Renters' Rights

Answers to six questions you may have on tenants' rights

You're renting an apartment, and your landlord asked to stop by your place when you'll be out of town. What do you do? Or, you've reminded your landlord several times that the faucet needs fixed. What is your next step?

Even if you have a great relationship with your landlord, knowing your rights will help you understand how to negotiate with your landlord, should the need arise. And, no matter what state you live in, you have renters' rights on your side, especially when an issue arises.

We've compiled answers to some of the most common questions regarding renters' rights. As the number of U.S. landlords and tenants increases, these answers may be more important than ever to you and the people you know.

Q: What are my basic rights as a renter?

The following is a list of renters' rights that apply throughout the United States:

  1. The apartment or house must be clean, safe and meet state and local building, health and zoning codes.
  2. All appliances must work.
  3. Heat and air conditioning (if included) must work.
  4. The hot water heater and toilets must work.
  5. Doors must lock.
  6. The roof cannot have leaks.
  7. Windows cannot be sealed shut. You must be able to open them.
  8. Outdoor areas like porches or sidewalks to the building must be well lit.

Q: What rights do I have when my landlord wants to enter my apartment?

If maintenance or repairs need to be made in your apartment, your landlord has the right to enter, but he or she must tell you in advance. In addition, the visit must be limited to "reasonable" hours, unless it's an emergency situation. Your lease and local tenant privacy laws are good resources to determine when your landlord can enter your apartment and how much notice should be given to do so. If your landlord contacts you and asks to enter your rental on short notice and it's inconvenient for you, go ahead and ask for an alternate time.

Q: I'd like to make some changes to the apartment. Do I have that right?

Landlords are not obligated to make cosmetic changes to your apartment. If you would like to paint walls, install shelving or make other similar changes, contact your landlord for permission. If approved, get the permission in writing. Once you have approval, let the changes begin!

Q: My apartment could use a few repairs. Am I responsible for paying for them?

It depends upon the repair. If a repair is needed because of wear and tear, like a leaky faucet or loose floor tiles that become a tripping hazard, your landlord is responsible for making and paying for the fix. If you or a guest causes damage to an apartment or rental, it is up to you to pay for the repair. If you don't pay for the repair, your landlord has the right to take the cost out of your security deposit.

Sometimes, repairs are so minor they fall into a gray area. If you believe you need a repair, check your lease, local building codes or state tenant's laws to determine who would be responsible for the fix. If you need help finding this information, your local library may be a good place to start.

Q: What if my landlord refuses to make repairs?

If you ask your landlord to make repairs and he or she refuses, you have options:

  1. Write a letter to your landlord with the list of repairs. Putting it in writing gives you the opportunity to fully explain what needs to be done.
  2. If your landlord doesn't respond to your written request, you may try mediation to help you and your landlord reach a compromise. Check your community for low-cost or free mediation services.
  3. Contact local authorities to report any safety violations. If the repair is causing a hazard, it may be in violation of building codes. If so, the agency overseeing building codes will visit your apartment for an inspection. The agency will then contact your landlord or issue a fine against him or her.
  4. If all else fails, you may consider suing your landlord. This should be considered only if you have tried all other avenues, because obviously it may negatively impact your relationship with your landlord.

Q: I'm about to move out. My landlord says I won't get my full security deposit back. What are my rights?

Reasons for keeping all or part of a security deposit are often spelled out in the lease. In the case of security deposits, being proactive can help you get the best results.

Once you know you will be leaving, review your lease carefully. If you have any questions about expectations, ask your landlord what he or she wants you to clean and to what level. Do the carpets need to be professionally shampooed? If so, who is responsible for payment? Getting answers to these and other questions may mitigate problems later.

Once you've moved all of your household items out, make sure your now-empty apartment is free of damage and clean. (It should be as clean as or cleaner than the day you moved in.) Be present when your landlord does a final walk-through so you can address any concerns.

If you've already moved out and your landlord is refusing to return your full security deposit, ask why. If you did not follow the lease, it's likely you may not get the entire deposit returned.

But, if you believe you have followed the terms of the lease, repaired any damage and left the apartment clean but still do not receive your deposit, you may consider writing a letter to begin negotiating with your landlord. The letter should state your exact demands with your reasoning for making the demands. It should be direct but not offensive. If that does not work, you could file for damages in small claims court.

Start at the very beginning.

Renting a home or apartment can provide you with a great living arrangement. Landlord-tenant relationships can be very positive. Many disputes may be prevented by fully understanding your lease and your landlord's wishes before you move in. Make sure to do a walk-through before you sign the lease, know how to reach your landlord and ask many questions. The more you know before moving in, the more likely you will stay on good terms with your landlord. And, that makes it less likely you'll need to remind your landlord of your rights.

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