Landlord-Tenant Law

Rights & Responsibilities of Tenants

Most tenants want to live in a safe and well-maintained home with landlords who respect their privacy and are reasonable about pets, deposits, and other issues. Knowing your rights as a renter (and enforcing them as necessary) and meeting your legal responsibilities is key to a successful tenancy.
By Beth Dillman, Attorney
Updated: May 27th, 2020

There are dozens of reasons why people rent living space rather than buying a home. Many can’t afford to purchase a house, especially in pricey urban areas. Others rent because they prefer having someone else handle maintenance and repairs. Regardless of the reason, it’s crucial that you understand your rights (as well as your responsibilities) as a tenant when it comes to things like security deposits, pets, and landlord access to the rental unit.

Many of your rights and responsibilities, as well as those of landlords, are controlled by the laws of the state where the property is located. Before you sign a lease, check landlord-tenant laws in your state (and local rules, too, especially if you’re in a community with rent control). An experienced landlord-tenant lawyer can also help answer your questions, whether in regards to the legality of a particular lease clause or deductions from your security deposit.

Security Deposits

Of course, your primary responsibility to your landlord is to pay rent. Failure to do so can result in your eviction.

Most, if not all, landlords will require you to pay a security deposit (typically a month or two of rent) when you sign the lease. The deposit helps assure that you pay the rent when due and that you keep the rental unit in good shape. Its amount is likely limited by your state's law; for example, one or two months' rent is a typical limit, or the limit might depend on factors such as your age and whether the rental is furnished.

If you leave owing rent or having damaged the place (beyond ordinary wear and tear), your landlord can use all or part of your deposit to cover the unpaid rent, damage repair, and any cleaning necessary to restore the rental unit to its condition when you moved in. The laws of most states give landlords a set amount of time (usually from two to four weeks) to return your entire deposit or to provide an itemized list of any deductions, along with a refund of any remaining deposit.

Here are some ways to protect yourself from losing your security deposit:

  • Check your state security deposit rules when it comes to dollar limits, whether or not the landlord must pay interest, and when and how the deposit must be returned.
  • Before signing the lease, walk through the rental unit with your landlord and make a list and take photos of visible damage and the state of cleanliness. You’ll want this visual proof when you move out (for example, if your landlord tries to use your security deposit to cover scratched wooden floors, photos will show that the floors were already scratched when you moved in).
  • Pay your rent on time, and give adequate notice before you move out, so that your landlord has no reason to use your deposit to cover unpaid rent.
  • Before you leave, do a thorough job cleaning the rental unit and repairing any damage that either you, a guest, or a pet caused. Take photos as you did at move-in time, so that you have proof of how you left the rental unit. This will help avoid your landlord charging you for damages that you didn’t cause or filth that was present when you moved in.
  • If your landlord has unfairly kept all or some of your deposit or failed to return it on time, contact him or her and try to out work an agreement. If you’re unsuccessful getting your deposit back, consider suing your landlord in small claims court.

Your Privacy Versus Landlord Access

Whether you are renting an apartment, condo, or single-family house, your rental is your home and your landlord should respect it as such. Landlords are bound by the “covenant of quiet enjoyment,” a legal principle that gives tenants the right to be left in peace in their rental home, undisturbed by intrusive landlord entry.

In addition, many states have statutes spelling out how and when landlords may legally enter rented property. Court opinions in other states have set parameters on landlords’ access. These laws and court decisions usually require landlords to give tenants reasonable notice, such as 24 hours, before entering, and state that the landlord can enter only for specified reasons, such as to make repairs (or assess the need for repairs) or to show the property to prospective tenants or purchasers.

Typically, a landlord can enter without notice only in the event of an emergency, such as a fire or flood, or after being given permission to enter. If your landlord has specified the time and date of entry and you have agreed to it, then your landlord can enter the rental unit without your being there.

Regardless of why your landlord wants entry, it must be at a reasonable time. Late at night would not be considered reasonable, for example, while weekday business hours would.

Maintenance and Repairs

The landlord is, broadly speaking, expected to keep the premises habitable or livable— that is, the landlord must provide a structurally sound roof, floors, and walls; adequate heat and hot water; and safe electrical and plumbing systems. It’s not your responsibility to fix or maintain important features such as these.

If your landlord refuses to comply or to repair a serious habitability problem (such as a leaky roof), which makes your rental unit uninhabitable, you may, depending on your state, have the right to withhold rent or pay for repairs yourself and deduct the cost from your rent. Not all states give tenants this right, so be sure to check rent withholding statutes and the specific steps you must take in order to withhold rent or to use a similar option.

Finally, it’s your responsibility to keep your premises clean, such as by vacuuming the carpet and disposing of trash; using electrical, plumbing, and other systems properly; fixing anything you break or damage; and notifying your landlord promptly of dangerous conditions on the rental property. Tenant maintenance and repair responsibilities are typically addressed in the lease, including day-to-day maintenance, such as who’s responsible for mowing the lawn and shoveling snow.

Safety on the Property

Landlords in most states have some degree of legal responsibility to protect tenants from foreseeable criminal conduct of thieves and even fellow tenants. Adequate and working door and window locks are usually all that’s required, although some state and local laws require peepholes and specific types of locks and lighting.

Of course, if you see a security risk, such as an easy-to-enter parking garage, you should ask the landlord to make it more secure. Most landlords don’t want to run the risk of being sued on grounds that it was easy for someone to enter the rental premises and steal property from or assault a tenant.

Also, tenants have the right to be safe from injury caused by the conditions of the premises. So, a landlord shouldn’t hide or conceal defects from you—for example, by placing a carpet over weak flooring. If you’re hurt because your landlord concealed a defect or was negligent in making repairs (for example, by failing to fix something such as a broken handrail on the steps to your front door), your landlord may be liable for your injuries or losses.

Finally, landlords are often expected to deal with serious environmental health hazards. Federal law, for example, requires property owners to inform tenants (before they sign a lease) of lead-based paint hazards on the property.

Insurance

Your lease may include a clause requiring you to obtain renters’ insurance. Even if it’s not required, it’s a good idea to purchase renters’ insurance to cover damage to the rental unit or loss of or damage to your personal belongings, such your clothes and TV, as a result of fire or theft.

Renters’ insurance will also provide coverage if your negligence causes injury (or property damage) to another person. The landlord’s property insurance will not cover you in these situations.

Pets

Your landlord can probably bar you from keeping pets on the premises or restrict the type of pet allowed (such as specifying no dogs over 20 pounds, or no dogs of a particular breed). A landlord may not, however, prohibit trained service animals used by someone with a physical or mental disability. The landlord would be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as well as many state antidiscrimination laws, if you were prevented from having your service animal on the premises.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • How much security deposit can a landlord charge me under the laws of our state?
  • My landlord continually refuses to fix my furnace. Can I pay to get it fixed and deduct the cost from my rent, or do I have any other options?
  • I think my landlord has been entering my home without my permission while I’m away at work. Is there anything I can do?
  • My landlord won’t provide better locks on my apartment door, despite the fact we’ve had a rash of break-ins in the building. If I move out before my lease ends (I have six months left), can my landlord keep my security deposit?
  • My landlord has let other tenants have dogs, but she won’t let me get a pit bull. Is this legal?

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