Building owners can impose restrictions on tenants, but signing a lease does not mean giving up all your rights. Federal laws provide basic protections to most tenants, and many states offer additional tenants' rights. Certain types of rentals are exempt from most federal regulations, including:

  • Those owned by private organizations, including religious groups, renting to members
  • Senior citizen housing
  • Owner-occupied buildings with up to four units
  • Single-family houses, although non-discriminatory advertising rules do apply

Discrimination

When making rental decisions, landlords may not take into account: - Race - Religion - Nationality - Sex - Age - Family status, including having children or being pregnant - Disability, either physical or mental, including addictions. This extends to helper animals, even if the building otherwise has a no pets policy, because these animals are not pets.

Landlords cannot use any of the above factors to: - Evaluate applicants, including setting different qualifications for different groups - End a tenancy - Refuse to rent to individuals who otherwise would qualify - Provide different levels of services

Denied application

If your rental application is denied, the landlord has to tell you: - Why - What type of negative information contributed to the decision - Where negative credit information came from

You also have a right to submit a written request to receive any negative credit information, which the landlord has to supply "within a reasonable time." The law does not specify how much time is reasonable or how detailed the information needs to be.

Habitable premises

In other words, the building must be fit to live in. Most states do not allow landlords to make you waive this right. A habitable building is safe and free from problems like: - Bad wiring - Holes in the floor - Heating problems - Serious structural issues - Pest infestations - Lead-based paint, although more than half of rental buildings still contain some

Timely repairs

Your landlord must also keep the building habitable after you've moved in, which means keeping up with basic repairs. If this doesn't happen, you also have the right to take matters into your own hands. Depending on your local laws, you may be able to: - Withhold a portion of your rent - Make the repairs yourself and deduct it from your rent - Break your lease without penalty

Privacy

Ownership of the physical structure does not give a landlord the right to enter your living space without good reason, which may include: - Prior permission from you to do maintenance, repairs, etc. - Emergencies, like fire, flood or gas leak

Many states regulate how much notice your landlord must give before entering and in what situations notice is not necessary.

Fair security deposit rules

The security deposit should generally be the same for all tenants and anyone asked to pay more has the right to know why. States may also regulate: - Upper limits on deposits, which may vary based on things like age, pets or length of lease - The timeframe within which the landlord must return your deposit after you move out - How much interest, if any, the landlord must pay on your deposit

You also have a right to know how your deposit was used, if you don't get it back. Legitimate expenses related to your use of the unit include repairs or cleaning beyond normal wear and tear, or unpaid rent.

Fair eviction procedures

In most cases, you landlord needs a legitimate reason to evict you, such as: - Your lease has expired and either you or your landlord has chosen not to renew - You have violated your lease agreement in some way, including not paying rent

In these cases, your landlord must give you notice, usually in writing, stating a reason for your eviction and when you must leave (often within a week). The notice will also tell you what, if anything, you can do to be allowed to stay. In those limited circumstances where your landlord can evict you without cause, you are entitled to a longer time to leave, often 30-60 days, so that you can find another place to live. If you choose to fight eviction, your landlord has to follow the correct procedure in order to legally remove you. He or she must: - File a lawsuit - Serve you with both a copy of the complaint and a summons

You will have a chance to present your case in court, if you want to. For example, you can explain that you withheld rent to make needed safety repairs. If the court upholds the eviction, you still have rights. Your landlord has to arrange for the sheriff's office to escort you off the property, and the sheriff's office has to notify you in advance of when this will happen, giving you one last chance to leave on your own. In 2009, President Obama signed legislation protecting tenants of foreclosed buildings. It entitles them to stay for 90 days after foreclosure or through the end of their lease. Some local laws prohibit foreclosure evictions entirely.

An expectation of safety

Landlords bear some of the responsibility for keeping tenants safe. Some states even hold them liable for tenant injuries due to criminal activity on their property, if they could have reasonably prevented it. At a minimum, you should expect basic safety measures like locking doorknobs and deadbolts. In high crime areas, landlords may be required to provide additional measures, like security systems with alarms on common entry points, in order to avoid liability. Keep in mind that lease terms you don't like aren't necessarily a violation of your rights. Make sure you understand your lease and check into the laws on any terms you find questionable. Sign only when you know the terms are legal and you can live with them.