What Are My Rights as a Tenant?

Understanding Your Property Rental Rights

It’s risky not knowing your rights as a tenant before signing a lease to rent a house or apartment. Although you expect your landlord to be well versed in their obligations (and in turn, your rights and privileges as a renter), not all landlords are.
Without a basic understanding of your rights, you may be uncertain as to whether or not your landlord is following the proper procedures and could consequently find yourself in a negative rental situation.
This is why it is important to know your rights and privileges before signing the lease and what to do if your rights are infringed upon.

An Overview of Your Rights as a Tenant

As a renter, your rights include:
  • Viewing the unit and common areas to make sure the property fits your lifestyle and needs
  • Receiving a fair evaluation of your Residential Rental Application and being treated fairly by your landlord (and any staff) while you’re renting
  • Creating an Inspection Report with your landlord detailing the state of the property when you move in and using that report when you move out to determine how much of your security deposit your landlord can use
  • Occupying the property without being unreasonably disturbed by the landlord, property manager, any staff, or other tenants.
  • Ending the tenancy when your lease is up or by following certain legal procedures
  • Protection from unauthorized rent increases or evictions
These concepts are explored in more detail throughout this article.

Choosing an Apartment or House to Live In

Before signing a Lease Agreement, a renter should be given the opportunity to assess the unit, so they can be sure it meets their standards and needs.
The first and most important aspect to consider is whether the property is habitable, meaning the building and suite meet safety code requirements, is weather resistant, is free of pests or hazards, and has working electricity, plumbing, and heat.
If the place you’re considering renting lacks any of the aspects of habitability, you may want to move on to another property.
It is also important to make sure:
  • The rent is affordable.
  • Pets are allowed, if you have one.
  • The unit includes all the amenities and appliances you need such as a stove, refrigerator, washer, dryer, or dishwasher. Keep in mind, in some states, landlords are not legally obligated to provide appliances, including an oven or refrigerator, so it’s crucial to ensure the unit has everything you need before you sign the lease.
  • You’ve seen the unit in person. Although you may have seen pictures of the property, it’s important to see the rental in person, just in case the pictures were misleading.
It’s recommended that you visit your potential new home (or, at the very least, your possible new home’s neighborhood) on nights and weekends before making your decision, to ensure the area meets your expectations (such as noise level, safety, etc.)
For instance, say you find out there’s an obscure but loud nightclub next door just days after you’ve signed a one-year lease.
In this situation, the old contract adage, "buyer beware" or "caveat emptor" will likely apply (or the rental equivalent, "tenant beware" or "caveat lessee"). This essentially means the renter agreed to rent the property "as-is" when they signed the lease, unless of course the lease explicitly stated otherwise.
What this means for a renter is you need to research your potential new home to the best of your ability (a process called "due diligence") before signing a Lease Agreement.
That said, a landlord can’t withhold known information about the property if asked by a prospective tenant. So, if you asked if the surrounding area was noisy and the answer was "no", but that turned out to be false, you may have a case for the courts to handle.

Can a Landlord Refuse to Rent to Someone?

A landlord has the right to choose who gets to rent their property. However, renters also have the right to "fair housing" under the Fair Housing Act.
This means a landlord can’t refuse a prospective tenant based on:
  • National origin
  • Familial status (meaning whether or not they have children or are pregnant)
  • Disability
  • Sex
  • Religion
  • Color
  • Race
If you think your application was declined for prejudicial reasons or if you are experiencing discrimination by your landlord or property manager, consider filing a housing discrimination complaint.
Housing discrimination laws do more than prevent landlords from declining applications based on their own prejudices. They also prevent landlords from:
  • Lying about a unit’s availability
  • Creating distinct rules for certain tenants and not others (for example, asking for a higher security deposit from an applicant of a particular ethnicity)
  • Making discriminatory comments in advertisements for the unit, in person, by email, etc.
The right to be fairly assessed during the application process is essential to ensuring every person has an equal opportunity to housing. What’s more, the right to not experience discrimination when renting is crucial to creating a positive tenant experience.
Keep in mind, there are times where restrictions regarding certain protected classes are legal.

