Laws pertaining to rental housing are established to protect both parties of the landlord-tenant relationship. Knowledge of and compliance with federal, state and local regulations is crucial for both landlords and tenants. Rental property owners want to run a profitable business and protect their investment. Tenants want to live peacefully in a rental home and protect their personal rights.
As a landlord, understanding your rights and legal obligations will help you protect yourself, your rental business and your investment property.
Federal Landlord-Tenant Laws
The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination due to race, color, national origin, religion, sex familial status or disability. The Fair Housing Act extends beyond leasing to include advertising, preventing landlords from marketing their properties to certain groups of people.
The Fair Credit Reporting Act dictates the ways in which a landlord may use a tenant’s credit history for screening purposes. Under this act, a landlord must get an applicant’s permission to run a credit report, provide information on the credit reporting agency used, and inform the applicant if information contained on the credit report was the basis for denial or adverse action.
States laws regarding rental properties and tenant rights typically concern practical matters. These include things like the rights and responsibilities of tenants and landlords, what terms and conditions can be set as part of a lease, lease termination guidelines, and how evictions must be handled. State laws can also dictate how much a landlord can charge for security deposits, how those funds can legally be handled, and how property managers must use trust accounts for rental income.
A Landlord’s Legal Responsibility
It is very important to become familiar with landlord-tenant laws specific to your state and city. Ignorance of the laws is no excuse and you can be sued for not obeying state laws, even if you were unaware of their existence.
Nolo provides a great starting point when conducting your own research on state landlord-tenant laws. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is responsible for regulations covering discrimination and other federal issues affecting your tenants. You can also check with your state real estate board or join a local professional agency for property managers or landlords who should be able to provide guidance on state regulations.
Here are some of the most important legal responsibilities landlords need to remember:
- Discrimination : Whether you are advertising your property, screening new tenants or setting apartment rules, make sure that you are in compliance with Fair Housing laws and that any actions or policies apply to everyone (with supporting documentation), and cannot be construed as affecting some people but not others.
- Legal Lease Document: Providing a lease agreement and any other legal paperwork is all part of a landlord’s duties. It’s your responsibility to ensure the rental contract is legally written and abides by all laws. Leasing periods, monthly rental rates and tenant names must be clearly indicated. In some jurisdictions, legal disclosures, such as security deposit details, must be included. The lease should also contain all appropriate clauses, such as advising tenants to purchase renters’ insurance.
- Disclosures : Many states require landlords to inform tenants of important state laws, individual landlord policies, or facts about the rental, either in the lease agreement or in another writing—typically before the tenant moves in. Federal law requires landlords to disclose lead-based paint hazards to tenants. Every state has different requirements, but common disclosures that may need to be part of your lease agreement could include – notice of mold, notice of sex offenders, recent deaths, lead-based paint disclosure, meth contamination or other potential health or safety hazards.
- Providing a Safe Environment: Another obligation is to make sure the rental unit is in a safe, habitable condition. The property must not have any serious deficiencies, and any supplied appliances, fixtures, plumbing and heating must be in good working order. The property must be free of insects and pests. Landlords are generally responsible for getting infestations under control, even if they occur after tenants have moved in, although in most states landlords can avoid this by specifying in the rental agreement that pest control is the renter’s responsibility.
- Refusal to make repairs : Tenants have the responsibility of reporting any repairs that need to be done. Landlords’ responsibilities include responding to these reports and completing repairs in a timely manner. A tenant may be within their rights to withhold rent money if a landlord fails to make a repair that affects the health or safety of a tenant, like a broken heating unit in freezing temperatures.
- Keeping Security Deposits : Most lease agreements require a tenant to pay a security deposit to cover damage caused by the tenant or if a tenant does not pay rent. A landlord can only keep security deposit funds that are used to cover default rent payments or fixing property damage. A landlord must provide the tenant with an itemized list of deductions and must pay the balance of the deposit back to the tenant. The failure of a landlord to provide an itemized statement or the failure to return the unused portion of the security deposit can result in the landlord owning more than the kept security deposit funds.
- Disregard to Privacy : Most landlord-tenant laws protect a tenant’s right to quiet enjoyment. — meaning they have the benefit of living in a home without being disturbed. Once a tenant has possession of a property, the landlord may not interfere with this right. It’s therefore the landlord’s responsibility to ensure he or she does not enter the rental unit without proper notice (usually 24 – 48 hours, except in emergencies). When a landlord enters the rental property, it must be at a reasonable time of day and for a valid reason.
- Mishandling of Abandoned Property :When a tenant leaves items behind after vacating the property, the landlord must treat it as abandoned property. The landlord must notify the tenant of how to claim the property, the cost for storage, where to claim the property, and how long the tenant has to claim the items. If the property remains unclaimed and it is worth more than a certain amount, the landlord may sell the property at a public sale. If the property is worth less than the state-specified amount, the landlord may either keep the property or throw it away.
- Allowing Criminal Acts to Take Place : If a landlord becomes aware of any criminal activity taking place in one of their rental units, they must report it to authorities. Illegal tenant activity could involve drug use or distribution or much worse. A landlord is typically responsible for protecting the neighborhood of the rental property from the criminal acts of his tenants and could be held liable or face a variety of legal punishments if illegal activities occur at the property.
- Safety Features: It is your duty to protect your tenants, to a point. In some jurisdictions, landlords must provide specific safety measures. These may include fire and carbon monoxide detectors, fire extinguishers, front door peepholes, deadbolt locks on exterior doors and window locks.
- Mishandling Evictions: Eviction is a legal action by a landlord to remove a tenant from a rental property. Every state has laws that regulate the eviction process. A landlord can evict a tenant for the nonpayment of rent, for the failure to vacate the premises after a lease agreement has expired, for a violation of a provision in the rental contract, or if the tenant causes damage to the property and it results in a substantial decrease in the value of the property. Before throwing out a tenant, a landlord must use the eviction process. Every state has different guidelines, but most require giving the tenant a termination notice before filing an eviction lawsuit. If the landlord attempts to remove the tenant without a court order, the tenant may recover damages for the landlord’s actions.
Landlord-tenant laws change often, so it is always a good idea to re-evaluate your rental business’s policies and seek legal counsel from someone familiar with landlord-tenant laws in your state in order to proactively address these potential issues before it is too late.