Know Your Tenant Rights

Understand your rights if you rent a house or apartment

By Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on August 1, 2022

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You have important basic rights as a tenant if you rent an apartment or house.

Landlord-tenant laws at the local, state, and federal levels protect tenants from safety and health problems, discrimination, and being taken advantage of by landlords.

If problems come up during your lease, it is essential to know your rights as a tenant to resolve issues effectively. This article will go over tenants’ different rights and responsibilities when renting a property and how to resolve disputes with landlords when they come up.

Sources of Tenant Rights

Where do your tenant rights come from?

Landlord-tenant law covers “an extremely broad category of things. The source of landlord and tenant rights depends on the context,” says Nevada real estate attorney Terry A. Moore.

Your lease agreement is one immediate source of rights and responsibilities as a renter, and you are obligated to follow the lease terms.

But what if there are illegal provisions in the lease? Do those provisions bind you? And what if your landlord engages in illegal practices against you?

Federal, state, and local laws protect tenants against illegal landlord activities. Let’s look at some of these sources of law, beginning with the lease.

Written Lease

“In the vast majority of cases,” says Moore, property rental is based on a written agreement. Most likely, you will review and sign a written lease agreement when you rent an apartment, house, or condo.

While leases vary in their specific contents, they typically address the following topics:

  • Names and contact information of the tenant and landlord
  • How many people will be living in the rental unit
  • Lease terms stating if the lease is month-to-month or for a fixed period of time (for example, six months or a year) as well as move-in and move-out dates
  • Options for renewing the lease
  • The cost of rent, when rent is due, and who is responsible for payment
  • Security deposit and late fee information
  • When landlords can enter the premises (for example, to make repairs)
  • Who is responsible for maintaining smoke detectors

When reviewing your rental agreement, check for illegal clauses. These are things landlords can’t legally require. For example, landlords can’t:

  • Say they can force you out whenever they want
  • Claim your entire security deposit no matter what
  • Deny responsibility for necessary repairs
  • Prohibit service animals

If there are provisions like this in your lease agreement, it is a good idea to speak with a landlord-tenant lawyer.

Federal Law

In terms of fair housing, “most of those rights are [both] federal and state law-based,” says Moore.

At the federal level, there is “the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is made applicable to landlords through the Fair Housing Act.” At the state level, “many states have implemented their own policies and procedures and statutory frameworks concerning discrimination in housing,” says Moore.

The federal Fair Housing Act protects renters from various forms of discrimination in the application process. Landlords cannot reject applicants on the basis of their race, gender, familial status, religion, or national origin.

Tenants who believe their landlord has discriminated against them can file a complaint with their state’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The HUD office will investigate and take action against the landlord if there was discrimination in the application process.

Tenants also have the option to file a civil lawsuit against the landlord for discrimination. It is always a good idea to speak with a qualified attorney before pursuing any type of lawsuit to ensure you are set up for success.

State Law

State law is another important source of tenant rights and responsibilities. State landlord-tenant laws address a wide range of issues, including:

  • Limits on how much a security deposit can be
  • Written notice requirements for landlords to raise the rent, enter the premises, or terminate a lease
  • The reasonable time for making repairs
  • The eviction process

“Safety and habitability issues are primarily a matter of state law… and are based on a state-by-state determination,” says Moore. For example, Nevada has “a statute that pertains to landlord-tenant law and sets forth many of the rights and privileges and obligations of the parties.”

“If somebody is a participant in the federal Housing Choice Voucher Program (HVCP), which provides subsidized housing for [eligible] people… then habitability is based on federal guidelines. The program entity that administers [HVCP] will conduct inspections to ensure housing quality standards are met.”

However, most cases don’t involve HCVP participants, so safety and habitability are handled at the state level.

Local Laws

Tenants also have legal protections at the local level through ordinances and regulations.

