At its core, renting a house or apartment is pretty simple: You pay someone for the right to live on their property. But the realities of renting are vastly more complicated. Many laws are in place to protect renters as well as landlords. This guide will explain the rights and responsibilities of renters. We’ll also give you tips for handling situations that go awry.
Find Rental Housing Help
Nonprofit and government-sponsored counseling services are available in every state to provide advice on renting a home, credit issues, landlord disputes, low income housing and more. These agencies can help those who qualify find affordable housing, manage rent payments, maintain property and avoid eviction. Use this rental help search tool to find rental assistance and counseling in your area.
How to Protect Yourself as a Renter
Before Renting: Be Prepared
The rental process can be tricky. By doing your homework ahead of time, you can prevent headaches later on. Here are some of the important steps to take before renting a home.
Research the Landlord and Property
It pays to know what you’re getting into. If the property has hundreds of units and the landlord is a well-established company, a quick online search will likely find a wide range of tenant reviews. If the property is a single unit, you might have to dig deeper for feedback. You can also ask the landlord for references from current or previous occupants.
Negotiating with the Landlord
The landlord typically calls the shots, but you don’t necessarily have to agree to every term. You might be able to negotiate a few points, such as notice required for moving out, the size of the security deposit and even the monthly rent.
If the property is run by a property management company, you probably won’t have much room to negotiate the terms of the lease. Still it doesn’t hurt to try to adjust some of the terms. For example, the company might be willing to work with you on the rental price or the schedule for renewing the lease.
Understand the Lease
Always read the lease carefully and ask for clarification if there are any parts you don’t understand. The landlord or the landlord’s representative should be able to explain what a provision means or how it works. The last thing you want is to misunderstand something that ends up becoming an important issue later on.
Most states have laws that will require any lease provisions have to be in writing if they are to be enforced. Get any verbal agreements you make with the landlord in writing: It will make things easier for both of you in the long run. And don’t forget to make a copy of your lease and put it in the cloud or somewhere else you can retrieve it easily.
Property Inspection Walkthrough
Before you sign anything, take a close look at the apartment or house and document any existing damages. If you overlook anything, you might end up having to pay for it when you move out. Take photos with your smart phone and send your landlord a (cordial) email listing the damages. If you spot anything major, you might also be able to change units or negotiate down the monthly rent.
The Importance of Renter’s Insurance
The landlord probably has insurance, but it only covers his property—not yours. All your possessions, from clothing and electronics to family heirlooms, will almost certainly not be covered by your landlord’s insurance. That’s why you should consider getting renter’s insurance as soon as you move in. Renter’s insurance covers your property, especially against damage or theft, while it is located at the rental property. For more information about renter’s insurance, check out our renter’s insurance page.
Beware of Rental Scams
Rental scams are on the rise. And we’re not just talking about landlords who never give back security deposits. Increasingly, scammers are taking rent money and deposits for properties that they don’t even own. Remember that if something feels “off,” it probably is. In addition to listening to your gut, watch for the following scam warning signs.
The landlord is never available to show you the property.
The landlord claims that in order to prevent theft or vandalism, he can’t give you the rental property’s address.
The landlord is located outside the United States.
The rental ad is poorly written or has many typos and errors.
The landlord insists on untraceable forms of payment, such as a wire transfer or cash.
The landlord wants payment before you’ve been shown the property.
The rental price is too good to be true.
The landlord requires unusually large amount of upfront deposits, fees or rental payments.
The landlord is unusually motivated to rent the property to you.
This type of rental scam occurs when a legitimate rental advertisement is taken over by a scammer. Scammers hijack the ad by replacing the contact information of the real property owners with the scammer’s contact information. More audacious scammers may even hack the e-mail accounts of the property owners. If you see an unusually low price for a pristine apartment on Craigslist, for example, google the property address: You may find the real ad (with a much higher rent) pop up on another site.
A phantom rental refers to properties that aren’t available for rent. The property may not even exist. Any photos are likely of another house or apartment entirely. Phantom rental con artists will try to get a large deposit or rent from you before you ever see the property.
How to Report a Scam
Scams should be reported to multiple entities, such as the local police department, the listing service where rental ad was posted and the Federal Trade Commission. In cases involving actual properties, you should also contact the rightful owner.