For example, a senior-only rental that doesn’t allow children might not be considered illegal even though it discriminates on the basis of familial status. Oftentimes, these communities are created or approved by the government and are therefore legal.

Creating an Inspection Report with Your Landlord

Once you’ve evaluated whether or not the unit and the surrounding area meet your needs, and you’ve decided to sign your rental contract, it’s time to create a Residential Rental Inspection Report with your landlord.
Creating an inspection report ensures that your deposit is used solely to cover repair costs for damages made by you and your house guests and not damages left by previous tenants, movers, cleaners, or even the landlord or property manager themselves.
To do a proper inspection, you should first make sure that your landlord has a suitable inspection report.
With the report in hand, walk around the unit with your landlord (ideally before you move in your furniture) and take note of any dents, chips, scratches, stains, etc. After the report is signed and dated by you and your landlord, keep a copy with your records.
Ready to inspect your new rental property?

Are Tenants Responsible for Repairs?

The question of whether the landlord or tenant pays for repairs in the rental unit (or if the damage should even be repaired) can be tricky, and it usually boils down to what the repair is and who caused the damage.
In most states, part of the landlord’s obligations to the tenant is to make repairs and maintain the property.
The property owner (or manager) is required to make sure the unit is habitable and continues to meet minimum building and safety standards. This means part of your landlord’s obligation is to pay the cost of repairs pertaining to habitability (such as plumbing or heating issues).
That said, damages made by you, other occupants, or your house guests (such as a hole in the wall or a notable stain in the carpet) are your responsibility. When the damage is your fault, repairs are paid for out of your security deposit, but landlords can only deduct repair costs if the damage goes beyond "ordinary wear and tear".
Ordinary wear and tear, also called "normal wear and tear", is any impairment made by normal activity that results in a loss of the property’s value.

For example, carpets are often worn in by simply walking around your apartment (i.e. a normal activity), so if the carpets need to be replaced for that reason, the replacement cost cannot be deducted from your security deposit.

It can be tricky for some renters, especially first-time renters, to determine what damage is considered ordinary wear and tear. If you’re unsure, be sure to review a more exhaustive description of what can be deducted from your security deposit or contact a local attorney.
When it comes to repairing or replacing appliances (like an oven or refrigerator), it depends if the appliances were included with your rental.
If appliances are included with the rental, then the landlord or property manager must fix or replace these devices, if needed. This is because the terms of the lease included appliances, so you (as a tenant) are paying to use these devices with each rent payment.
When you need maintenance assistance, you must:
  • Notify the landlord in writing using a Repair Notice.
  • Provide the landlord with a reasonable time to respond (in most states, you must provide the landlord with 14 to 30 days from the date of the notice to make the repair).
If the landlord does not respond within the reasonable time frame, you may be able to file a claim for breach of contract. You may also be able to end the tenancy using a Termination Notice.
You should never stop paying rent until a repair is fixed or use a portion of your rent payment to pay the cost of a repair.

Withholding rent is a breach of contract, which may give the landlord the legal authority to terminate your lease and evict you, regardless of your claims.

Do you need to provide your landlord with written notice?

Can My Landlord Charge for Pets?

If you have a pet, you may be asked to pay a pet deposit (usually when you provide your security deposit) or a pet fee (usually along with your monthly rent payments). This money is used to cover the cost of any damages caused by your pet.
The difference between a pet deposit and pet fee is that a deposit is returned to you if it isn’t used and a fee is not.
Some landlords may state their pet deposit is non-refundable. However, a deposit is a sum of money held for a particular purpose and then returned. If your landlord is charging a non-refundable pet deposit, you can contact your local housing agency (or a similar entity available in your jurisdiction) and discuss your options.

Can I Refuse Entry to My Landlord?