Housing codes are an important source of safety and health standards for rental properties, setting requirements on:

  • Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors
  • Ventilation and water damage
  • Roofing, plumbing, and electrical safety
  • Insect or rodent infestation

If you are having health or safety-related issues with your apartment or rental house, it’s a good idea to see if your landlord is violating the housing code.

Tenant Rights Issues

Some specific violations that often come up in the landlord-tenant relationship include:

  • Security deposit. Landlords can violate state law by charging more for a security deposit than the legal limit or by wrongly keeping your security deposit at the end of your tenancy. If you have failed to pay rent or caused property damage beyond normal wear and tear, your landlord can keep a substantial part of your security deposit. But there must be a legitimate reason to keep the deposit.
  • Quiet enjoyment. As a tenant, you have the right to enjoy your property without obstruction or intrusion from others. Landlords violate this right if they or their representatives enter your home without notice or good reason.
  • Uninhabitable premises. Tenants in nearly every state have an implied warranty of habitability, ensuring that the rental property is suitable to live in. Many issues could make a home uninhabitable, from mold issues to faulty plumbing.
  • Reimbursement. If you were forced to make necessary repairs that your landlord failed to make, they need to reimburse you.
  • Wrongful eviction. There are several legitimate reasons why landlords can legally evict renters, including nonpayment of rent, violating terms of the lease, or causing damage. They must follow the correct legal procedures for eviction if they have a legitimate reason.

Options for Resolving Disputes With Your Landlord

There are several options for dealing with a landlord:

  • Talk to your landlord about the problem
  • Write a demand letter explaining your problem, attempts to address the problem, and your plan to take legal action if they don’t quickly address the issue
  • Withhold rent if the landlord does not take action. “If the landlord” fails to act promptly, “the tenant is entitled to withhold rent. If the landlord then tries to evict them for nonpayment, the tenant then must deposit the money into the court–which is a requirement to show that the tenant actually had the rent and wasn’t using this as an excuse to not pay. Then [the landlord and tenant will] go to a court hearing where a judge evaluates the tenant’s complaint, what the landlord didn’t do, and will make a decision about whether rent should be abated,” says Moore.
  • File a lawsuit against your landlord. Where you do this will depend on the particular case you are bringing. Pursuing action in a small claims court is a good option if you are trying to recover money from the landlord. If you are pursuing a discrimination claim, you will pursue a lawsuit in civil court.

Drawing on his extensive experience as a real estate attorney, Moore says, “one of the most important things any tenant can do is communicate with their landlord promptly, honestly, and consistently.”

“Landlords aren’t in the business of evicting people,” he says. “They don’t want to evict people. They want people to live there, they want people to pay their rent, and they want to operate a nice place for people to live… If they can go without ever evicting somebody, that would be their preferred course.”

“If a tenant falls on hard times or has an issue come up, they need to communicate with their landlord… For example, if a tenant is trying to find a way to pay back a month they fell behind on, most landlords are going to try to work with them. But we do a lot of evictions because a lot of people don’t talk,” says Moore.

Questions for a Landlord-Tenant Attorney

Getting legal advice from a landlord-tenant lawyer is essential if you plan to take legal action against your landlord.

Many attorneys give free consultations to prospective clients. These meetings are an excellent resource for both attorney and client because they allow the attorney to hear the facts of the case while the client can determine if the attorney meets their needs.

The best way to decide whether an attorney is the right fit is by asking informed questions. Here are some good questions to ask during your initial conversations:

  • What are your attorneys’ fees?
  • What billing options do you offer?
  • Should I take legal action to address my problem?
  • What is the likelihood of success in a lawsuit?
  • What kind of court should I sue in?
  • What legal services do you offer?
  • Are there alternatives to a lawsuit I should pursue?

Finding the Right Attorney For Your Needs

It is essential to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can give you legal help for your entire case. You can visit the Super Lawyers directory and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location. 

For legal advice in suing your landlord, consider looking for a lawyer practicing landlord-tenant law.

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