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Tenant's Guide to Renting

As a tenant, you can protect yourself by knowing your rights and obligations. In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about renting and the documents you may need for an enjoyable tenancy.

Essential documents for tenants

These are our top documents that tenants use every day to sublease spaces and interact with landlords.

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Step 1

Commercial Sublease Agreement

A Commercial Sublease Agreement is used when the original tenant wishes to transfer the remaining lease obligations under a commercial tenancy to a su...

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Step 2

Sublease Agreement

A Residential Sublease Agreement is used when the tenant transfers property rights over to a third party, known as a subtenant, for the remainder of t...

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Step 3

Tenant Notices

Tenant Notices are given to a landlord by a tenant, and include Notice of Intent to Vacate, Notice of Termination, and Notice to Repair.

Last Updated December 22, 2023

Whether you're moving into your first place or getting ready to move out of a long-term rental, knowing how to protect yourself as a tenant is essential.

This guide will walk you through everything you need to know about renting. We explain renter's rights, tenant notices, landlord disputes, evictions, subletting, and ending your lease.

By understanding your rights and obligations as a tenant, you can protect yourself in uncertain rental situations.

Your rights as a tenant

Even if you find the seemingly perfect place to rent, rental situations can sometimes become less-than-ideal. Luckily, you have many rights as a tenant that protect you when things with your landlord take a bad turn.

Although some tenant rights are federally mandated, they're mostly overseen by state and local governments. Therefore, the exact details of tenant rights can change depending on your jurisdiction. A few states have laws that are more favourable for landlords than tenants. However, most jurisdictions protect tenants in the following areas:

1. Habitability

You should never have to put up with uninhabitable living conditions. As a paying tenant, you have a right to safe and livable housing. Your landlord is responsible for ensuring the property's habitability throughout your entire lease.

Of course, repairs and maintenance are unavoidable. However, landlords have an obligation to fix the issue quickly when they do come up.

Your right to safe and livable housing requires your landlord to comply with your state's housing codes, fire codes, and earthquake requirements. Your state's housing codes may dictate that residential buildings meet the following criteria:

  • Walls, roof, ceilings, foundation, stairs, and floors are structurally sound and safe
  • Electrical, heating, plumbing, drainage, and ventilation systems are operating properly
  • Smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, and fire extinguishers are present within the rental unit and functioning
  • Appliances, lighting, and fixtures are installed correctly
  • All spaces are sanitary and free of any pest infestations
  • Entry doors and windows are lockable
  • Water is safe for consumption

If there isn't a term in your lease that mentions habitability, most jurisdictions still uphold this right as a baseline for all tenancies. The guarantee of having a livable space is referred to as the "implied warranty of habitability." This guarantee is implied, so it does not have to be explicitly mentioned in a lease.

Furthermore, even if your landlord is giving you a great deal on rent, the property still cannot be in inadequate condition.

2. Privacy

No matter how friendly your landlord is, they have to respect your boundaries. Tenants have a right to privacy. A right to privacy means you control who enters your home and when they can enter. In addition, this right prohibits your landlord from harassing you or misusing your personal information.

Your right to privacy prevents your landlord from:

  • Entering your rental unit, or allowing someone else to enter, without providing you with adequate notice and obtaining your permission
  • Sharing the personal information you provided in your rental application or lease with unauthorized parties
  • Showing up or calling you at your place of employment, unless you have given them permission to do so
  • Visiting or inspecting the rental property too often without a valid reason

Of course, landlords do have valid reasons to enter their rental properties from time to time. They may have to conduct a routine inspection, repair something, or show the property to prospective tenants if you're moving out. Furthermore, they may have to hire a repair person or inspector for an issue in your unit.

However, your landlord's right to enter their rental property does not outweigh your right to privacy. There must be a balance between both of your interests. When your landlord wants to enter the property, they must have a valid reason to enter your property and give you reasonable notice.

Besides having a right to your own physical privacy, you have a right to control access to your personal information. Any information that your landlord collects from you should be kept confidential. Additionally, the Fair Credit Reporting Act allows you to control your information during a credit check. Under this act, your landlord must get your permission to run a credit check and tell you which credit reporting agency is conducting the credit check.

3. Non-discrimination

Discrimination is never okay. As an applicant and tenant, you have a right to be treated fairly, without discrimination. In the United States, there are multiple anti-discrimination laws. For example, the Fair Housing Act prohibits landlords and other housing providers from discriminating on the basis of:

  • Age
  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Sex
  • Disability
  • Familial status

The Fair Housing Act also prevents landlords from advertising their rental properties to only certain groups of people. Keep in mind, a landlord can still refuse you as a tenant without it being discrimination. A landlord can legally deny your rental application if you have poor credit or won't be able to pay rent.

If you think you have been discriminated against while renting or applying to rent, you can file a complaint with the FHEO (Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity).

