Across the US, there are significant differences in the rights of tenants. For example, if you ask What Are Tenants Rights in Vermont? You would have a very different answer than if you were to ask, What are tenants rights in Arkansas? To further complicate things, there are federal and city regulations in the mix. So, how do you know what rights you have as a tenant?
What Are Tenants Rights? There are federal tenants rights which protect renters from discrimination either before, during, or after they are a tenant. In addition, every state has laws which give tenants rights in areas such as habitability, security deposits, evictions, and more.
All tenants should ensure they are familiar with their federal rights and those tenants rights afforded by the state in which they live.
What Are Tenants Rights?
As a tenant, your rights begin even before you read the ad for the rental. Landlords cannot discriminate against any particular type of tenant or class of tenants when they advertise a home for rent. Nor can they refuse to show the unit to someone, or rent it to someone due to something covered in the Fair Housing Act.
Once you become a tenant, there is specific federal and local law which covers a tenants rights. Let’s begin with the federal.
Federal Law Which Protects Tenants
This piece of federal law applies across the county. No state or local legislation should contradict the federal law, and if they do, Federal Law always applies.
The Fair Housing Act, Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968
This Act says that a landlord can not discriminate against any prospective, current, or previous tenant based on their:
- Race: Any attempt to limit the race or color of the tenants in a rental is illegal. This covers the refusal to show or rent an apartment, giving people different rental terms, etc.
- Gender: Landlords cannot refuse to rent to you on the base of the gender you are assigned at birth or the gender you later identify as nor can they refuse to rent to a transgender person.
- Family Status: For example, if you are in a same-sex relationship, you are pregnant or have children under 18
- Religion: Landlords cannot exclude a tenant because of their faith, nor can they choose to only rent to people of a particular religion or those who are not religious at all.
- Ethnicity: Some landlords have attempted to refuse homes to renters they perceive to be from a particular ethnic group. This is a distinct class of protection to cover the gaps left by race and country of origin.
- Country Of Origin: You cannot be asked about your country of origin, nor can you be refused housing because of it.
- Disability: A landlord cannot refuse to rent a unit to someone because they, or a member of their family, have a physical or mental illness or disability.
If you feel you have been discriminated against under the Fair Housing Act, you can contact the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and they will investigate.
The Right To A Habitable Home
Almost every state has what is known as an “Implied Warranty of Habitability.” This means that it is reasonable for a renter to expect their home to have basic services such as water and electricity, be free from dangers, unsafe, or unsanitary conditions such as bad wiring or an infestation of cockroaches.
Your landlord must also tell you if there is lead paint in a home.
This does not cover situations where there is a temporary issue which the landlord is attempting to resolve in a timely manner. Nor does it cover problems which are caused by tenant behavior which the tenant refuses to stop.
There are also regulations to prevent landlords using language in a lease which has tenants waive this right.
A Tenants Right To Privacy
Once your tenancy begins, the landlord’s property becomes your home, and as such, you have the right to expect privacy. Your landlord should not enter your home without first giving you notice, and they may do so only for a legitimate reason.
For example, there may be an annual inspection, a repair that needs to be made, or some other acceptable reason.
On the other hand, as a tenant, you cannot refuse entry to your landlord, providing they have given correct notice, and their need for access is reasonable.
This right to privacy extends to the storage of your personal information and any credit check which your landlord carries out. A landlord may not share this information with anyone unless they are legally compelled to- for instance, with a search warrant.
The majority of landlords ask that a tenant pay a security deposit when they sign the lease. This security deposit must be returned when the tenant moves out. The landlord also has a right to deduct individual costs from the security deposit before its return.
The majority of states have laws in place which limit the size of the security deposit requested and how quickly the landlord has to return it after the end of the lease. In addition, if a landlord deducts any amount from your security deposit, they must give you a written breakdown of the reason and the costs.
In addition, your landlord cannot charge different rents or ask for different security deposits for people in the exact same units that are rented out at the same time.
Your landlord is entitled to carry out a credit check, but they cannot demand your social security number. Many landlords will say they need this to carry out the check, but that is not so.
If your application to rent was turned down as a result of your credit check the Fair Credit Reporting Act says that the landlord must tell you that this is why you were turned down. They must also tell you that you may make a written request to discover what that information was.
Tenants With Disabilities
If you have a disability, your landlord cannot refuse to rent to you because of it. Not only that but they are required to make reasonable accommodations to your home to ensure it is appropriate for needs related to your disability. This includes things such as installing grip rails in the bathroom or installing a wheelchair ramp. This goes for existing as well as new tenants. If you become disabled during your tenancy, you can still expect reasonable accommodation from your landlord.
On the other hand, landlords are not required to make significant changes to a home or to undertake major remodeling work to accommodate your disability.
A tenant can be evicted if they break the terms of their lease. This could include failure to pay the rent, getting a pet if your lease does not allow it, or if you commit a crime on the promises.
Even if you have committed an act which entitles your landlord to evict you, your tenant’s rights, in most places, allows you to be told you are going to be evicted and give you a certain amount of time to fix the situation.
So, for example, if you failed to pay your rent, your landlord must give you a “Notice of Claim of Eviction” and give you a set number of days in which to pay-up. If you pay within this time limit, you are not evicted, and if you fail to do so, your landlord can go ahead with the eviction.
What To Do If Your Tenants Rights Are Breached
In the case of discrimination under the Fair Housing Act, you should contact HUD.gov, which is responsible for enforcing the legislation.
For all other issues around your tenant’s rights, your best bet is to contact a local housing or tenants rights organization. They will be able to tell you if your landlord has broken one of the local or State regulations. Then, if there is an issue which can be dealt with, either the organization will help you directly, or they will be able to put you in contact with someone who can.
Remember, just because you enjoyed certain rights in one state, doesn’t mean the rules are the same in another state. So don’t assume there is an issue that can be dealt with. Instead, seek expert advice.
As a tenant, you have rights and protections at both a federal and a state level. Finding out about the regulations in your state, and reading your lease carefully will improve your chances of enjoying a trouble-free tenancy.
About The Author
Geoff Southworth is the creator of RealEstateInfoGuide.com, the site that helps new homeowners, investors, and homeowners-to-be successfully navigate the complex world of property ownership. Geoff is a real estate investor of 8 years has had experience as a manager of a debt-free, private real estate equity fund, as well as a Registered Nurse in Emergency Trauma and Cardiac Cath Lab Care. As a result, he has developed a unique “people first, business second” approach to real estate.
This article has been reviewed by our editorial board and has been approved for publication in accordance with our editorial policy.