Renter’s Rights

What you should know as a tenant

A house is a home unless, of course, it’s an apartment. Then the rules — and your rights — change. Janet Portman, a lawyer specializing in landlord-tenant laws and co-author of Renter’s Rights: The Basics (NOLO; $24.99); Every Tenant’s Legal Guide (NOLO; $29.99); and Every Landlord’s Legal Guide (NOLO; $44.99), says the most basic right of apartment dwellers is having a safe and habitable place to live.

Rental laws vary according to state and sometimes municipality, but renters share some universal rights including the right to privacy, to be informed of a change in ownership or management, and use of the property (apartment-to-condominium conversions, for instance). In return, renters generally have to do the following:

  • Keep their units clean
  • Comply with the terms of the rental agreement
  • Pay for any damage done as a result of negligence

Rental disputes often crop up and finding solutions can be confusing. “In some states, renters have ways to deal with landlords who don’t provide safe places to live,” Portman says. “They can leave without penalty if there are serious structural problems with the dwelling that make it unsafe and in some states they have the right to deduct fees from their rent to repair and fix problems. Some states even allow renters to withhold rent until repairs are made.”

Before withholding rent, experts advise consulting state statutes, which generally stipulate that tenants are required to explain why rent is being withheld, where the rent must go (an escrow account monitored by a neutral third party is recommended), and the type of notice the landlord must be given. Via certified letter, renters should also inform the landlord of any problems, the expected date of resolution, and their intention if the problem is unresolved, as well as file any necessary paperwork to legally withhold payment. For help with dispute resolution, contact the National Multi Housing Council (www.nmhc.org) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (www.hud.gov).

“If there is a clear case of discrimination contact your states fair housing agency. For a hazardous repair problem — say, a building is falling apart — go to a local building inspector to seek resolution,” says Marcia Stewart, co-author of Renter’s Rights: The Basics. “If the situation is less tense, you should try mediation with the landlord. If money is involved, you could go to small claims court or, if personal injury is involved, you could file a lawsuit.”

Renters should also familiarize themselves with local ordinances to learn what they can and can’t contest. “In general, tenants with lease agreements are entitled to stay for the entire term of the lease unless they violate the landlord’s terms,” says Portman. “Landlords can decide whether or not to renew the lease for any or no reason as long as it’s not discriminatory or retaliatory. Tenants with month-to-month rental agreements are subject to the same rights. If they give you due and proper notice, they’re within their rights.”

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