4. Security deposit

No one likes paying a security deposit, but it's an unavoidable part of most rental agreements. Usually, landlords require tenants to pay a security deposit before they move into a rental unit. When you pay a security deposit, it does not automatically belong to your landlord. Instead, they hold it until the end of your tenancy and either return it or use it to cover unpaid costs and damages.

However, tenants have rights when it comes to unfair expectations surrounding security deposits. These rights protect tenants by creating provisions around the following areas:

  • Maximum amount: Some state and local governments limit the amount a landlord can collect for a security deposit.
  • Allowable deductions: States have varying rules for what a landlord can deduct from a security deposit at the end of a tenant's stay. Allowed deductions may include unpaid rent and utilities, cleaning and repair costs, compensation for losses, and more.
  • Time limits for return: All states require landlords to return security deposits to tenants within specific deadlines. Generally, states require landlords to return security deposits within 14 to 60 days.

State laws vary widely regarding security deposits. To further understand your rights as a tenant, check your state's laws.

5. Transparency

When renting a home, you have a right to transparency from your landlord. Often, landlords are privy to a rental unit's history. Therefore, they have a responsibility to inform you of certain things before you sign a lease. Generally, your landlord must inform you of the following:

  • If the rental unit has had bed bugs in the past year
  • If the rental unit has or had any mold or asbestos issues
  • If any fees are nonrefundable
  • If the rental property is under foreclosure
  • If there has been a death in the rental unit

Additionally, federal law dictates that if a building was built before 1978, landlords must warn tenants about the risk of lead-based paints being on site. If your landlord fails to disclose lead-based paint hazards, they could be charged a penalty.

How to use tenant notices

Regardless of how seamless your tenancy is, you'll eventually need to notify your landlord of something. When doing so, you should use an official tenant notice to give written notice to your landlord on matters such as breaches of lease terms or your intention to end your lease.

It's essential that you document certain issues and create a record of when you have provided notice. If you have to pursue legal action against your landlord or if your landlord pursues legal action against you, having a paper trail supports that you've acted fairly and given adequate notice.

In an ideal rental situation, you may only have to create one of the following notices during your entire tenancy.

Notice to Repair

Whether it's a leaking dishwasher or a burst pipe, something in your rental will probably need fixing eventually. When something in your rental unit requires repair or maintenance, you should contact your landlord and inform them of the issue. Ideally, they will prioritize the repair and either fix it themselves or hire a contractor.

However, sometimes landlords drag their feet and do not deal with issues in a timely manner. Waiting for an important repair, such as fixing the heating, can negatively impact your way of life. If your landlord isn't fixing a repair after you bring it to their attention, document the date and details of your interaction with a Notice to Repair.

A Notice to Repair documents the fact that you've properly notified your landlord that the rental unit is not being maintained properly and they are breaching your agreement or state legislation.

Notice of Intent to Vacate

Clear and upfront communication is always best. If you don't intend on renewing your lease at the end of your lease term, provide your landlord with appropriate notice. A Notice of Intent to Vacate is a written statement you give to your landlord that informs them that you will not be renewing your lease, and you intend to move out of the residence.

If you're deciding whether you want to move out or renew your lease, it's important to review your lease and understand your obligations. If you decide that you want to move out of your home, you'll have to send your Notice of Intent to Vacate within the period stated in your lease. Landlords can require anywhere from 30 to 90 days' notice.

Termination Notice

Use a Termination Notice when you want to give notice to your landlord that you have elected to terminate your lease prior to its stated end date. Remember, you cannot terminate a lease due to any reason. The following reasons are generally permissible:

  • Your lease is a periodic tenancy (e.g., month to month)
  • Your landlord failed to repair the property within a reasonable time after you delivered a repair notice
  • You are in the military and have been called for duty
  • You are moving to a seniors' home.

What a landlord can and cannot do

Like tenants, landlords have various rights and obligations that govern how they can and cannot act during a tenant's application process and tenancy.

During the application process

Although landlords cannot discriminate against you, they still retain the right to select their own tenant. When you are applying to become a tenant, a landlord may not select you because of one of the following reasons:

  • You don't agree to the landlord's lease terms
  • Your previous landlord gives you a poor review
  • You have a poor credit score
  • You won't consent to a background check
  • You lie in your Rental Application
  • You are bankrupt
  • You have a criminal history.

During your tenancy

Thankfully, most states have numerous laws that protect tenants during their tenancy. These laws ensure that landlords cannot:

  • Prevent you from entering the rental property
  • Evict you without providing you with adequate written notice
  • Retaliate against you when you complain about something
  • Refuse to make necessary repairs
  • Force you to complete repairs
  • Conceal certain conditions of the property
  • Ask invasive questions
  • Remove your personal belongings from the property.

Although you have many protections as a tenant, landlords still retain the right to control their property and seek solutions when you breach your lease terms. For example, your landlord has the right to:

  • Enter your property to conduct an inspection or make a repair (they must provide you with notice)
  • Collect rent on time
  • Pursue an eviction if you don't pay your rent or break the lease terms
  • Increase rent if there are enforceable terms in the lease
  • Require a security deposit at the beginning of a tenancy
  • Restrict you from subleasing your rental unit (with exceptions).

