You may be one of the millions of Americans who rent their homes each year. Whether you’ve been renting for years or if you’re a relatively new renter, you may not know all your rights as a renter and the tenant protection laws that entitle you to safe housing. Understanding these legal protections, and those specific to your state and city, can help you advocate for yourself and your rights.
Tenant rights in the United States can vary depending on the state and city in which you live. However, there are a few common laws that landlords everywhere need to follow. Here are nine tenant protections guaranteed to renters you should know:
The Fair Housing Act, passed in 1968 and amended in 1988, ensures that a person cannot be denied housing based on discriminatory factors. These factors include race, sex, color, religion, family status, disability or national origin. This law also extends to rental listings and advertisements, too.
Currently, 22 states and the District of Columbia extend this federal tenant protection to cover discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, while others extend it for gender identity and residence status, as well.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) enforces the Fair Housing Act. If you wish to file a complaint with HUD about renter discrimination, call 1-800-669-9777 or 1-800-877-8339. You can also visit the website and file a complaint there, too.
Perhaps the most important renter protection to keep in mind is that you have a right to live in a rental that is safe, in good condition and free of pests or other infestations. The unit’s plumbing, heating, electrical fixtures and supplied appliances should be in working condition and safe to use. The unit itself should also be properly weatherproofed, structurally sound and up to code.
Your landlord or property manager is responsible for maintaining the unit and its features so that it is safe for you to live in. However, a lease agreement may specify that certain costs, such as pest control, is your responsibility as the tenant. That’s why it’s incredibly important to review the lease before signing.
During the application and screening process, your landlord may want to run a credit report to understand your credit history and responsibility of paying bills on time. However, according to the Fair Credit Reporting Act passed in 1970, a landlord can only use your credit history for screening and must get your explicit permission to run the report.
They must also disclose what information from the report they will use in their screening and must inform you that the information in the credit report is why they denied you, if that’s the case.
While the landlord does own the property you rent, they are not allowed to enter your rental unit at any time. Many states have laws protecting renters’ privacy that require landlords to provide an entry notice between 24 and 48 hours prior, though some states don’t provide a specific time frame.
The only exception to this regulation is if there’s an emergency in your unit, such as a fire or active water damage. In addition, the only reason that a landlord can request to enter your unit is to make repairs or if there’s an emergency.
As a renter, you are entitled to have a copy of your signed and dated lease agreement and other legal documents related to your rental. In addition, the lease you sign must be legally written and abide by all rental and housing laws. Features that must be in a rental agreement include:
- Lease length and time period
- Monthly rental rate
- Tenant name
Some states require clauses about renters’ insurance and the security deposit, including the price, payment date and details of use and refund.
Your landlord is responsible for having this document drafted and providing you a copy.
A rental agreement with any clauses or provisions that conflict with federal or state tenant protections will not be upheld in court.
Say you may miss a clause that’s illegal according to federal or state law, and you sign the rental agreement. This clause renders the agreement invalid, meaning that, if the landlord files a lawsuit against you, they cannot enforce that provision in court, even with your signature on the document.
You’re typically required to pay a security deposit when you sign a lease. After the lease is up, the landlord may subtract money from the deposit for repairs, cleaning and unpaid rent, if applicable, and return the rest of the deposit back to you.
However, there are some state laws that actually limit the amount a landlord can charge for a security deposit and the time a landlord has to refund the deposit after the lease is up. Some states even require landlords to put the deposit in an account to accrue interest.
Keep in mind that, if you have a pet or other liabilities, you may need to pay a larger deposit.
Since a rental agreement is a legally binding document, its terms can’t typically be changed unless both parties agree and sign a brand new agreement. This includes changing, or increasing, the rent.
However, there are some circumstances that do allow landlords to make amendments to the lease and change the rent amount during the lease period. These situations include:
- If you get a new pet.
- If you add a new tenant to your household.
- If the unit receives significant updates and remodeling.
What’s more, these specific situations in which the landlord is allowed to raise the rent must be included in the lease agreement. It’s also important to note that, even in rent-controlled cities, landlords may still be able to raise the rent in these cases.
In addition, some states continue to set additional guidelines for rent increase limits that further protect renters in these situations. For example, California passed the Tenant Protection Act of 2019 that has a provision for rent increase limits.
There are many valid situations in which you may be evicted from your rental. Some situations where a landlord has grounds to evict include:
- Failing to pay rent.
- Allowing people or pets not on the lease to occupy the unit.
- Committing a crime in the unit or on rental property.
Some states also require that this information be in the lease agreement.
However, no matter the reason, your landlord still needs to follow the state’s legal procedures regarding evictions. One part of that procedure is providing adequate notice, such as up to 30 days or more in advance. You also have the right to fix the issue that led to eviction, such as pay late or unpaid rent.
If a landlord doesn’t follow the correct protocol and terminates the rental agreement, and your occupancy, early, they may be subject to legal consequences and you may be able to sue for remedies and monetary damages.
In addition, a landlord may not take dangerous steps, such as turning off the utilities to ensure or speed up your eviction. This may be considered retaliation. If they remove your belongings, they may face trespassing or burglary charges.