What Are Your Rights as a Renter?

August 17, 2005 – Posted at 2:54 p.m. CDT

JONESBORO, AR -- The summer time is one of the busiest when it comes to renting apartments and houses. Renter's rights can vary by state, so it's important to understand the law and the terms of your lease.
One of the most common renter's rights seems obvious. Renters cannot be denied housing on the grounds of race, sex, religion, disability, family status or national origin.
“The most important thing that individuals can do, especially when they are going to rent an apartment or a house is to read the lease,” said KAIT “Ask the Attorney” Mark Rees.
The contract between the tenant and landlord is the most important part of the agreement.
“It does teach them to be responsible. They have neighbors they have to take into consideration and to just learn how to be part of a community,” said Michelle Hatfield, property manager of Stadium Apartments.
Residential units should be in compliance with housing and health codes, and landlords cannot charge more than twice the rent for a deposit.
“There are times when a person can leave the premises without being liable for the remainder of the rent if the landlords do not keep the apartment up to repair,” said Rees.
Landlords can't legally seize a tenant's property for nonpayment of rent or any other reason, except in the case of abandonment as defined by law. However, they do suggest renter's insurance.
“A lot of college students aren't aware that they need renters insurance, so we just try to get them a heads up for what they need to look for to be able to get their application approved to move in,” said Hatfield.
Other rights that renters have include:
1.  A landlord should make necessary repairs and perform maintenance tasks in a timely fashion, or include a provision in the lease stating that tenants can order repairs and deduct the cost from rent.
2.  A landlord must give prior notice (typically 24 hours) before entering your premises and can normally only do so to make repairs or in case of an emergency.
3.  Illegal provisions in a rental agreement (provisions counter to state law) are usually not enforceable in court.
4.  If a landlord has violated important terms related to health, safety, or necessary repairs, you might have a legal right to break your lease.
5.  If you have to break a long-term lease, in most states landlords are required to search for a new tenant as soon as possible rather than charging the tenant for the full duration of the lease.
6.  Damage or security deposits are not deductible for "normal wear and tear." Some states require that a landlord give an itemized report of any deductions.
7.  Most states require landlords to return refundable portions of a security deposit within 14 to 30 days after the tenant has vacated the premises, even in the case of eviction.
8.  Landlords usually can't legally seize a tenant's property for nonpayment of rent or any other reason, except in the case of abandonment as defined by law.
9.  Landlords are legally prohibited from evicting tenants as retaliation for action a tenant takes related to a perceived landlord violation.
10.  A landlord cannot legally change the locks, shut off (or cause to have shut off) your utilities, or evict you without notice; eviction requires a court order.
11.  If a landlord makes life so miserable for you that it forces you to move, it may be considered "constructive eviction," which is usually grounds for legal action.
12.  In many states, it's illegal for a lease to stipulate that the tenant is responsible for the landlord's attorney fees in case of a court dispute.
(Source: Anders, S. (2005). MSN House & Home: Renter’s Rights)