When more than 3.3 million people applied for unemployment in a single week as a result of COVID-19, the world was shocked. The world wasn’t prepared for another 6 million to apply a week later.
A massive number of people have gone from working full-time jobs with benefits to suddenly fearing for their future. In the span of a few weeks, COVID-19 has resulted in the closure of nonessential businesses, putting a wide margin of people at financial risk for the future. Many people are wondering how to pay their bills but even more are concerned about getting evicted from their rental property.
That’s why it’s becoming increasingly vital for renters to learn more about protecting your legal rights as a tenant. While the majority of people rent their homes from a property manager or landlord, one would think that the average renter would know more. However, most tenants simply follow the rules set in their lease agreement: no smoking on the property, no painting the walls, and no dogs allowed.
It’s important, however, to protect your rights from the start of your tenant-landlord relationship and each stage thereafter. Some shady landlords are known to discriminate against potential tenants based on background, religion, and appearance. If you fear that you’re being discriminated against at the start, this is a major violation of your rights as a tenant.
Some landlords will also ignore your pleas for necessary repairs. While changing a lightbulb can wait a day or two, the need for prompt septic tank repair can severely impact your quality of life if it goes untreated.
It’s apparent that you deserve to know about protecting your legal rights as a tenant from the first interaction you have with a potential landlord. Whether you’re renting an apartment in a complex, looking at studios in a multi-family home, or investing in an entire home rental, your rights deserve to be upheld. If you’re concerned about your quality of life during this time of social distancing and quarantine, read on to learn more about protecting your legal rights as a tenant:
Start at the application process
As mentioned above, protecting your legal rights as a tenant begins as soon as you start communicating with a potential landlord. This might be through email, over the phone, or an in-person meeting and tour of the property. Even though a landlord or property manager might claim to not discriminate, it’s important to know what your rights are. For example, landlords are not allowed to discriminate based on the following:
- Sex or gender identity
- National origin
- Mental or physical disability
- Family status
These rights are automatically protected on a federal level thanks to the Fair Housing Act. Furthermore, the state-level laws in your area may govern that more rights can be protected, like the type of job you have or whether you perform your job as a licensed contractor. It’s expected that your landlord will only reject an applicant if their credit score is too low or if another tenant agreed to lease the property before you.
Now comes touring the property and reading through the lease. Landlords and property managers are allowed to establish rules that dictate what their tenants can and cannot do. For example, some properties won’t allow smoking or pets, while others will allow these actions for an additional fee. However, if you’re the owner to a therapy dog or emotional support animal, these pets should be allowed without an additional fee as a part of protecting your legal rights as a tenant. It’s up to you to ensure you’re okay with the demands of the lease agreement. In some cases, you might be able to compromise with your landlord, but this is rare. If you’re not comfortable with some of the actions you aren’t allowed to do (like having a pet), it’s best that you look elsewhere.
For those with physical disabilities, it’s also expected that your landlord will offer reasonable accommodations. This might include installing a ramp to the front door or making the effort to lease you a unit available on the first floor. But keep in mind, “reasonable” only goes so far. You cannot expect your landlord to install an elevator just for you or make any major home modifications that require experienced contractors. If it’s within reason, however, there should be no reason that your landlord cannot make accommodations for their tenants. Just be sure to agree on these stipulations in writing before any other documents are signed.
It’s also important that the landlord discloses any potentially harmful information about the property in the lease. For example, lead paint might be present on the premises. In this case, the landlord needs to note this in writing. If you’re uncomfortable with this, especially if you have pets or children in the home, you can request that this issue is fixed before you move in. Other bigger projects, however, might need to happen while you’re living on the property. For example, many homes might need a new roof, but these fixes have to be performed in the summer. It’s the job of your landlord to alert new and current tenants that these major modifications will take place before the deal is signed (as long as they know these repairs need to happen in advance). You should also expect that your rental is cleaned and that everything is in working order before you move in.
