Roughly one in three American households are occupied by renters as of 2020. That's according to a report issued by The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. Rentals are a convenient or economic alternative to homeownership for consumers. You don't have to worry about down payments or about qualifying for and paying a mortgage. Not to mention all the other issues about property taxes, homeownership fees, bills, maintenance, and upkeep costs. All you're responsible for is your rent and utilities if you have to pay them out of pocket.
For property owners, rentals are a great way to generate passive income. Even with the financial benefits, there are other things to consider. You have to put in a lot of time, money, and effort if you want to become a landlord. And since you’re dealing with something as vital and intimate as a person’s home—even if it’s only temporary—it’s important that everyone involved in the lease understands their legal rights.
Landlord-tenant laws generally fall under the jurisdiction of individual states. But since many state laws are very similar in scope, tenants and landlords throughout the U.S. should expect the following. Here's a list of things landlords should never do when they're renting out a unit.
- Both landlords and tenants should understand their legal rights before signing a lease.
- Although most landlord-tenant laws vary by state, there is generally some uniformity in certain instances.
- Landlords cannot enter tenanted properties without giving proper notice and cannot end someone's tenancy before the lease expires.
- Rent increases are not permitted unless otherwise specified in the lease or by the municipality.
- The Fair Housing Act prohibits a landlord from discriminating against tenants.
Entering Without Proper Notice
Landlords can’t enter a renter’s place on a whim even though the property belongs to them. According to many state statutes, they must provide at least 24 notice if they wish to enter an occupied property. The notice must outline the reason for access and must be given in writing unless otherwise indicated by the tenant. In some states, you must receive the tenant's approval to provide notices electronically, whether that's through email or text message, so be sure you verify. In many jurisdictions, landlords are only able to enter a renter's unit during regular business hours on weekdays—typically between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. from Monday to Friday.
When a landlord gives proper notice, they usually do so in order to make repairs, conduct a routine inspection, show the property to prospective future tenants, or for any other reason their tenant may have to invite them to the unit. There are two exceptions to this rule. A landlord may attend the property in an emergency situation such as a fire or leak, or if they believe the tenant abandoned the property.
A tenant cannot deny a landlord's access to the property when proper notice is given and the request is reasonable. The occupant may, however, request to change the date or put in a clause in the lease to limit the number of times the landlord can enter the unit.
A tenant who feels that their landlord violated the rules by entering their premises in a non-emergency without giving notice does have a few options. The first is to let the landlord know of the problem. If that doesn't work, the tenant may be able to bring it to the attention of the local or state housing authority or file a trespassing claim with local police or the court system.
Freezing Out Tenants
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. Anyone who doesn't do so generally faces an uphill legal battle if they end the rental agreement or a tenant's occupancy before the lease expires. Landlords who abruptly lock a tenant out of the property without warning may fall within the definition of retaliatory eviction. Not only that, but they may also be slapped with trespassing and/or burglary charges. Similarly, turning off utilities could be seen as intentionally putting a tenant in danger, especially if the local climate is prone to extreme heat or cold.
If a landlord violates housing laws, a tenant may be entitled to remedies including monetary damages.
Unjustified Rent Raises
A lease is a legally binding contract. Once 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 a certain set of conditions in the lease itself. These may include:
- a new tenant joining the household
- the addition of a pet
- 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.
This rule comes from the federal government. The Fair Housing Act, known as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act, is arguably one of the most important pieces of legislation to come from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The law forbids anyone—including landlords—from refusing to rent to an applicant based on:
- national origin
- familial status
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) acts as its chief enforcer. For example, you cannot advertise your rental 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 a landlord may own a rental property, tenants have unique protections from discrimination, harassment, arbitrary rent increases, and wrongful eviction. Landlord-tenant laws vary by 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.