After you sign the lease and move in, your landlord is required to respect your privacy. However, this doesn’t mean your landlord can never enter your unit again without your permission.
There are plenty of reasons why your landlord may need to access your apartment or home, including:
  • To show prospective tenants or buyers the unit
  • To make repairs
  • To inspect the unit
  • To control pests
So long as your property manager or landlord provides you with a Notice to Enter (normally about 24 to 48 hours before entry, depending on your state), they can legally access your unit.
Note that your Lease Agreement may have a clause about providing notice, which could exceed the amount of notice required by your state’s law.
Remember, state laws prohibit landlords from entering your unit without adequate notice.
It’s a good idea to review your state-mandated minimums on notice and the terms of your Lease Agreement, especially if you think your landlord is failing to provide adequate notice before entering your apartment.
In an emergency, such as if a water pipe bursts, your landlord is not required to provide notice, so they can fix the issue quickly, before the unit undergoes substantial damage.

What is Quiet Enjoyment?

"Quiet enjoyment", also called "peaceful enjoyment", is a legal principle that establishes the tenant’s right to use the property undisturbed by the landlord, property manager, or any staff.
While the landlord can enter your rental (with notice), this principle prevents landlords from taking advantage of their right to enter and ensures:
  • The landlord only enters by following the proper legal procedure (i.e. providing a Notice to Enter 24 to 48 hours before entering).
  • The tenant is able to use their home however they wish so long as it is in accordance with the Lease Agreement (e.g. the tenant can cook whatever foods they wish to cook, play music at a reasonable level during reasonable hours, have house guests, etc.).
  • The landlord’s actions do not interfere with the tenant’s possession of the property (e.g. entering the property without notice).
In a rental situation, the tenant’s right to quiet enjoyment applies even if the rental agreement does not explicitly mention it.
The concept of quiet enjoyment can be misleading as it doesn’t involve your right to reasonable silence or the enjoyment of your property; it simply refers to your right to live in the property without being unreasonably interrupted.
In contrast, "nuisance" (an unreasonable act that interferes with a person’s enjoyment of their property) often deals with issues like noise or neglect. For instance, if your neighbor has a band practice at 4 a.m. every morning despite noise ordinances.
Determining if your situation is a matter of quiet enjoyment or nuisance hinges on the details of your circumstance and how it’s interpreted by a court. Regardless, know that through one of these two principles, your freedom to use and enjoy your property is protected.

Can My Landlord Raise My Rent?

There are two different types of Lease Agreements you can choose from, a fixed term lease or an automatic renewal lease, and your type of lease dictates when and if your landlord can raise your rent.
It’s recommended that you decide which lease that works best for your situation before signing any agreements.
Fixed Term Lease
A fixed term lease is when you agree to rent the property for a specific, pre-defined time period (e.g. from October 1 of this year to September 30 of the following year). The lease term can vary but most are six months or one year.
With this type of lease, your rent stays the same for the duration of your tenancy unless a clause in your agreement explicitly states otherwise. When your lease ends, you and your landlord have the option of signing a new agreement.
At that time, your landlord can also increase your monthly rent payment by providing a Rent Increase Notice a month or two (depending on your contract and jurisdiction) before your lease expires.
Automatic Renewal Term Lease
An automatic renewal term lease, also called an automatic periodic term lease or a periodic tenancy agreement, can be weekly, monthly, yearly, or more. The periodic term (e.g. weekly, monthly, etc.) renews automatically unless either you or the landlord provide notice that the contract is ending. The notice period varies from state to state and may depend on your Lease Agreement.
With this type of lease, your landlord can increase rent by providing notice. The amount of notice your landlord needs to provide before they can legally raise your rent may depend on the terms of your lease (if it indicates a time frame) or your state’s laws.
Some states have specific rent controls that restrict when and by how much a landlord can raise your rent regardless of the type of lease you signed, so if your landlord raises your rent, be sure to check your state’s laws on rent increases.

Can I End My Lease Early?

