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Understanding tenants' rights

Published: Oct 14, 2009

Just as landlords have rights, you have rights as a tenant. Each state has differing landlord-tenant laws which spell out the rights and responsibilities of each party with respect to how they need to treat one another. Many aspects of landlord-tenant law (such as consequences for late rent payments, terms of the lease, rules for the landlord's entry into the rental, etc.) are spelled out in the lease. Most states' offices of the attorney general can provide information on landlord-tenant law, or you can try linking to state laws via the landlord site Mr. Landlord.

Generally speaking, tenants have the rights to the following:

  • Peace and quiet - Tenants have the right to live in a non-noisy environment, at least during certain times of day, and to advance notice if the building or home they rent is subject to major disruptions (such as elevator repairs, building-wide systems fixes which could impact electrical or gas or hot water). Tenants have the right to approach the landlord if neighbors are making noise partying, fighting, or playing music or television loudly.

  • A healthy environment - If the rental home or unit has malfunctioning heating or cooling systems, faulty electrical systems or plumbing, gas leaks, lead paint (in some cases this is permissible if disclosed in advance), broken windows, mold, or other potentially illness-inducing environmental factors, the tenant has the right to request that they be addressed within a reasonable period of time (which varies by state, but generally means a few days).

  • A written lease - Spelling out the rent price and the lease's time period is required in most states, but may vary based on lease length (i.e. a short rental may be fine with a verbal agreement, but longer leases may need to be prepared in writing).

  • Locks and smoke detectors - Most states require that rentals feature smoke detectors as well as locks on doors and windows as safety precautions.

  • An orderly eviction process - Tenants have the right to remain in their rental units during any eviction process up until a certain point in the eviction's legal proceedings (which varies by state). Leases should spell out under what circumstances an eviction can occur.

  • A deposit not exceeding a few months' worth of rent - Most states spell out a maximum required deposit that landlords can charge.

  • A landlord who doesn't change the contract or other terms arbitrarily - It is illegal for landlords to take renters' property as compensation for unpaid rent or other renter debt, to lock the tenant out during an eviction prior to securing a court order, or to arbitrarily increase rents as retaliation for tenant behavior.

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