5 Things Every Renter Should Know, According to Tenant Lawyers

published Dec 27, 2019
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Laws protecting renters vary greatly from state by state. Even so, there are some universal truths when it comes to renters’ rights that are applicable no matter where you live in the United States. 

We asked lawyers who have experience with tenants’ rights and residential real estate to share what every renter should know. Here’s what they had to say. 

1. Landlords can’t just drop into your rental

The scenario: Your landlord calls and says she’ll be stopping by in an hour to show your place to a future tenant since your lease will be up soon. Or, surprise, she knocks on the door and says she’d like to just peek her head in to see the condition of your apartment. These types of drop-ins aren’t actually allowed and, as a tenant, you have a reasonable right to privacy.

You don’t have to allow your landlord access to your unit unless she’s given proper notice or there’s an emergency, says Sally Morin, a California lawyer who now focuses on personal injury cases but worked for 10 years as a tenant attorney in San Francisco. An emergency is something like a major water leak, not just a drippy kitchen sink. “They can’t just come into the unit whenever they want,” Morin explains.

Each state sets their own rules, but generally a landlord is required to give at least a 24-hour notice for non-emergency access like inspecting the unit or showing it to prospective buyers or tenants, she says.

Here’s a good chart to help you understand your rights based on where you live.

2. Landlords need to return your security deposit in a timely manner

Come move-out time, you’ve probably done everything you can to get as much of your security deposit back as possible. You might need that money to put down as a deposit on your next place or to stash away for a down payment on your home.

How long will you need to wait until it boomerangs back to you? That depends on where you’re renting. The majority of states have hard and fast deadlines for when your landlord needs to get your security deposit back to you, but it generally ranges from 14 days to 45 days.

If your landlord does withhold your deposit, or a portion of it, you have a right to receive a written notification that explains why the money was held, explains Morin.

3. You may be protected by rent control 

“You may be protected by rent control or rent regulation and not know it,” says Steven Kirkpatrick, a partner at Romer Debbas LLP who specializes in landlord-tenant disputes. In New York City, there are plenty of apartments whose occupants are rent-regulated, while the tenants are unaware of their protections. In some cases, the owners also don’t know that their apartments are covered, Kirkpatrick says.

Often, a tenant can learn about the rent regulatory status of their apartment by reviewing governmental agency records, like those at the Division of Housing and Community Renewal in New York. But rent regulatory coverage can be complex, so it might be necessary to consult with an attorney to know a unit’s true status. Taking the extra step to find out the status of your unit could pay off, as rent-controlled apartments can have restrictions on the amount of rent increases, Kirkpatrick explains.

4. You have a right to a habitable home 

While laws vary by state, one thing that renters across the country have in common is the right to a habitable home. This is known as the warranty of habitability, explains Andrew Chen, an attorney licensed in New York and Hawaii and the founder of Hack Your Wealth, a personal finance site. “It almost always means, at a minimum, hot running water, working plumbing, heat in the winter, and an absence of rodents, vermin, and mold,” Chen explains. Some jurisdictions may even require air conditioning, he says. You should be aware of what the minimum standards are that a landlord must adhere to, Chen notes. Your state and local government websites should have details about these requirements.

5. You should look beyond your lease to understand your rights

You can find online renters’ rights resources from both governmental bodies and nonprofit housing advocates, Kirkpatrick says. “Many cities and towns also have an office that handles housing and landlord-tenant issues,” he says. “These offices can be a valuable resource and may intervene to assist tenants if there is a problem with their landlord.”

While we’re on the topic of tenant rights, here are five things your landlord should never, ever tell you to do.