While we all want our potential landlords to work in conjunction with the laws, it’s important that you read up on your rights. Take a look at your rental guidelines within your state to ensure that you’re not getting the wool pulled over your eyes. Even certain cities have a list of obligations that a landlord must subscribe to. Find the laws by searching for housing codes online or take a trip to your local county office for more information.
Paperwork, paperwork, paperwork
One of the best ways you can start protecting your legal rights as a tenant is by getting everything in writing. This includes the original lease, the compromises and accommodations you have made with your landlord, and copies of your payments (including the security deposit). Some landlords prefer an oral agreement, but this might bite you if the landlord turns out to be shady.
It also helps to make multiple copies of these items and store them in an accessible, but safe, location. This will allow you to reread your lease at your leisure to ensure that you’re not breaking any of the agreements to which you have signed. It will stipulate your actions as a tenant but it will also keep your landlord accountable, especially if they’re in charge of maintaining the outside of the property through tree trimming services and shoveling your driveway when it snows. Your landlord can evict you if you violate any of the rules that have been established. It’s in your best interest to follow these rules to avoid any legal issues.
This might mean that you have to change some of the ways you live. Smoking outside, for example, might be frustrating, but it’s important to follow this rule. If your property manager catches you smoking indoors, then you might be evicted. At the bare minimum, you might lose your security deposit. Other activities, like flushing sanitary products down the toilet, are simply not allowed, even if you were able to do it in your last apartment. Sanitary products and other objects aren’t meant to be flushed down the drain since they are one of the leading causes of pipe erosion and clogs. If some of the points on your lease agreement don’t make sense, talk these over with your landlord for clarity. You’re allowed to when it comes to protecting your legal rights as a tenant. Take screenshots of these messages and keep records of emails and calls to ensure you’re not stepping out of line as a tenant.
Your landlord should also not have a problem with answering your questions and providing documents when needed. This is especially important for those with weakened immune systems or allergies. Water testing records should be easily delivered by your landlord to ensure the quality is acceptable; any lead in the water could have dire health effects on the tenants. You can also ask your landlord for environmental reports and property history records to better ensure your safety as a tenant. Many people don’t think to ask for these essential documents, but there’s no reason why you should not. You are within your rights as a tenant to know. This is just one way you can better work toward protecting your legal rights as a tenant.
Take pictures when you move in
Now that you’re ready to move in, it’s essential that you take pictures. Sometimes, shady tenants will try to hit you with fees when you move out, even if you didn’t cause the damage in the first place. If the last tenant had a cat, for example, your landlord might try to pin claw marks in the home on you. In lieu of paying for drywall services themselves, they will try to use your security deposit to cover it.
That’s why you should always take pictures before you move in. Note any signs of damage and talk about big issues with your landlord. While you might be able to live with those claw marks, a moldy fridge should be right out of the question. It’s similar to when you get into a car accident: just like you’d take pictures of car dents, you need to take pictures of broken molding or paint on the floors.
Document the rental before you move in and after you move out. That way, you can show your landlord verifiable proof that you didn’t damage or alter your abode in any way.
On that same note, it’s important to notify your landlord of any repairs that need to be done right away, whether you just moved it or have been living there for years. All homes need regular maintenance but even newer homes will have the occasional issue, whether you caused it directly or not. Let your landlord know if you have a leaky pipe under your sink or if your showerhead has come away from the wall in your frameless glass shower. If these issues aren’t dealt with sooner than later, the problem can only get worse. Your landlord is within their rights to call you out for not alerting them of a problem from the start. If you let that leaky pipe go unchecked, water damage could lead to some costly repairs on their end. While you should always work on protecting your rights legal as a tenant, you do have some responsibilities on your end when it comes to maintaining the property and communicating with your landlord.
Protecting your legal rights as a tenant is especially important now that many of us have lost our jobs. If you’re struggling to pay rent, the best thing to do is to talk to your landlord. While states like New York have put a rent freeze to ensure tenant evictions do not occur, this isn’t mandated by the state in other areas. During this crisis, you should rely on a lawyer to help protect your legal rights as a tenant.
Renting a home or apartment isn’t always easy. Read up on your rights as a tenant to help make the most of your living situation.