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Renters Should Know Their Rights

  • When you rent a home or apartment, you’ll (usually) be required to a sign a lease. A lease can be short and simple or contain several pages of fine print. Many renters make the mistake of signing a lease without reading it carefully, and that can lead to some unpleasant surprises in the future.


    Before you sign a lease, or enter into a verbal lease agreement, it’s important to be aware of your rights. While landlord-tenant laws may vary from state to state, generally, tenants are entitled to the following rights:


    Freedom from discrimination – Federal fair housing law forbids landlords from discriminating against anyone due to color, disability, familial status, national origin, race, religion, and sex. Those seven categories are known as “protected classes,” and some states have expanded fair housing laws to include additional classes (such as gender identity). Landlords can’t ask any questions about one’s class status, nor can they express a preference for renters of a certain class.


    Privacy – Most states have a statute that affords a certain degree of privacy to renters. It’s a good idea to do a quick Google search about what privacy law – if any – applies to renters in your state. If there is no such law on the books, look for language in the lease that describes the process for accessing property. Just make sure that either the lease or an existing law protects you from an invasion of your privacy.


    A habitable property – Generally, the law requires landlords to repair major defects that pose a health or safety risk (a broken door lock, a leaky roof, or a malfunctioning furnace, for example). They also should correct major defects as soon as possible; and if you have to vacate the property because of the defect, or while repairs are underway, your landlord should provide with you some form of financial relief (such as covering the cost of a hotel or pro-rating your rent).


    Due process – An eviction is a legal process, so your landlord can’t show up on your doorstep and demand that you leave immediately. Landlords must provide a written notice of eviction to tenants, and state law defines how soon after that a tenant must vacate the property. Any lease you sign should clearly explain policies regarding rent payment, late fees, grace periods, and at what point the eviction process would begin. A lease should explain all grounds for eviction (such as illegal use of the property).


    Return of security deposit – Most landlords require a security deposit (and in some states, that deposit cannot exceed a specific percentage of the monthly rent). If you live in a property and cause no damage and owe no rent or other fees at the end of the lease, you are entitled to a refund of your deposit – perhaps with interest, depending on where you live.


    Landlords cannot keep any portion of your deposit to cover the wear-and-tear of everyday life, such as worn carpet. Ideally, your landlord should do a walk-through of the property with you before you sign your lease and at the end of your lease. If on the initial walk-through you notice obvious damage, make sure the landlord either repairs it before you sign the lease or includes language in the lease that the damage pre-existed your tenancy.


    In the final walk-through, your landlord should point out (and subsequently note in writing) any damage you may have caused. Your landlord is entitled to use your security deposit for repairs, but not to withhold an unreasonable amount.


    Doing some quick research on landlord-tenant laws in your state, along with carefully reading your lease before signing, can help you avoid legal hassles.