landlord tenant law

Protect yourself from unethical landlords by reading up on your rights as a renter.


Your landlord owns the place, but they have to follow the law.

If you suspect illegal landlord actions, it’s important to know that you have renters rights. Some of these rights are in your lease agreement and some are set by state and federal laws, often called landlord tenant law.

Here are a few signs your landlord might be breaking landlord tenant law—and what to do about it:

  • Your landlord won’t do needed repairs.

    If your water heater is broken, that needs immediate attention. If your landlord is slow about fixing important things (or flat-out refuses) they’re breaking landlord tenant law. They must keep your rental in livable condition, and that includes access to hot water.

    If you’ve already talked to your landlord about critical repair with no luck, try these steps:

    • Send a certified letter to your landlord stating the issue, what you’ve done to correct it, and how you’d like it to be addressed. Also, state that you intend to do do the following steps if the issue isn’t immediately fixed.
    • Call the local building inspector, who may be able to order the landlord to make repairs.
    • Make the repairs and deduct the costs from the next month’s rent, or withhold the entire rent until the problem is fixed.
    • Take your landlord to small claims court if the problem is not fixed.

    Here’s a big caveat: your landlord isn’t required to address minor repairs that are unrelated to your health and safety. If the kitchen counter is chipped or your closet door falls off, you won’t have protection under landlord tenant law to get them fixed.

  • Your landlord comes by unannounced.

    Landlord tenant law says that property owners cannot use their keys to enter a rental whenever they like because you have a right to privacy. But many states have different privacy statutes, so check the details of yours on your state attorney general’s website or by calling your local housing authority. Also review your lease, which might explain how and when the landlord will stop by.

    Landlords can only enter the rental unit after they’ve given you notice, which is usually 24 hours (except in the case of an emergency). Typical reasons might be to make repairs, to show the unit to prospective renters or buyers, or to make a routine inspection (generally annually, semiannually, or quarterly).

    If your landlord shows up unannounced, ask them to come back later after giving you notice. If they won’t, and continue to show up whenever they want, put your request into a certified letter, and contact your local housing authority if you need help getting them to comply with the law.

  • Your landlord raises the rent in the middle of your lease.

    If you’ve signed a one-year lease, your landlord cannot change the terms mid-year. If you have a short term rental, like a month-to-month lease, the landlord can up the rent, but needs to give you 30-day notice.

    The answer here is pretty simple: Don’t pay a rent increase that is in violation of landlord tenant law. Your landlord can’t legally force you to pay more than what your lease says you owe.

  • Your landlord wants to sell (and wants you out immediately).

    If you rent month-to-month and your landlord wants to sell, they typically have to give you 30-day notice. Some states have different rules, like California, where renters get 60-day notice. (Check your state attorney general’s website, or contact your local housing authority to find out your state’s laws.)

    But if you have a year-long or six-month lease, that’s another story. In most cases, they should have to wait until the end of your lease to sell. First, check your lease to see if the situation is addressed there. If not, call your local housing authority for help.

  • Your landlord asks if you were born in another country.

    According to the Fair Housing Act, landlords can’t legally ask about your national origin, whether you have children, if you have a romantic partner, and many other questions that suggest they want to make a judgment about you or your lifestyle. If a landlord does this when you’re renting an apartment from them, you can just not answer.

    If a landlord were to ask you a question that violates landlord tenant law and then deny your rental application, you’d have the right to file a housing discrimination complaint. While landlords do have the right to screen tenants, their decision to rent should be based solely on an applicant’s bad credit, income, poor rental history, and a criminal background check. They can also insist upon not renting to smokers or to people with pets. (Landlords must allow service animals, though, as long as you can prove the animal’s service status.)

  • You’re expected to pay a non-refundable deposit.

    Seeing the term “non-refundable deposit” when you’re apartment hunting is a red flag. A security deposit is always refundable unless there are documented reasons not to refund it. What might not be refundable is a fee. Some landlords might charge a move-in, cleaning, or pet fee. In those cases, check the landlord tenant laws of your state (on your attorney general’s website or by contacting your local housing authority) to find out what fees are allowed.

  • Your landlord retaliates against you because you made a complaint.

    This is one of the most uncomfortable illegal landlord actions. Your landlord cannot raise the rent, harass, or evict you or do any other negative thing because you complained about something.

    If the landlord does retaliate, first, document the behavior in any way possible. Save emails, voicemails, or take photos or videos if you can. Then, talk to them about it if you feel comfortable doing that. If that doesn’t stop the issue, send a certified letter explaining the problem, noting that you have evidence, and what you expect to happen.

    If the issue still isn’t resolved, you may need to move on to small claims court. While most states have anti-retaliation landlord tenant laws on the books, what those laws cover is not always the same, so check first before moving forward with legal action.

    Once everything is going great with your landlord, you might look for ways to make your arrangement even better—like paying rent online. Here’s what you need to know about paying rent online, including how to get your landlord on board.