Do You Rent? Know Your Rights as a Tenant

by Alex J. Coyne

Just because you rent does not mean you need to be at the mercy of a bad landlord. Make sure you know your rights as a tenant as well as the landlord’s right. Here are the ins and outs of rental rights.

If you aren’t buying your housing, it’s likely that you’re leasing or renting instead. And this can come with a lot of associated issues when there’s a disagreement or issue with your landlord. What does the law have to say about things like rental deposits, who is responsible for repairs and what you can do when you start to feel like you’re dealing with a slumlord?

Landlord issues are common, and it’s vital to know what your rights are if this has come to describe the situation you find yourself in. Some of them are federal and apply everywhere, while some legal situations mean you have to check which state you’re in.

Here’s the essential information about rental rights and what to do.

Federal Laws and Laws by State

There are some federal laws that apply everywhere when you’re leasing a property, including the Fair Housing Act and the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

  • The Fair Housing Act protects people against discrimination based on factors like their income status, religion, disability or race. In effect since 1968, it means that a landlord is not allowed to refuse a sale or lease because of any discriminatory reasons.
  • The Fair Credit Reporting Act allows for a landlord to conduct a credit check on any prospective tenants under certain controlled conditions, and usually only with permission from the person they’re doing the credit check on.

Other rental laws can and might differ depending on which state you’re in. Check your local state laws when it comes to your legal question. It might not be the same everywhere. Landlordology.com has a handy guide of state rental laws that allows you to check the specific laws in your state.

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Security Checks: Moving In and Moving Out

A “security check” is also sometimes called an inspection, and it’s an important process to go through before officially renting or leasing a property. This is done with the landlord and prospective tenant present, and the security check establishes which condition the house or property you’re renting is in – both when you enter it for the first time, and when you leave it.

  • A security check protects both the tenant and the landlord against asking, “Who damaged what?”.
  • A security check can provide legal clarity in the event of a disagreement.
  • A security check protects both the tenant and landlord in the event that one party claims something was stolen or damaged.
  • A security check establishes whether any deductions can be made from the deposit.

When doing a security check with your landlord for the first time when moving in (or the last time when moving out), remember that it’s always best to have it in writing, and where possible, with photo or video documenting the walk-through.

Security checks aren’t required by all states, but are recommended, and can make a dispute much easier to deal with (or prove) in court.

Rental Deposits

Rental deposits (also sometimes called security deposits) are usually equal to one or two months’ rent, although can sometimes be more than this in states where there is no cap on the rental deposit amount. Deposits are applied (usually by the landlord) to fix any damages caused by the tenant after they move, and the remaining balance is then paid over to the tenant.

Usually, landlords are required to return a rental deposit within a certain amount of time if there are no legal deductions from the amount.

How long the landlord has to make their deductions and return the deposit varies by from one state to another. Some things to note:

  • A landlord can apply the deposit to fix damages in certain circumstances, but only when there is relevant proof of what was done and why.
  • Only damages directly caused by the tenant that wasn’t there to begin with can be counted as legal deductions – normal “wear” doesn’t count.   
  • A landlord has to refund the deposit to the tenant within 30 days if there are no deductions made.
  • If you still owe in rental payments by the time you move, some applicable states allow for a landlord to keep an amount of the deposit to cover money owed.

Paying Rent

It’s always a tenant’s obligation to pay rent, even when you find yourself in disagreement with the landlord. Rent has to be paid on the date agreed to in your contract, although some states (like Texas) grant a grace period.

Here, factors like the grace period – and the extra charges – will vary from state to state. Some states don’t have the grace-period in effect at all. In most cases, this is stated in your legal contract.

Landlordology.com has a listing of different states where grace periods are allowed (or not).

Grace periods and late fees vary by state.

When it comes to paying rent:

  • Always settle your rental on the agreed date. Not doing this can only result in legal trouble later on.
  • If you notice that your rental payment will be late, speak to your landlord instead of ignoring the issue. Compromise can be possible and many times an agreement can be reached.
  • Don’t withhold rental payments unless you are very sure that you’re within your legal right to do so.

Withholding Rent

Texas law (and some other states) allows for tenants to withhold rent, but only under very specific circumstances. Usually, this is only done for certain repairs, and only for repairs that would constitute a danger to the tenant if it were not fixed immediately.

Only some states allow for what’s called “repair and deduct” laws. For which ones do or don’t, you can check this list on Nolo.com.

Legal Eviction

Eviction is a complicated issue, and depends on several factors including the terms of your individual lease agreement and whether or not your rental is paid.

Some things to know about the eviction process:

  • For a legal eviction, a landlord in Texas has to issue the tenant with a 3-day notice that allows for them to correct the breach of contract issue or the late rental payment.
  • From there, a landlord is required to lodge an eviction application through the courts.
  • If the terms that are being violated by the tenant are corrected, then the tenant can apply to have the eviction application dismissed. For example, if unpaid rent is paid in full according to the contract terms.

 Usually, your landlord is not allowed to simply evict you. And certainly not without a valid, legal reason and the right legal process. But this doesn’t stop many landlords from trying. If you’re stuck in a situation with a slumlord, approach an attorney first, or speak to your nearest court official.

 The amount of eviction notice that a landlord has to give varies by state.

Do You Need a Lawyer?

When a disagreement arises with your landlord, it can be a tricky legal situation, especially if you have to face it alone when your landlord either doesn’t understand or doesn’t respect the law. Handling it alone can even be dangerous.

An expert attorney can help. And if you can’t afford a lawyer, there are many options out there for free or reduced-cost legal help for anyone in need of it.

Reviewed October 2019

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