Understanding Your Rights as a Tenant

Whenever a tenant makes an agreement with a landlord, he or she is required to sign a lease.

The lease you sign with your landlord will include a number of general rights you have as a tenant. However, these are not the only rights you have. There are federal and state laws that guarantee you certain protections even if they are not explicitly mentioned in your lease.

Not only are these rights always granted to you as a tenant, but your landlord cannot try to exclude any rights in your lease. Even if you sign a lease that tries to exclude one of your basic tenant rights, you are still entitled to that right.

Since there are so many tenant rights available to you, it is easier to list the different groups the rights fall under, as opposed to every individual right. Many of the rights focus on protecting you from discrimination, ensuring you have a safe and habitable home and the right not to be charged more for a security deposit than is legally allowed.

The Fair Housing Act

The Fair Housing Act guarantees you many of your most basic rights as a tenant. The basic purpose of the Fair Housing Act is to prevent landlords from discriminating against a tenant based on their:

  • Race.
  • Gender.
  • Religion.
  • Family status.
  • Disability or medical condition.
  • Ethnicity.

Under the Fair Housing Act, your landlord is unable to deny you an apartment based on any of the characteristics listed above. In addition, your landlord is not allowed to set any particular rules based on any of the previously listed criteria.

The Fair Housing Act also grants additional rights if you are a disabled tenant. Landlords are required to make reasonable accommodations or certain home improvements for any tenants with disabilities. This includes offering lower-level units to tenants who are in a wheelchair or installing any necessary ramps at doorways located on the property.

There is an exception for landlords who own a building that would require a major remodel to accommodate the disabled tenant. This is typically decided on a state-by-state basis, with individual rulings potentially changing depending on the state where you live.

It is important to note that the Fair Housing Act makes it so landlords have to treat all potential tenants equally. You cannot claim a landlord is violating the Fair Housing Act if he or she is unwilling to charge you less than the listed price for a property.

Reporting a Fair Housing Act Violation

Reporting a Fair Housing Act violation works a little differently than reporting a landlord for another reason. If you or someone you know has a landlord who violated the Fair Housing Act, you can file a complaint directly with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Once you file the report, a HUD agent will investigate your claim.

If the agent approves your claim, your landlord will have to present his or her case before a HUD administrative judge. During this process, a HUD housing specialist will represent you, so you are not required to hire an attorney unless you specifically wish to have an attorney present. If your landlord is unable to present an adequate defense, he or she will have to pay a fine, and the extent of the fine is based on whether the landlord has previously violated the Fair Housing Act.

Implied Warranty of Habitability

The Implied Warranty of Habitability is an implied promise that states that your landlord will keep your property suitable for you to live in. The actual warranty is open ended. Instead of listing all of the different business codes, the warranty simply states your landlord is responsible for making your home livable. For example, under the Warranty of Habitability, landlords are required to provide adequate heating and cooling, running water and electricity in your home.

It is important to note that tenants are responsible for informing their landlords about any issues with the property. If you feel there is something your landlord should provide or fix on the property you are renting, you should make an official request in writing. By making your request in writing, you create a paper trail to prove your landlord was made aware of the issue.

If your landlord refuses to address the issue, you can choose to sue the landlord in court. However, you should only do this in extreme circumstances where your landlord continually ignores the issue, or claims it is not his or her responsibility.

In most states, landlord responsibilities require them to give tenants up to two days of warning before entering the premise. However, a landlord is allowed to enter the property at any time if he or she is there to make an emergency repair to keep the property habitable.

Some issues are considered too small to be covered under the Warranty of Habitability. Issues like small holes in the carpet, torn window screens, dripping faucets or running toilets are typically not covered under the Warranty of Habitability. However, your landlord may be required to address these issues if they were specifically mentioned in the lease. If you are unsure whether an issue is important enough to qualify under the Warranty of Habitability, consult a housing agent or an attorney.

Security Deposits

Whenever you make a security deposit to your landlord, he or she must provide you with a receipt for the prepayment. This also applies if you pay for your last month’s rent. The receipt should include how much you paid, what the payment was for, the signature of the landlord and the date the payment was received. For the last month’s rent, the landlord should mention if you are entitled to interest.

Your landlord must return the deposit within a fixed period of time after terminating tenancy. In most states, this is 30 days. If the landlord claims there are any damages and says you cannot get back your full security deposit, he or she must provide a list of the damages, the repairs necessary to fix them and provide evidence of the damages and how expensive it is to make repairs.

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