During Your Time as a Renter: Know Your Rights
Tenant Rights & Responsibilities
Many laws are in place to protect tenants, but you have legal responsibilities, too. Those will vary depending on your state, but as a tenant, you will usually have the following rights and responsibilities:
The landlord may not discriminate against you on the basis of race, color, disability, sex, religion and national origin, or because you’re pregnant or have children under 18 living with you.
You have the right to a safe and habitable dwelling. You may legally be allowed to withhold rent if your apartment falls into serious disrepair and your landlord isn’t taking the proper actions. In California, for example, you may be able to withhold rent until your landlord fixes a leaky roof or broken door that you’ve brought to his or her attention. But you can’t stop paying rent for something like a leaky faucet. Before taking such an action, it would be smart to talk with an attorney. If you withhold rent when your house is legally habitable, this could be considered a breach of your lease and result in eviction.
In most states, when your lease ends and you continue paying rent, that automatically creates a month-to-month lease. That means you can’t be evicted without proper notice.
Some cities require that the landlord pay relocation fees or other compensation if you’re evicted because the apartment is being taken off the rental market or converted to a condo. In San Francisco, the Ellis Act — which allows landlords to go out of business — requires that tenants evicted under the act receive at least $5,894 each and $18,000 or more per unit.
In some states, the most the landlord can charge you before moving in will be the first and last month’s rent, a security deposit and the cost to change the locks.
Should the landlord decide that you should be evicted, you must be given a minimum amount of notice, usually 30 or 60 days.
You must promptly notify the landlord of any problems with the property, such as a water leak.
You must take reasonable steps to keep the property clean and sanitary.
You must pay the required rent until the end of the lease.
You may not inflict any damage on the premises.
Landlord Rights & Responsibilities
From some landlords’ perspective, landlords generally have more responsibilities than rights. If you’re a landlord, here’s what the law usually requires you to do:
Make sure the property remains safe, livable and up to code.
Carefully follow state rules for evicting tenants in violation of the lease; for instance, you can’t simply change the locks or remove the tenant’s property.
Provide a minimum amount of notice before refusing to renew a lease.
Limit the amount charged to the tenant for a security deposit.
Return the former tenant’s security deposit within a certain amount of time.
Keep the security deposit only if there is damage to the rental property other than normal wear and tear or if it requires excessive cleaning.
After Renting: When It’s Time to Move On
Whether you have a month-to-month or year-to-year lease agreement, you must provide adequate notice to your landlord on your intent to move. Although this varies by state, you typically need to give 30 days’ notice. You can move out before then, but if the landlord doesn’t find someone else right away, you’ll have to pay for the full 30 days after you give notice. Be sure to send the landlord a certified letter of your 30-day notice. Also, be aware that some leases are automatically rolled into a new lease if you don’t notify the landlord of your intent not to renew.
Most states have laws about security deposits. Landlords are usually required to return the deposit within a few weeks to one month after you have moved out. Additionally, if not all of the deposit is returned, it must be for a legally allowable reason, such repairs or cleaning costs. Some states also have laws that allow you to be present during the final property inspection before moving out so that you can address any issues that might result in the landlord keeping the security deposit.
Also known as a “rent to own” agreement, this lease gives the tenant an option to buy the property at a previously agreed upon price after a certain period of time has passed. In this arrangement, tenants usually have to pay an option fee or a premium in addition to fair market rent.
The advantage of a lease-to-own plan is that you have the opportunity to buy a home without making a large down payment or getting a mortgage. The disadvantage is that if you decide not to buy the property, you will forfeit the rent premium you had been paying. However, if the purchase does happen, the option fee or the rent premium will either be refunded or credited toward the purchase price.
For the property owner, a lease-to-own agreement can mean a steady cash flow. The disadvantage is that if the tenant decides to buy, the property owner is legally obligated to sell it to the tenant, even if a much more lucrative offer comes from another potential buyer.
Renter Protection Resources
The FTC explains some of the more common rental scams, as well as how to look out for them.
An extensive list and explanation of legal rights available to tenants when renting a home.
Lists each state’s applicable laws relating to tenant protections when living in a property that’s being foreclosed.
HUD provides resources for finding a comprehensive list of tenant rights for each state.
Nolo provides both a generalized and state specific overview of landlord and tenant rights and responsibilities.