What to do if you're having problems with your landlord

Even the best of tenants can end up with a landlord that isn't as ethical or proactive as they would like. For example, your landlord may refuse to fix a repair, show up at your home unannounced, or attempt to evict you unfairly.

Here are some possible solutions for common issues tenants face:

  • Landlord won't repair something: If your landlord doesn't repair something after you've informed them, it is considered a breach in the "implied warranty of habitability." Courts typically allow the following courses of action:
    • You can repair the problem yourself and deduct the cost from your next rent payment
    • You can withhold rent until they fix the issue
    • You can file a complaint with state or local health or building inspectors
    • You can move out
    • You can sue them
  • Landlord invades your privacy: If your landlord continually invades your privacy, you can document the dates of the invasions, move out, or file a lawsuit and seek damages. Additionally, you can use a Cease and Desist Letter to demand that your landlord stop the harassment.
  • Landlord won't refund security deposit: If you moved out of a rental unit and caused no damage, but your landlord won't return your security deposit, you can write them a Demand Letter, file a claim in small claims court, or sue them and seek damages.

How eviction works

Landlords have to follow a proper procedure when evicting a tenant. Even if you owe your landlord money, they cannot throw you out without following the appropriate guidelines.

How can a landlord evict a tenant?

Luckily, landlords can't impulsively evict you whenever they feel like it. However, that doesn't mean you are immune from eviction if you break your lease terms and your landlord takes appropriate action. Generally, your landlord can evict you by following these steps:

  1. If your lease expires or you violate your lease terms, your landlord gives you written notice to remedy the violation or move out.
  2. If you don't remedy the violation or move out, your landlord pursues an eviction action with the court.
  3. The court rules on the case and authorizes a court-ordered eviction.
  4. Authorities forcibly remove you from the rental unit if you don't move out.

In most states, landlords must provide you with a written Eviction Notice anywhere from three to 30 days before they can pursue a court-ordered eviction action.

Usually, landlords can serve a notice by delivering it to any adult tenant of the property. It is important to know which rules apply to your situation. Contact a local Landlord/Tenant Advisory Board or a lawyer if you are unsure of your rights and obligations.

What if I'm unfairly evicted?

Landlords do not always act within the constraints of the law. If you are unfairly evicted, you may bring forth a wrongful eviction lawsuit against your landlord. Additionally, you may also file a lawsuit if your personal belongings are illegally removed from your home. If found guilty, a court may hold your landlord liable for damages.

How to sublease your rental

Sometimes, life happens, and you need to move out before your lease ends. In this situation, subletting can be the perfect solution.

A Sublease Agreement or Commercial Sublease Agreement allows you to rent out your rental unit to another tenant. In this situation, you are known as the sublandlord and the other tenant is known as the subtenant. Subletting your home may interest you if you relocate temporarily, permanently move cities, or move in with a partner.

As long as you have permission from the landlord, you can sublet any type of residential property, such as a house, condo, or apartment. Before assuming that you can sublease, check your lease's terms or talk with your landlord to see if subletting is allowed. In some states, your landlord may not be able to unreasonably deny your request to sublease.

A sublease does not invalidate the terms of the original lease. The sublease cannot exceed the length of time that you agreed to rent the property, as indicated in your original lease with the property owner.

You retain your obligations to the landlord, in addition to being liable for damages or lease violations by the subtenant. Both you and the subtenant should sign the sublease and keep a copy for your records. Additionally, attach a copy of the master lease to the Sublease Agreement or deliver it directly to the subtenant.

How to end your tenancy

Most rental situations don't last forever. Therefore, as a renter, you need to know how to end a tenancy.

Ending a tenancy at the end of a lease

If your lease is almost over, it's very easy to end your tenancy by providing the proper notice. If you sign a fixed-term lease and want to move out at the end of the term, use a Notice of Intent to Vacate.

Any tenant who plans to vacate a rental property once the lease term is up should use this form to inform the landlord of their intended departure. Depending on the rental terms, the tenant should ensure that they give the proper amount of notice.

Ending a lease early

Unfortunately, ending a lease early is not as simple as it sounds. You cannot terminate a lease for any and all reasons. For example, if you are halfway through a fixed-term lease and decide that you want to move to a bigger place, you cannot simply give your landlord notice and move out. Once you sign a lease, you are financially liable for the rent that you've agreed to pay.

However, if your lease is periodic, such as month-to-month, you can use a Termination Notice to inform your landlord that you'll be moving out. Additionally, if your landlord is breaching the terms of your lease and refusing to rectify issues, you can terminate your lease early.

Stay on top of your tenancy

As a tenant, you have to be your own advocate and protect your own interests. It's essential that you know your rights and use the proper documents when communicating with your landlord. By keeping a paper trail, you'll have proof of interactions and important dates if your honesty is ever called into question.

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