You may be able to end a lease early in one of the following situations:
Asking Your Landlord
Both parties in a contract can agree to end the contract early. This means you can simply ask your landlord if you can move out before the end of your lease and they may say yes. They might also agree to an early lease termination in return for a fee.
If everyone agrees, you can end the contract hassle-free. Just be sure to acknowledge the end of your contract in writing with a Termination Notice (for a periodic tenancy) or Termination Agreement (for a fixed term tenancy).
Finding a New Tenant or Paying a Fee
If you mitigate the damages for your landlord (meaning you recover the cost he or she will lose from ending the contract early), you may be able to end your lease early.
In many states, landlords are prohibited from accepting more than one rent payment per unit. This means you may be able to find a new tenant to end your lease early. Keep in mind, the tenant will likely be required to pass a screening before they can assume your lease.
Alternatively, you might be required to pay a fee (which could equal to a month or more of rent), depending on your Lease Agreement or state laws. The purpose of the fee is to provide the landlord with enough time to find a new tenant.
Being Called to Active Duty
You can break your lease with notice if you are called for active military duty under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act.
In most states, you need to be deployed for more than 90 days and provide your landlord with 30 days’ notice of termination before you’re eligible to end your lease for military reasons.
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act also prohibits your landlord from evicting you, if you’re eligible.

Whether you’re eligible depends on how high your monthly rent payment is (the qualifying amount changes yearly). Those with expensive rent payments might not qualify for this type of protection.

Frustration of Contract
If an unforeseen circumstance occurs where neither you nor your landlord are at fault but changes your contract drastically, you may be able to end your contract with frustration of contract. For instance, if your neighborhood floods the day you take possession, your contract terms have changed because the property is no longer habitable.
Frustration of contract, sometimes called the doctrine of frustration, is essentially your right (and your landlord’s right) to get out of the contract if an abrupt change makes your contract unperformable.
Often, this principle is used in response to a natural disaster. For example, if you signed the lease and the building was demolished by an earthquake, frustration of contract would apply because the unit no longer exists.
Keep in mind, frustration of contract can only be used in select circumstances. It’s imperative you review your state’s contract laws or contact a local lawyer before attempting to end your rental agreement in this manner.
Providing a Notice of Termination
If your landlord is not meeting their obligations based on the Lease Agreement (such as failing to make repairs in a reasonable amount of time), you may be able to end the lease early using a Termination Notice.
Remember to review your state’s laws and your Lease Agreement regarding the amount of notice you need to provide your landlord before ending the lease early.

Can My Landlord Terminate My Lease Early?

With the proper notice and reason (meaning the termination is "with cause"), a landlord can terminate a lease early.
Your landlord may choose to do this if you are violating the terms of the lease in any way. For instance, your landlord may be able to terminate your lease if you are participating in an illegal activity on the premises or if you are ignoring rules related to the property, like bringing a pet into a no-pet home.
If you are not violating the contract, the landlord can only end the lease early if they’ve included a clause to that effect in the Lease Agreement.
Otherwise, in a fixed term lease, the end of your and your landlord’s contractual obligation is the date specified in the lease.
In a periodic tenancy, without a violation of the contract, the landlord must provide you with notice to end the lease early. The notice period varies based on your jurisdiction and the terms of your Lease Agreement.

Who Can I Report My Landlord to?

Negative rental experiences happen, and if you find yourself dealing with an ignorant, inappropriate, or unlawful landlord or property manager, you’ll need to contact your local housing agency or a similar institution available in your jurisdiction.
You could also warn others by submitting a review on a landlord-specific review site.
Remember, refusing to pay all or a portion of your rent in response to a landlord’s breach of contract is not an appropriate solution.

Non-payment of rent is also a contract breach, and your landlord may be able to legally evict you for that reason, even if you claim the non-payment is due to your landlord’s initial actions (e.g. failing to maintain your property).

If your landlord is not adequately maintaining your property, such as refusing to fix a faulty toilet, remember to provide them with a Repair Notice and enough time to respond to that notice (14 to 30 days).
If the repair is still not made in a reasonable time, then collect as much evidence as possible (e.g. photographs or videos of what requires repair, your notice or notices to the landlord, emails, etc.) and contact the appropriate housing authorities.

Signing Your Rental Agreement

Not every landlord knows what your tenant rights are or how to protect them, which is why you should know them yourself. Understanding your rights as a tenant and your landlord’s obligations to you helps ensure you find the best rental for your needs, get to live peacefully in your home, and are not taken advantage of by a naïve or unethical property owner.