Fair Housing Act
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) is a federal law that prohibits prospective renters and home buyers from being discriminated against based on color, race, religion, national origin, disability, sex and familial status. (A different law prohibits discrimination on the basis of age in housing programs that receive federal funds.) The FHA is enforced by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development.
|Red Flag: Illegal Housing Practice||What the Prospective Tenant Can Do|
Refusal to rent a property based on the prospective tenant’s race, gender, religion or any other protected class status.
Record what happened, including who was involved, any witnesses, when the discriminatory conduct happened, contact information of those who witnessed the incident and anything else of note.
File a complaint for FHA violations with HUD through its website or one of HUD’s local offices. If you think a local or state housing law has been violated, you can also file a complaint with your local housing authority. The National Fair Housing Alliance’s Find Local Fair Housing Assistance tool can help.
Consult an attorney to see whether a civil lawsuit might be warranted.
A housing advertisement discriminates against tenants of a particular race, gender, religion or family status or suggests an illegal preference for tenants belonging to a certain group. For example, the ad states that couples with no children are preferred or includes the phrase “no children or pets.”
Record what happened and obtain a copy of the advertisement and the identity and contact information of those responsible for the advertisement.
File a complaint with the applicable authority. For an FHA violation, you can file a complaint with HUD through their website or one of HUD’s local offices. If you think a local or state housing law has been violated, you can also file a complaint with your local housing authority.
A civil lawsuit might also be a possibility.
Using different standards for potential tenants. For example, a landlord might require prospective tenants with disabilities to have higher credit scores.
Record all details of what happened.
File a complaint with the applicable authority (see above).
Consider filing a civil lawsuit, if applicable.
Holding tenants of a particular race, gender, religion or other protected class to different standards or requiring them to abide by different rules. For instance, a landlord may try to require a higher security deposit for a disabled tenant.
Record what happened.
File a complaint with the applicable authority.
Get in touch with an attorney concerning the possibility of filing a civil lawsuit.
Evicting a tenant or otherwise terminating a lease through illegal discrimination – for example, evicting a tenant because the landlord is Baptist and the tenant is Catholic.
Record what happened.
File a complaint with the applicable authority.
Contact an attorney concerning the possibility of filing a civil lawsuit.
The landlord claims a property is not available for rent when it really is. An example: A property is advertised for rent, but when the landlord meets the prospective tenant and sees she is African American, he falsely claims the property has already been rented.
Record the incident.
File a complaint.
Seek a further investigation to be done through the use of “testing,” where a local housing authority will send fake prospective tenants to see if they are similarly discriminated against.
If you feel it’s warranted you can also decide to file a civil lawsuit.
A landlord refuses to rent to a tenant because of the tenant’s prior criminal record.
Discrimination based on criminal history is not prohibited under the FHA; however, some states, including Oregon, may have laws that prohibit this type of discrimination.
Should a violation of state or local law take place, you can file a complaint with the appropriate local housing authority. If you’re not sure who to report to, find local help using the National Fair Housing Alliance’s Find Local Fair Housing Assistance tool.
If you feel it’s warranted and the applicable state laws allow for it, you may also decide to file a civil lawsuit.
A landlord refuses to take reasonable steps to accommodate a tenant with a disability – for example, not allowing a blind tenant with a service animal to rent an apartment due to the “no pet” policy or refusing to install grab bars in the bathroom of a particular rental unit.
Record what happened, including all contact information.
Report the discrimination through HUD.
If you feel it’s warranted, you can also decide to file a civil lawsuit.
A landlord agrees to rent a property to a mother with small children, but falsely claims that she must agree to live in a particular area of the building, such as the basement, when there are other units available. This is an example of potentially illegal “steering.”
If you believe this has happened to you, record what happened, including all contact information.
A civil lawsuit is also a possibility; contact an attorney to learn more.
Fair Housing Resources
FHAF focuses on promoting housing design that accommodates residents with disabilities and is in compliance with the Fair Housing Act.
The NFHAO provides current news and assistance on all topics relating to housing discrimination.
The NFHA combats housing discrimination using a multipronged approach, including education and enforcing existing housing discrimination laws.
The Leadership Conference is an organization that advocates for improving human and civil rights, including in housing.
HUD provides victims of housing discrimination multiple avenues of filing a complaint, including submitting a complaint online.
