Your Rights as a Tenant
By definition, tenants are people (individuals, families, roommates, etc.) who occupy land or property rented or leased from a landlord, whether month-to-month or for a specific lease period. With few exceptions, the laws of the state in which you live set forth what rights you have as a tenant. If you have a written lease, its terms likewise delineate your rights and responsibilities as a tenant.
Types of Rental Housing
Your rights as a tenant, aka a renter, apply to all types of housing offered for rent or lease:
- Single-family (stand-alone) residence
- Apartment: studio, garden, walk-up, low-rise, mid-rise, high-rise, loft, etc.
Federally Protected Tenant Rights
The one exception to the rule that state law determines your rights as a tenant is in the area of discrimination. The Fair Housing Act (Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968) prohibits your landlord from refusing to rent to you based on any of the following:
- Your race
- National origin
- Sexual orientation
- Your disability
- Your familial status, such as if you’re a single parent
- Your membership in a protected class, such as if you’re a pregnant woman
Not only can a landlord not refuse to rent to you based on any of the above, she or he also cannot lie to you about the house or apartment you’re applying for already being rented if she or he has not, in fact, already rented it. Nor can she or he hold you to a different standard of tenant suitability than other applicants. She or he also cannot require you to pay a higher rent or security deposit than other tenants unless she or he has a specific nondiscriminatory reason for doing so.
Your landlord or prospective landlord can, however, do any or all of the following:
- Run a background check on you and refuse to rent to you if (s)he discovers that you are a convicted criminal or a registered sex offender
- Refuse to allow you to have a pet in your rental house or unit unless your pet is actually your service animal
- Charge you an additional deposit or fee for having a pet (but not if that pet is your service animal)
- Refuse to let you smoke inside your rental house or unit
- Decide whether (s)he will rent to you month-to-month or for a specified lease period
- Evict you if you engage in illegal acts while living in the rental house or unit, break the rules (such as bringing in a roommate without permission or sneaking in a pet), fail to pay rent on time, or seriously damage or destroy any part of the rental property
Tenant Rights for Habitability
As a tenant, you have the absolute right to live in a safe and habitable premises. This means that your landlord must provide you with a living space that meets the following standards:
- Closed in against the weather
- Running water, both hot and cold
- Access to a working toilet
- Access to a working bathing accommodation (bathtub, shower, etc.)
- Adequate heating
- Freedom from mold and other health hazards
- Smoke alarm(s) if your state, county, or city requires them
- Freedom from vermin such as mice, rats, bedbugs, etc.
- Freedom from excessive noise, noxious odors, and garbage if a multi-unit structure
Every state except Arkansas has what are called implied warranty of habitability laws with regard to rental property. In other words, by law, the very fact that a landlord offers a house, apartment, or other premises for rent implies that it is one in which it is your right as a tenant to live safely and in reasonable comfort. In addition, (s)he must maintain that habitability for as long as you live there.
Your landlord does not have to provide you with kitchen appliances. However, any such appliances (stove, oven, refrigerator, dishwasher, microwave, etc.) (s)he chooses to supply you with must be in working order when you move in and remain that way throughout your stay.
If any of the appliances your landlord provides you stops working while you live there, (s)he has the responsibility to repair or replace it or them with all reasonable speed once you notify him or her of the problem. The same goes for such problems as the following:
- A leaky roof, toilet, faucet, water heater, etc.
- Water coming into your apartment from an upstairs apartment
- A furnace, air conditioner, or water heater that stops working
- The appearance of mold on your ceilings, walls, baseboards, etc.
- A bedbug, mouse, rat, or other infestation
If, however, you caused the damage due to your own carelessness or negligence, such as by ruining your microwave by attempting to heat food you placed in a metal or other non-microwavable container, your landlord has the right to charge you for the repair or replacement. It also goes without saying that if you have pets, your landlord is not responsible for abating a flea infestation problem.
You have the right to privacy while living in your rental residence. Your landlord cannot come into it whenever she or he pleases, even though she or he owns the property. She or he must give you reasonable notice of when and why she needs to come in, including for purposes of repairing, replacing or otherwise maintaining your facilities, appliances, etc.
When You Need a Tenant Rights Attorney
Unfortunately, landlord/tenant problems arise all too frequently. The most common type of dispute is over whether, when, and/or how much of your security deposit your landlord will return to you when you move out. If you and (s)he cannot resolve any problems yourselves, you should contact a knowledgeable landlord/tenant attorney. Lawyers can advise you of the laws your state, county, or city has in place addressing this often-complicated area of the law. They can also tell you what options you have and how to go about pursuing them.
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