There are dozens of reason why people rent living space rather than buying it. Maybe it's a financial matter, like you've just gotten a new job and you can't afford to buy right now. Maybe you like living in place where you have little or no costs or responsibilities for maintenance and repairs.

Regardless of the reason, and whether you're a first-time or long-time renter, you might be surprised to learn about some of the rights and responsibilities of tenants, with respect to things like:

  • Security deposits
  • Maintenance and repairs
  • Giving your landlord access to the home

Many of your rights and responsibilities, as well as those of landlords, are controlled by the laws of the state where the property is located, so be certain to check the laws in your area, or get some help from a real estate lawyer, before you sign a lease.

Security Deposits

Of course, your primary responsibility to your landlord is to pay rent-failure to do so can result in your eviction. Most, if not all landlords, will require you to pay a "security deposit" when you sign the lease. This deposit not only helps to make sure that you pay the rent, but also that the landlord doesn't have to pay for any damage you cause to the premises.

If you damage the premise or don't pay your rent, the landlord can take all or part of the deposit to pay for it. But, if deductions are made, you must be given a detailed list of what and for how much the deductions were. Deductions are usually allowed for things other than normal wear-and-tear, like holes in the walls and carpet burns. Also, you're entitled to a refund of the deposit shortly after the lease ends, usually within 30 days.

Protect yourself. Before signing the lease, walk through the home with the landlord and make a list or take pictures of visible damage. That way you can't be charged for damages you didn't do.

Your Privacy vs. Landlord Access

When you pay rent, you are paying for the exclusive possession of another person's property as your dwelling. Along with that exclusive possession is the right to quiet enjoyment of the land, meaning a right to use the land as your dwelling without the intrusive interference of the landlord, that is, a right to privacy.

Of course, there are limits. In most states, your landlord must give you let you know beforehand, at least 24 hours in advance, when and why he or she wants to enter your premises. Usually, the landlord can enter, with notice, for things like:

  • Making a repair
  • Seeing if a requested repair is needed
  • Showing the home to a prospective tenant

Typically, your landlord can enter without consent only for things like an emergency, such as a fire or flooding, or after you've given permission to enter.

Regardless of why he or she wants to enter, the entry must be at a reasonable time. That is, unless it's an emergency or you've consented, your landlord shouldn't try to enter late at night or on a holiday, for example.

Maintenance and Repair

Generally, the landlord has to keep the premises "habitable," or livable, that is, you have to have structurally sound roofs, adequate heat and water-hot and cold-and safe electrical systems. It's not your responsibility to fix or maintain them. In many states, if your space needs such a repair and your landlord refuses or fails to fix it, you can pay someone to fix the problem and deduct the cost from your rent. Be certain to check the laws in your area because some states don't allow this and in those that do, there's usually a limit on how much you can pay for and deduct.

Finally, it's your responsibility to keep your premises clean, such as vacuuming the carpet and disposing of your trash. Day-to-day maintenance is typically addressed in the lease, such as who's responsible for mowing the lawn and shoveling snow.

Safety

Generally, your landlord has to protect you from foreseeable criminal conduct of thieves and even fellow tenants. Adequate and operational door and window locks, for example, are usually all that's required. Of course, if you see security risks, ask the landlord to fix it. Most landlords don't want to run the risk of being sued because it was easy for a thief to enter your home.

Also, you have the right to be safe from injury caused by the conditions of the premises. So, a landlord can't hide or conceal defects from you, such as placing a carpet over weak flooring, or in some cases, not advising you about lead paint in the house. And, he or she might be liable if you're hurt because of negligent repairs, like inadequately securing a hand railing for your steps.

Insurance

Although it's not required, it's a good idea to get renters' insurance to cover your personal property, like your clothes and TV, in case the home is damaged or destroyed by fire, for instance. The landlord has no responsibility to cover you, and any insurance he or she carries will cover the building only.

Pets

Generally, your landlord can bar you from keeping pets on the premises, or he or she can charge you more rent than other tenants if you want a pet so that he or she won't have to pay for pet-related damages. An exception is if you have some disability that requires a "service animal." If you're blind, for example, the landlord would be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as well as many state anti-discrimination laws, if he or she prevents you from having your "seeing eye" dog on the premises.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • How much security deposit can a landlord charge me?
  • Is there a limit on how much I can "repair and deduct" if my landlord continually refuses to fix my furnace?
  • I think my landlord has been entering my home without my permission while I'm away at work. Is there anything I can do?
  • My landlord won't fix my furnace. Can I move out early, or can he keep my security deposit?
  • One of the reasons I chose my apartment is because of its "no pet" policy. I just learned that a new tenant is moving in; she's blind and has a service dog. Doesn't the landlord have to protect my rights? Can I break the lease without losing my security deposit?

Tagged as: Real Estate, Landlord and Tenant Law, tenant rights, tenant responsibilities