct a portion of the rent because of the problem. However, the tenant must pay rent to the landlord when repairs have been made.
Tenants also have a right to sue for damages. Any acts of retaliation or discrimination are actionable either on their own or as a counterclaim in an eviction. Both federal and state law require tenants to seek administrative remedies before filing a claim in court. That means the renter will need to file a claim with the Housing Authority, Commission Against Discrimination, or with their state’s attorney general before going to court.
Tenants have responsibilities as well. They must pay their rent on time. Tenants should inform their landlord that they are having trouble paying their rent. The parties might be able to work something out without resorting to eviction.
Also, tenants must follow rules established by the landlord. For example, putting trash in the appropriate receptacle instead of throwing it in the hallway. Tenants also must return the premises to the landlord in good condition, ordinary wear and tear excepted. If not, the landlord can sue to recover losses from repairing the damage.
Tenants must notify their landlord before ending the tenancy. A ‘tenant at will’ must typically give 30 days’ notice. A written lease might indicate that the landlord requires longer notice if you can terminate the lease early at all. Tenants are responsible for paying all rent due under the lease. However, the lease might grant the chance to sublet to another. Frequently, the lease will stipulate that the landlord must approve of the subletter.
Finally, a tenant cannot prevent the landlord from entering the premises if the landlord needs to access the home. Just as landlords cannot come and go as they please, a tenant must grant access to the premises after reasonable notice.
A landlord can sue the tenant for possession of the premises, for back rents, and property damage. Suing for possession is called an eviction. Landlords must strictly comply with the notice requirements of their state’s law.
A landlord can file for eviction for reasons other than non-payment of rent. For example, a tenant who stays after the end of the lease is called a holdover tenant. A holdover tenant has to pay rent. However, the landlord does not have to allow the tenant to stay. The landlord can evict a holdover tenant and sue for possession because the landlord has a right to get the property back.
Landlords file eviction proceedings most often because the tenant has not paid their rent. Landlords must give written notice to their tenant of their intent to evict. Some states might require the landlord to offer the tenant a chance to “cure” their debt by paying some or all their back rents. Landlords must have proof they served an eviction notice on their tenant before filing in court.
Only after failing to comply with the right to cure can the landlord file for eviction in court. Landlords have no right to throw their tenant out without a court order. That is called a “self-help eviction.” Most states ban self-help evictions because they lead to violence and property damage. Instead, an eviction can occur only after a court grants an order.
Tenants have a right to defend at an eviction hearing. The tenant can claim lack of notice as a defense. Also, the defendant can counter-sue for a violation of their rights as a tenant. A counter-suit might not prevent an eviction, but it could delay the eviction and help recover monetary damages as well.