“The rental housing market rebound is well under way.”
So declares a report issued by The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. Indeed: Roughly one in three American households are occupied by renters as of 2013, the last year for which figures are available.
For consumers, rentals are a convenient or economic alternative to home ownership. For property owners, rentals are a great way to generate passive income. But since you’re dealing with something as vital and intimate as a person’s home (even if it’s a temporary one), it’s important that parties on both sides of the lease understand their legal rights.
Landlord-tenant laws generally fall under the jurisdiction of individual states. However, many state laws are very similar in scope, so much so that renters and landlords throughout the U.S. should expect the following.
What's Forbidden To Landlords
1. Landlords can’t barge into a renter-occupied home without notice.
Although technically it belongs to them, landlords can’t just enter a renter’s place on a whim. According to many state statutes, they must provide at least 24 to 48 hours' notice if they wish to visit their occupied property. This includes the typical reasons a landlord would visit, such as making repairs or to show the property to prospective future tenants.
There are two exceptions to this: if there is an emergency (such as a fire or gas leak), or if the landlord has reason to believe the the tenant has abandoned the property.
Not all states have specific landlord-entry laws on the books, but renters might still be able to limit the landlord's visits by requesting his lease include a “covenant of quiet enjoyment.” See Understanding Property Deeds.
2. Landlords can’t lock or freeze out tenants.
A landlord generally faces an uphill legal battle if he or she decides to end the rental arrangement or end the tenant's occupancy before the lease expires.
Yes, a landlord may evict a tenant for many reasons, but he or she must go through the proper legal channels and give the tenant a 30-day notice. Landlords who abruptly lock a tenant out of the property without warning could be slapped with trespassing and/or burglary charges, and may fall within the definition of a retaliatory eviction.
Similarlly, turning off utilities could be seen as intentionally putting the tenant in danger, especially if the local climate is prone to extreme heat or cold.
3. Landlords (usually) can't charge more than the contract allows.
Once a long-term lease (a legally binding contract) is signed, there are very few circumstances under which the landlord can raise the rent. The only way the terms can be changed is if the increase meets predefined criteria in the lease itself.
Those criteria could include a new tenant joining the household; the purchase of a pet; or if the landlord significantly remodels part of the property.
Landlords may also increase rent if the property is located in a city with rent-control or rent-stabilized ordinances that permit such changes. These ordinances define the circumstances under which the rent of qualifying properties (usually older ones) can be changed, and by how much. Increases might be tied to the rate of inflation, for example.
4. Landlords cannot discriminate.
This rule comes from the feds. The Fair Housing Act, arguably one of the most important pieces of legislation to come from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, forbids anyone (including landlords) from refusing to rent to an applicant based on race, color, national origin, sex, familial status or handicap. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development acts as its chief enforcer. See What The Department of Housing and Urban Development Does.
For example, as a landlord you cannot advertise your property as being for “Asians only” or “no children allowed” (yes, even families with children are protected under the FHA). Similarly, you cannot provide different terms or agreements for members of different protected classes than you do for other tenants.
The Bottom Line
Although landlords own a rental property, tenants have unique protections from discrimination, harassment, arbitrary rent increases and wrongful eviction.
Landlord-tenant laws are different for every state, but as long as landlords maintain the home and leave tenants in peace, and tenants respect the property and pay their rent on time, chances are that neither will have to consult local statutes – or complain to local authorities. For more information, see The Complete Guide To Being A Landlord and The Complete Guide To Real Estate Renting.