Protect yourself from an unethical landlord by knowing your renters’ rights.
The best way to protect yourself from an unscrupulous landlord is to know your tenant rights.
From frustrating nonrefundable deposits to shady lease agreements, there are some landlords out there who won’t adhere to the letter of the law. But the line between legal and illegal is blurry due to differing landlord-tenant laws from state to state for both landlords and tenants. If you’re renting in Austin, TX, for example, state law doesn’t control how much landlords can charge for a security deposit. California tenant laws limit security deposits to two months’ rent for an unfurnished apartment. The best defense tenants have at their disposal is to know the laws in their jurisdiction.
Remember: If you do encounter any of these warning signs, screening your landlord could give you peace of mind — or help you decide if you’d be better off looking for somewhere else to live.
1. Your landlord won’t let you see a certificate of occupancy
Some rentals require property owners to have a certificate of occupancy (CO), but in certain circumstances — like when you’re renting a condo — you’re probably safe to assume your new home is covered by one. Likewise, if you’re renting an entire single-family house, the landlord typically won’t be required to apply for a CO. If you’re considering renting a basement, attic, or garage apartment, you should make sure it’s a legal dwelling before you sign a lease. If there’s only one exit or if the wiring is faulty, those are signs of a fire hazard. If the apartment appears as if it might not be up to code, that could mean it isn’t safe, or legal.
2. Your landlord asks if you were born in another country
According to the Fair Housing Act, landlords can’t legally ask about your national origin, whether you have children, if you have a girlfriend (or boyfriend), and many other questions that suggest ulterior motives. “Denying applications for discriminatory reasons, such as race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or disability, is illegal,” says Shaolaine Loving, a Las Vegas, NV, landlord-tenant attorney.
So if your landlord asks whether you’d like directions to the nearest synagogue, you don’t have to answer. In fact, if a landlord were to ask you an unsuitable question and then deny your application, you’d have the right to file a housing-discrimination complaint. While landlords do have the right to screen tenants, their decision to rent should be based solely on an applicant’s credit history, income, rental history, and a criminal background check. Some optional screening guidelines are permitted, such as no smokers or no pets. (Landlords must allow service animals, however, as long as the applicant can prove the animal’s service status.)
3. You’re expected to pay a non-refundable deposit
The term “non-refundable deposit” for a rental is a red flag. Why? A deposit is always refundable unless there are reasons not to refund it. For example, a pet deposit is refundable if there is no pet damage when the tenant moves out. What might not be refundable is a fee. Some landlords might charge a move-in, cleaning, or pet fee. In those cases, tenants should check the laws of their state to find out if local laws allow for fees in addition to the security deposit.
4. The security deposit is expensive
Most landlords charge a security deposit before a tenant moves in, and this is perfectly legal in all states. The security deposit is a way for a landlord to cover any destruction that might occur during the tenant’s stay. But landlords are often limited in how much of a security deposit they’re allowed to charge. Las Vegas landlord-tenant attorney Loving says it’s illegal to charge more than three months’ rent for a security deposit in Nevada, for example. Other states limit the amount that a landlord can charge to one month’s rent, and some states have no limits whatsoever. If your state doesn’t limit the amount a landlord can charge, shop around to determine what other landlords in the area are charging — before you hand over too much of your cash upfront.
5. The terms of the lease don’t sound right
You should try to understand everything in the lease. If there’s tricky language, get an explanation from your landlord. Even if the lease agreement looks like a standard template, reading through and double checking for illegal terms and conditions is important. “Any lease terms contrary to the law, like saying a tenant waives the right to sue or has to pay the landlord’s attorney fees in the event of any dispute [is wrongful],” says Loving.
6. Your landlord comes by unannounced
- To make repairs.
- To show the unit to prospective renters or buyers.
- To make a routine inspection (commonly annually, semiannually, or quarterly).
7. Your landlord raised the rent in the middle of your lease
Raising the rent is not illegal … if it’s done at the right time. Unfortunately, an unscrupulous landlord might try to increase your lease in an unlawful way. If you have a signed lease, your landlord can’t raise the rent until your original lease expires. And if you live in a rent-controlled unit or are a Section 8 tenant, your landlord has further limitations on how much rent can be raised. Otherwise, landlords can raise the rent as much as they like.
8. Your landlord wants to sell (and wants you out immediately)
Property owners can sell their own property at any time, even with renters in place. But they can’t simply kick out their tenants whenever they like, even if they’re selling the property. The landlord must give proper notice. Unless there’s an early-termination clause in your lease that allows your landlord to break that lease early, you have the right to live out the lease in the unit.