Guide To Understanding Landlord/Tenant Laws

Written by Matt Faustman

The Comprehensive Guide To Understanding Landlord/Tenant LawsLandlord/Tenant laws are designed to protect both parties in residency agreements for both commercial and residential properties.  They can be quite complex.  These laws vary greatly from state to state but, as a general rule, each will have a section outlining the rights, restrictions, and expectations of the tenant and another similar section devoted to the landlord.

Some of the across-the-board regulations include:

  • Landlords must give tenants notice before entering a rental premises (generally one to two days)
  • Tenants must uphold certain maintenance obligations
  • Tenants are responsible for the behaviors of any and all guests they invite to the property
  • The agreement can’t be changed without the permission of both parties involved (or failing that the due diligence of one party to meet specified guidelines for amending the agreement)
  • Landlords and tenants can terminate a rental agreement for a variety of reasons but termination must be preceded by verbal or written notice of intent

While these laws were put on the books with the intent of giving both parties a level playing field, landlords generally have access to a larger amount of resources (financial or otherwise) which may aide them in the event of a dispute.

Additionally, many of these laws were written in the 18th century and are still on the books today.  So, as you can imagine, trying to navigate them in a modern society can be a bit tricky.  For example, Alabama’s tenant law still allows landlords to place a lien on a tenant’s crops if the tenant fails to come through with the rent.  Additionally, a lien can be placed if a tenant fails to plant a crop in the first place.  That might be okay for rural tenants but the law is written such that it could be made to apply to tenants living in the heart of urban centers as well.

Applicable Federal Laws

Certain federal laws trump all local and state-level regulations.  Below you’ll find a brief listing.

Passed as a portion of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the Federal Fair housing Act trumps all state and local level laws on the books.  However, it doesn’t guarantee much in the way of coverage for either party save for the fact that neither party can discriminate based on race, gender sexual orientation, religion, or familial status.

Additionally, the Age Discrimination Act of 1975 states that landlords and real estate agents cannot discriminate based on an individual’s age if the agency or property involved is receiving federal funds (such as government subsidized housing).  Similarly, such programs and properties cannot discriminate based on a person’s disabilities because the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 forbids it.

State and Local Laws

While it would take far too much time (and space) to cover every applicable state Landlord/Tenant law on the books, below you’ll find a general overview of what you’ll likely find in each and every one.  Keep in mind that many states have based their individual laws on either the Uniform Residential Landlord And Tenant Act (URLTA) or the Model Residential Landlord-Tenant Code.

For your state’s specific legislation, contact your state’s office of the attorney general.  You can find a list of current AGs here.

Tenant Rights

Generally, landlord/tenant laws across the country safeguard a tenant’s private property, their right to inhabit real estate so long as they’re paying rent, and so long as they don’t violate clauses specific to any rental agreement.

As such, many state-level laws require that landlords disclose significant information to potential and current tenants.  These disclosures can include the name and business address of the property owner as well as instructions about where tenants can find information pertaining to locally applicable laws.  Additionally, federal regulations require that all tenants are notified prior to occupancy of the presence (or potential presence) of lead paint in homes/apartments built before 1977.

Security Deposits

Generally, the maximum security deposit that a landlord can hold is one and a half times the monthly rental fee.  This deposit doesn’t include the first or last month’s rent and it doesn’t include any fee that the landlord may charge for redecorating/remodeling the property before the tenant takes residency.

Subletting

Whether or not it’s covered in the tenant/landlord agreement, many states have laws pertaining to the subletting of property.  It’s important you understand your obligations before attempting any sort of subletting—even “unofficial” agreements.

Landlord Liens

All landlord/tenant laws deal with payment for habitation.  As such, every state-specific law will have a section devoted to landlord liens.  If a tenant fails to pay rent, the landlord can place liens against a property.

Additionally, landlords can seek financial compensation from tenants in small claims court (for amounts less than $5,000) or civil court (for amounts over $5,000).

Mobile Homes Versus Permanent Housing

While most landlord/tenant laws apply only to permanent housing, most states have specific landlord/tenant laws that apply to mobile homes.  Generally these laws mirror each other in most respects except for when the mobile home is situated on land that’s not included in the rental agreement (such as in a mobile home park).

Commercial Versus Residential Properties

Landlord/tenant laws are often divided into subsections based on the type of property in question, some states, however, have separate laws for the two types of property.  Generally, residential tenants have more freedom pertaining to the property they’re renting than commercial ones.

Exceptions to Landlord/Tenant laws

There are a number of exceptions to state-level landlord/tenant laws.  In general these include:

  • Dormitory Rooms
  • Fraternity/Sorority Houses
  • Hotel/Motel Rooms
  • Public Housing

Your Rights, Your Responsibility

In many states, landlord/tenant laws are designed to be self-help laws—meaning they’re intended for the parties to use at their discretion and within their means.  As such, many states have provisions that prevent state officials (such as the State’s Attorney General) from acting on behalf of either the tenant or the landlord.  That means that unless you want to enter into negotiations or a legal disagreement by yourself, your only recourse is to find a qualified lawyer to help you protect your rights.

 

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2 thoughts on “Guide To Understanding Landlord/Tenant Laws

  1. Hi Matt,
    This is a nice intro to understanding landlording laws… We have to be very careful when screening tenants in Massachusetts as the laws are considered to be very much in the tenants’ favor. Cheers – Dan

    Like

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