Think going through your lease in eye-crossing detail will tell you all you need to know about the rights and responsibilities of renting? Not quite. There are tons of state rentals laws on the books, and they vary from state-to-state—and sometimes even city to city.
Know the Law: Answer These 6 Questions to Protect Yourself as a Renter
Even if you’re a long-time renter who thinks you have this covered, it’s important to research your rights—and the rights of your landlord. Some of the things you think are true might turn out not to be. (Know that law that says more than three women living together is a brothel? It’s actually a myth.) Here’s a primer on what you need to know about state rental laws.
1. What are the limits on your security deposit?
There’s a common conception that a security deposit should be the equivalent of one month’s rent. But that’s not necessarily mandated by law. In Kansas, landlords can charge one-and-a-half months’ rent if a dwelling is furnished. They can also charge a pet deposit. In New Hampshire, a security deposit can’t exceed one month’s rent or $100, whichever is greater. Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, there’s no limit on how much landlords can charge.
2. When can your landlords legally show up?
Once you sign your lease, you might expect the landlord to give you plenty of notice before coming onto the property. But you might be wrong. In some states, such as Arkansas, the landlord may barge in at any time without notice. Florida requires 12 hours notice, and Connecticut, Indiana and Kansas require “reasonable notice.” If you live in a “reasonable notice” state, you may want to ask the landlord to clarify the policy in writing.
3. What are the penalties for returning a check?
It happens: a low account balance or a missed deposit comes back to haunt you in the form of a bounced check. And it can be an expensive mistake. Some states allow landlords to impose fees for returned checks. In California, for example, the fee can be equal to the actual bank fee, or the landlord can charge a flat service charge of $25 the first time, and $35 anytime after that. In North Dakota, a returned check can cost a renter $40. Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, if you bounce a check, you must pay the amount of the check along with all costs and fees within 14 days of notice that your payment was refused. If you don’t pay the amount in full within that time period, it risks being considered a felony.
4. What might happen in small claims court?
Let’s say your landlord takes you to small claims court. The good news is that many states impose a modest maximum, including Arizona at $3,500, and Rhode Island at $2,500. But, if you are a tenant in Tennessee, brace yourself. The law allows for a maximum claim of $25,000 in small claims court, but there is no limit if the lawsuit is an eviction or personal property recovery lawsuit.
5. What is the maximum late fee you can be charged?
Like its dismal cousin the bounced check, late fees are no fun. But they can also be confusing. Consider North Carolina, where tardy monthly rent allows the landlord to charge $15 or 5% of the rent, whichever is greater, but a weekly rental allows the landlord to charge $4 or 5% of the monthly rent, also whichever is greater. Meanwhile, Georgia and Utah have no statute on the books regarding late fees. In Maine, it’s a little more complicated. A landlord can’t charge more than 4% and it’s only allowed if the landlord notifies you in writing at the time you enter the agreement. The agreement must state clearly that your landlord can charge a late-fee penalty that is not to exceed 4%.
6. How much rent can you deduct for repairs?
Most states require the landlord to have the apartment in order before you move in, but let’s say while you’re living there, you find some peeling paint or loose tile that you are happy to take care of yourself. One common misconception is that you can simply purchase the supplies, put in the work and then deduct the cost from your rent check. While some states have this law on the books, others don’t, and some only allow it under specific circumstances (Washington, D.C.).
Bonus: Legal tips for renters
Clearly, it is very important to read the fine print before signing a lease. But not every legal stipulation is going to be on those pages, and it falls on you to know the law and voice your concerns. According to the Washington state Tenants Union’s website, “Even when the laws are clear, it is still up to you as a tenant to get them enforced,” states the organization. “Written negotiation is your way to communicate your rights and positions to the landlord.”
To learn more, be sure to check out the databases at websites like Findlaw.com and Nolo.com. Need help with local ordinances? Call or check the website of your local housing commission. If you need help finding it, your city hall should be able to connect you.