Landlord-tenant laws have been established at federal, state, and local levels to protect both parties during the rental process. They are essential if landlords want to run a safe, profitable business with minimized risks. For tenants, these laws ensure their basic rights such as their right to privacy and the right to a safe environment are protected.
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.
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 guide state regulations.
Landlord-Tenant Laws On A Federal Level
There are a couple of major federal laws that all landlords and property managers should be familiar with. These include the Fair Housing Act and the Federal Credit Reporting Act.
The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination on the following factors: race, color, national origin, religion, sex familial status, or disability. The Fair Housing Act extends beyond the actual lease process and also prevents landlords from marketing their properties to certain groups of people.
The Fair Credit Reporting Act dictates how 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 the information contained on the credit report was the basis for denial or adverse action.
Landlord-Tenant Laws At A State Level
Generally speaking the laws at a state-level concern practical matters. For example, the rights and responsibilities of tenants and landlords, what terms and conditions should be or are allowed to be set out in the lease, and how evictions should be handled.
State laws might also specify rules around accepting and handling deposits. For example, in some states, there are limits on the maximum amount of a deposit as well as laws outlining things like whether they can be commingled with other funds and the process for using deposit funds.
1. Discrimination and The Fair Housing Act
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 all actions or policies apply to everyone (with supporting documentation), and cannot be construed as affecting some people but not others.
The Fair Housing Act prohibits you from discriminating against applicants or residents based on any of the seven protected classes:
The Fair Housing Act establishes only the minimum protections. States and localities may set additional protected classes, such as the source of income — whether a person’s income is from a job, alimony, child support, unemployment, welfare, disability payments, and so on.
2. Lease Document Laws
Providing a legally binding lease agreement and other paperwork (such as notices) is a key responsibility. The lease agreement especially is important if you want to enforce any of the terms of the renal. These documents must abide by local and federal 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.
landlord tenant laws documents
3. Required Disclosures and Notices
In addition to federal disclosures such as lead-based paint disclosure, several states require landlords to disclose information about some or all of the following:
Lead paint disclosure. Before signing any contract landlords must disclose any known information concerning potential lead-based paint hazards, must provide purchasers and lessees with a lead hazard information pamphlet, and must include specific language in the lease or contract related to lead.
Environmental hazards. For example, mold, asbestos, bedbugs, methamphetamine contamination, periodic pest control, and more.
Flood zone location or flooding liability.
Any additional and non-refundable fees such as pet fees (where such fees are allowed).
The smoke detector location and maintenance requirements.
The nearby military ordinance, such as a US Army base
4. Provide a Safe Living Environment
The implied warranty of habitability requires that landlords provide residents with living space that’s fit for human occupancy. The rental unit must be in a safe and habitable condition.
The property must be structurally sound and be properly supplied with plumbing, water, and heating. Landlords must also maintain clean and sanitary buildings and grounds — free of debris, filth, rubbish, garbage, rodents, and pests.
Additionally, 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.
5. Repairs and Maintenance
Throughout the tenancy, the property must be maintained properly to ensure it remains habitable.
Tenants are responsible for general maintenance like cleaning, disposing of waste, and removal of mold due to dampness (though not mold caused by structural issues). Additionally, they are responsible for reporting any repairs that need doing as outlined in the lease agreement. Landlords are responsible for responding whenever a maintenance issue is reported and organizing the repair work to be done in a timely fashion.
If a rental unit is uninhabitable, residents have the right to withhold rent until the necessary repairs are made or, in more serious situations, terminate the lease.
6. Managing and Handling Security Deposits
It is standard practice for the lease to specify a security deposit amount to be collected before the tenancy begins to cover any potential damages or lost rent. Every state has a security deposit statute that typically specifies the following:
How the deposit should be held – usually in a separate interest-bearing account.
When the security deposit can be used and what for. Eg. unpaid rent and damages beyond standard wear and tear etc.
How long the landlord has to return the deposit after the move-out date.
Whether the landlord needs to supply an itemized invoice for deductions from the security deposit and how to record evidence.
7. Right to Privacy
Tenants have the right to enjoy living in their rental property without disturbances. This essentially means two things for landlords.
First, landlords are not allowed to enter a resident’s unit whenever they want. Rather they have the right to enter in an emergency (eg. the apartment is on fire), after having been permitted by the tenant (eg. to do a requested repair), or when doing routine inspections or showing the property. Apart from in the case of an emergency, landlords must give adequate notice. This is normally at the least 24 hours before entry.
Secondly, landlords have to take action to investigate complaints if other residents or neighbors are causing a disturbance, and when reasonable take action.
abandoned property landlord tenant laws
8. Dealing with Abandoned Property
If a tenant leaves items behind after they move out the landlord must treat the item as abandoned property, which means they have to go through the following process. First, notify the tenant of how they can claim the property, inform them of the storage costs if storage costs are applicable, and specify how long they have to claim the property.
If the property remains unclaimed and is above a certain value the landlord may sell it through a public sale. If it is worth less than the value as specified by the state the landlord can either keep it or throw it away.
9. Dealing with Criminal Activity Within A Rental
When a landlord becomes aware of illegal activity happening within their rental property they must report it to the authorities. This criminal activity could range from drug production and use. Landlords, as the property owner, are responsible for protecting the neighborhood, and not reporting it could result in them facing a variety of legal issues and fines.
10. Managing Evictions
Evictions are unfortunately sometimes necessary. Every state has specific laws that regulate the evictions proceedings, but there are a few standard rules. In general, a landlord can evict a tenant for the following reasons: non-payment of rent, failure to vacate after the lease agreement expires, violation of provisions in the lease contract, the damage is caused to the property resulting in a significant decrease in the properties value.
Before beginning the eviction process most states require the landlord to give the tenant a notice which generally allows time for the tenant to rectify the situation or to vacate the property voluntarily before a lawsuit is filed.
If a landlord does still need to go through eviction proceedings after the notice is given they cannot turn off essential utilities like electricity, water, or gas, nor can they attempt to physically remove them themselves. Instead, they must follow the legal proceedings to the letter. Failing to do so could result in the eviction ruling going against the landlord and the landlord not being able to remove the tenants, potentially for months, even though they aren’t paying rent.
Landlord-tenant laws vary widely from state to state and sometimes even from city to city. On top of this, they often change. Because of this it is recommended to revisit and update your lease routinely and to seek legal counsel from a licensed professional to ensure you stay on the right side of the law throughout the tenancy period.
This article is not intended as legal advice and shouldn’t be construed as such. If you have questions about the landlord-tenant laws, please contact an attorney in your state.