Being a tenant entitles you to live or conduct business in a piece of property that you do not own. By signing a rental agreement or lease for that property, you are entering into a legally binding contract that defines the relationship between you and your landlord.

Before signing a rental agreement, make sure you fully understand your rights and responsibilities as a tenant. Knowing ahead of time what your landlord can and cannot do will prove helpful should you decide to sue a landlord who fails to meet his or her legal duties.

Legal Rights as a Tenant

As a renter, fair housing laws protect you from discriminatory and illegal activities at the state and federal levels. The Fair Housing Act prohibits discriminatory practices or advertising that excludes people on the basis of disability, familial status, nationality, religion, race or color. Owners, sellers, realtors, insurance agents, appraisers, apartment complex managers and any other individuals who work with the landlord must also comply with these conditions.

Generally, federal and state laws also protect tenants against:

  • Misrepresentation of the availability of an apartment or property
  • Refusal to rent to tenants with children under the age of six who have been diagnosed with elevated blood lead levels

Health and Safety

Most state laws assert that landlords are obligated to provide tenants with the right to inhabit a sanitary, safe and “habitable” building or unit. This means that the property must be free of pests and comply with health and safety regulations, which include equipping the property with proper heating, running water, plumbing, wiring and weatherproofing.

As a tenant, you have the right to complain to your state housing agency if your landlord violates these requirements. Generally, tenants have the right to obtain a court order if their landlord has not made necessary repairs within 30 days of receiving a written complaint. Within that 30-day period, the landlord must fix any conditions that negatively impact your health and safety as a tenant.

If the landlord fails to remedy the situation after receiving a written complaint, or if he/she charges you for repairs needed for safety or sanitation, a court can order the landlord to reduce or escrow your rent or even terminate your rental lease outright.

Rental Agreement, Security Deposit and Fees

You also have the right to bring legal action against landlords if they retaliate by threatening to evict you, to increase rent or to withhold renter services as stated in the rental agreement. Moreover, your landlord cannot raise the rent or modify the terms of the agreement during your leasing period without your written consent.

To ensure you receive your security deposit at the end of your lease, give your landlord a minimum 30 days’ notice in writing. Your landlord must return your security deposit within 31 days of you giving notice, minus deductions for property damage, early termination fees or unpaid rent.

Apartment Living

According to The Housing Council, tenants are entitled to privacy in their apartment based on the Covenant of Quiet Enjoyment. Although landlords are allowed to enter a tenant’s apartment with reasonable prior notice – usually 24 hours – they must do so at a reasonable time (e.g. between the hours of 9 a.m. and 7 p.m.). There are exceptions to this 24-hour rule, such as in cases of emergency, contractual obligations regarding property inspection and maintenance, or situations where the tenant has requested repairs.

After you sign the lease, landlords must give you the keys to the rental property on the date indicated in the agreement. Otherwise, the rental lease becomes null and void, and you are no longer obligated to move into the space at a later time. In this circumstance, the landlord must also return any security deposits and paid rent.

Obligations as a Tenant

Just as landlords must comply with health, safety and fair housing laws, renters must also uphold certain responsibilities as a tenant. For example, you must pay your rent on time and in full according to the requirements outlined in your rental agreement. If your rent is five or more days overdue, the landlord can charge a late fee as specified in the lease.

Typically, your obligations as a tenant also include:

  • Returning the property in the same condition as you received it, with the exception of normal wear and tear, at the end of your lease.
  • Conducting yourself in a manner that does not disturb or endanger your neighbors.
  • Refraining from seriously harming your landlord or the rental property.
  • Avoiding damage to smoke or fire alarms.
  • If you cause damage to the property, paying for the reasonable cost out of pocket or by having the landlord deduct the cost from your security deposit.

Ultimately, your landlord must have a legal and legitimate reason to terminate a month-to-month contract or evict you before the end of your lease. Before going to court, your landlord must give you written notice requiring you to pay rent within a specified time period – usually 72 hours – or to vacate the property. Failure to comply with the written notice can result in an eviction notice issued by a court of law.

You have the right to appear at the court hearing and challenge the eviction. If you fail to appear at court, law enforcement can forcibly remove you from the unit. You may also be responsible for paying the landlord’s court fees. Read more about what to do when you get an eviction notice here.

Additional Resources

Unfortunately, some renters who are unfairly treated and discriminated against by their landlord may not know where to get help. Luckily, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provides a state-by-state directory of HUD-approved counseling agencies that offer trained counselors who can guide you on how to file a formal complaint or even take legal action.

Any rental agreement you enter should clearly state your rights as a tenant and your obligations as required by state and federal law. Always read your rental agreement thoroughly and only agree to changes in writing to avoid a trip to claims court down the road.