Signing a lease on a new apartment is usually a positive experience. Like all properties, though, rental units have the potential to come with common problems such as noisy neighbors, property damage, or even mistreatment or discrimination from your landlord. When any of these issues arise, it's important to know your rights as a tenant. Whether you are a new renter or have years of rental experience, here are a few things you should know and when to seek legal advice.
The Warranty of Habitability
One of the most fundamental rights granted to tenants is the right to a rental unit that is livable and secure.
“The warranty of habitability is an implied provision in all residential leases,” said Joseph Tobener, a partner at Tobener Ravenscroft. The provision might not actually be written in your lease. Even if it isn’t there, this warranty is granted by law.
“It guarantees that a tenant will be provided with minimum basic necessities, like working heat, code-compliant electrical and gas, proper plumbing, weatherproofing, and fully functioning appliances,” Mr. Tobener stated.
What is covered or not covered under the implied warranty of habitability varies some from state to state. Some states have specific laws defining the warranty of habitability. In others, the warranty has been defined by court decision overtime.
The Covenant of Quiet Enjoyment
The covenant of quiet enjoyment is like the implied warranty of habitability—it is a right you have whether it is stated in your lease or not.
You have the right to enjoy your property without being disturbed by a significant nuisance. If another person or business’s conduct makes it impossible for you to be in your rental unit or use it as intended, then you may have a legal claim.
Conduct that may breach the covenant of quiet enjoyment include crime on the premises, foul odors, excessively loud and consistent sounds, and harassment.
Your Right to Repairs
Because the minimum necessary condition of your rental unit is defined by your state law and your lease, you are entitled to request repairs. Each state has laws regarding when a landlord must make repairs and how quickly. Some counties and cities have local ordinances regarding this issue, as well.
When a landlord does not make necessary repairs, some areas entitle you to self-help. This also is known as repair and deduct, during which you pay for someone to repair the issue, and then you deduct the cost of the repairs from your rent. The process of how to use repair and deduct varies by state.
“It is very risky for a tenant to repair and deduct,” warns Mr. Tobener. “Landlords often issue three-day notices to tenants who withhold rent for repairs. It is much wiser to complain about the issue in writing and continue to pay rent.”
You are probably wondering what you can do if your landlord continues to ignore your pleas for repairs.
“If the written complaints do not prompt the landlord to repair, tenants should call their local department of building inspection to have the landlord cited for the dilapidation,” according to Mr. Tobener.
Your Right to Be Free From Discrimination
Under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), landlords cannot discriminate against you based on your race, ethnicity, nation of origin, disability, gender, religion, or familial status.
The FHA covers most rental housing, with the most common exceptions being four-unit buildings that landlords also live in and single-family homes rented by the owner without an agent.
If you rent an apartment in a typical apartment building, you are likely covered by the FHA and the landlord is prohibited from discriminating against you in regard to renting or refusing to rent to you, setting the terms of the lease, setting the amount of rent, denying repairs, harassing you, invading your privacy, evicting you, and much more.
Your Right to Privacy
When you rent an apartment or single-family home, you are entitled to privacy within that unit. The landlord is not allowed to come in and out of your apartment whenever they want. Instead, there are rules as to when a landlord can enter your apartment.
Landlords must provide a reasonable amount of notice before coming into your apartment or must receive consent to enter your apartment without notice. There are few exceptions to this rule, such as when there is an emergency or the landlord suspects you abandoned the premises.
Your state law determines what a reasonable amount of notice is and the exceptions to the notice requirement.
A common issue among renters is paying a security deposit and never getting it back, despite leaving your rental unit in good condition. How landlords must handle security deposits and fees depends on state law or a local ordinance. The rules can vary greatly from one location to the next.
Typically, there are limits on how much a landlord is allowed to collect as a deposit. The landlord may need to put the deposit in an account that accrues interest. When your lease ends, and you decide not to renew, your landlord can deduct the cost of repairs and unpaid rent from the deposit.
Many places require the landlord to document the repairs and their costs and then return the whole or remainder of the deposit within a certain period of time.
There are various reasons why a landlord can evict a tenant, including a violation of a lease provision, like not paying rent. However, many landlords choose to evict a tenant for an unlawful reason or attempt to evict a tenant without going through the proper process.
If you believe your landlord is kicking you out of your apartment without a legitimate reason, or your landlord failed to provide proper notice of the eviction, you may want to speak with a tenants’ rights attorney.
Can You Sue Your Landlord? Do I Need an Attorney?
Whether or not you can sue your landlord depends on whether the landlord violated your rights and you suffered an injury.
Ask yourself: Has it cost you money because you had to pay for repairs yourself, move, or have not received your security deposit? If the answer is yes, review your state and local law regarding the issue. If it seems the landlord’s conduct was not within their rights, then consult a lawyer.