Renting & Renter’s Rights: Expert Advice
Brian Davis is a real estate investor and co-founder of SparkRental.com, an online resource to streamline renting for tenants and property management for landlords. Here he offers valuable advice to renters on tenant rights and home rental negotiation.
What are the best things renters can do to create a great relationship with their landlord?
Renters can start by making a good first impression: showing up on time for the property showing, dressing respectably, being courteous as they meet the landlord and walk through the property. (Landlords should be doing all of these things as well.) From there, they should be responsive, returning phone calls and emails within a reasonable timeframe, and supplying all required documentation with their rental application. On a monthly basis, nothing will endear them more to the landlord than making their rent payments on time.
How is Section 8 housing different from other rentals?
Section 8 usually inspects the property annually to check for habitability. The inspector will demand certain repairs or upgrades, and the landlord must comply by law. (My personal experience has been that the inspectors will always list 7 to10 repairs, like clockwork, to show their bosses that they’re actually visiting each property on their list.) Beyond the right to an annual inspection, Section 8 renters have a right to advance written notice if the landlord will be discontinuing their participation with Section 8. The required notice may be as much as a year in advance.
What’s the best way to approach a negotiation?
Most landlords and most tenants are reasonable people, but the landlord-tenant relationship does not always align the interests of both parties. Landlords want to maximize their return on investment, which means the highest possible rent and the lowest possible repair/maintenance costs. Tenants want the lowest possible rent and the highest possible amenities and upgrades. Where legal rights end, negotiation begins: renters can negotiate for lower rent, or for included utilities, or for property upgrades, so long as they are prepared to offer something else in exchange.
Spotlight on Low Income Renters
For those who struggle to afford housing, some assistance is available. The biggest source of rental assistance is found at the federal level and consists of three primary programs: Housing Choice Voucher Program, Project Based Rental Assistance and Public Housing.
Housing Choice Voucher Program: This program provides vouchers to tenants to help pay for rental housing of their choosing on the private market.
Project Based Rental Assistance: The federal government subsidizes the rent for eligible individuals and families in specially designated rental properties that private landlords agree to reserve for low-income tenants.
Public Housing: The federal government offers subsidized rent to eligible individuals and families in housing that’s publicly owned and operated.
These federal programs are largely run by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. At the state and local level, each jurisdiction will have a department or agency tasked with operating its rental assistance program. For instance, the California Department of Housing and Community Development is responsible for financing affordable rental housing in California. For more information about each state’s respective housing authority, use HUD’s local Public Housing Agency search tool.
Numerous charitable and private organizations also provide rental and utility assistance to those in need. These programs vary depending on the location of those in need. However, a few organizations that provide rental assistance include Community Action Agencies, Catholic Charities USA and Lutheran Service in America.
In order to qualify for federal rental assistance, applicants must meet specific income requirements. Many federal programs require applicants to be either at 30, 50 or 80 percent of their local median income level. For example, to be eligible for the Housing Choice Voucher Program, a family’s income must not exceed 50 percent of the local median income in which they live. For public housing programs, the income limits may not exceed 50 or 80 percent of the local median income. In addition to income requirements, families or individuals must be United States citizens (or hold legal immigration status) and offer evidence that they will be good tenants.
Section 8 Housing
The Section 8 housing program, also called the Housing Choice Voucher program, provides federal rental assistance to low-income individuals and families. Qualified people receive vouchers to help pay for rent and utilities. Recipients can use the vouchers for whatever type of housing they want, as long as the property meets the HUD’s safety and quality standards.
Under this program, tenants will usually pay about 30 percent of their monthly adjusted gross income towards rent and associated utilities, with the voucher covering the remaining cost of the rent. Section 8 housing is in high demand, and many eligible families are denied Section 8 housing benefits because there aren’t enough available options.
In order to receive Section 8 housing benefits, you must apply with the local Public Housing Agency.
Low Income Housing Resources
Also known as Section 8, the Housing Choice Vouchers Program provides rental subsidies directly to landlords in order for tenants to be able to afford a specific rental property.
Provides contact information for low income housing options in a particular geographical area.
The NCSHA is a coalition of state Housing Financing Agencies that work together to provide affordable housing.
The NLIHC works to brings changes to laws and policies in order for individuals and families with low incomes to obtain affordable housing.
The Section 811 program provides financial assistance to extremely low income individuals and families who also suffer from disabilities.
Allows users to search for low-cost rental housing by state.