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What to know about renters' rights

Find out about your rights as a renter of property
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State and federal laws give renters rights. Your rights start the moment you start looking for somewhere to rent and don’t end until you get your security deposit back. They also apply whether you’re renting a house, an apartment, or other dwelling.

Your rights and the lease agreement

A lease agreement outlines the responsibilities of both you (as the renter) and your landlord. As such it also protects your rights.

Many lease terms and sections are standard:

  • The date range of your tenancy
  • The amount of rent, when it’s due, and late fees, if any
  • Additional fees, like security deposit and last month’s rent
  • What repair and maintenance your landlord is responsible for
  • Any limits on how you may use the property Sometimes a lease contains terms that could cause problems for you down the line. Examples may include automatic rent increases or your advance agreement to any future rules the landlord may put in place.

You have the right to ask the landlord to take those items out of the lease before you sign it, although they may also refuse.

However, once signed, the lease becomes legally binding. You must both live up to its terms. If one of you breaks the terms, the other can take legal action to enforce it.

Renters’ rights and security deposits

It is standard for landlords to require a security deposit from renters. It helps protect them if you damage the rental or leave without warning.

However, there are rules about collecting and using it:

  • Many states limit the amount of a security deposit
  • Your state may require landlords deposit the money in a separate account and/or pay you interest on it
  • When you leave, your landlord can use the money only for certain things and must send you an itemized statement of how it was used
  • Any unused amount must be returned to you within a reasonable amount of time, as defined by your state
  • You can help ensure you get your whole deposit back by documenting the condition of the apartment before you move in and again after you leave

Landlords’ maintenance responsibilities

Tenants’ rights include the right to a livable apartment or house:

  • It should be safe, clean, and meet building codes
  • Windows and door locks should work
  • Water, appliances, and toilets should work
  • The roof must be sound If anything major breaks, the landlord should make repairs quickly.

Landlords’ right to enter

Because renters’ rights also include rights to privacy, your landlord has a limited right to enter your unit. Your landlord must let you know when someone will need access to your rental for any reason, including making repairs you have asked for.

In most cases, you must give permission before anyone can enter. Emergencies are an exception.

Fair Housing Act protections

The federal Fair Housing Act and its amendments make it illegal for landlords to discriminate, either before or after you sign a lease, for any of these reasons:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Familial status (includes pregnant women)
  • Age
  • Disability or handicap
  • Gender This means, for example, that landlords can’t state a preference in ads or have different rental policies based on any of these factors.

If you believe you have been discriminated against, you can file a complaint with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Some states and municipalities have their own laws that may add other protections.

Renters’ rights during eviction

Landlords must have a good reason to evict you, and they must follow strict rules for doing so.

Each state has its own procedures, but in general, the landlord has to terminate your tenancy before starting eviction proceedings. You’ll get a written notice telling you what the problem is and giving you a choice of fixing it by a certain date or moving out.

If you ignore a termination notice, your landlord can begin eviction proceedings. This is a kind of lawsuit, so it involves sending you a summons and complaint through the courts.

However, landlords can’t just move your belongings onto the street. They must arrange for the sheriff’s office or other law enforcement office to escort you off the property. You should also get one last chance to leave on your own, before the sheriff shows up.

Renters’ rights vary somewhat by state, but the basic right to a livable home and privacy is consistent. You can help protect your rights by understanding your state’s laws and everything in your lease before you sign it.

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