Tenant's Rights, Where do You Stand?
The Bill of Rights protects certain privileges that are guaranteed to us in the United States. Just as this famous document secures your freedoms and the ability to live your life as you choose, tenants have certain rights that protect them from unscrupulous landlords. At some point in our lives the majority of us will live in a home that we are renting. Most of the time the arrangement will be a positive experience and everything will run smoothly. However, as a tenant, where do you stand, when your rental experience resembles a low budget horror movie?
This is an excellent question and an important one to ask. The most critical part of protecting yourself as a tenant is clearly reading and understanding the lease before signing it. Not doing this could be a very costly mistake. With that in mind, you do have certain rights as a tenant that supercede any lease you might sign. However, these items are typically limited to parts of a lease that would violate federal, state, or local laws. In some areas of the country, any portion of the lease that provides the landlord with an unfair advantage over the renter would be considered illegal.
The laws regarding a tenant's rights can be confusing. Although there are some federally mandated laws, most regulations regarding renters and landlords will vary from state to state and city to city on some degree. Within these varied statutes there are a few items that remain universally recognized. These items maintain that basic habitable conditions must be met. Generally speaking a tenant is entitled to livable, safe, and sanitary conditions. However, like everything else what constitutes livable, safe, and sanitary may vary by state and even city. Items, such as running water, windows and doors with working locks, and utilities are required. However to what degree they must be offered is often dependant on local statutes. For example, running water is required in all states, however New York also requires that access to hot water be available, while this may not be considered mandatory in other locations.
Other items that are federally mandated include housing discrimination, lease termination allowances for military families, and protections for disabled individuals. These laws state that you may not be denied the ability to lease a property solely based on sex, race, color, religion, family status, national origin, or disability. In addition, terms, conditions, and/or privileges may not be denied or changed based on discrimination. Some states and localities have also added protections for the elderly, students, or discrimination based on an individual's sexual orientation. Military families can terminate their lease early, if they are relocated without assessing any penalties or negatively impacting their credit report. Individuals with disabilities can have certain reasonable modifications made to the leased premises to fit their needs. In addition, they may be exempt from certain items within a lease. For example, owning a service animal is not an unreasonable request, even if the apartment does not allow pets.
In most areas tenant's rights can be very murky and vary greatly from state to state. Texas requires that a Landlord provide a working smoke alarm, other areas of the country do not. Some states' rules and regulations offer more protection for tenants, while landlords receive the upper hand in other locations. So how do you protect yourself with all of this confusion, and how do you find out where you stand in your situation? Finding help is not as difficult as you might think. Although the laws are murky and confusing, there are organizations and tenant's associations in all major municipalities, as well as many smaller locations that will offer their services free of charge. These individuals specialize in advocating for renters and can help you wade through all of the legalese.
There are some things you can do to avoid a bad situation from the beginning. These simple steps will hopefully prevent any problems in the future. When you visit an apartment building, the leasing agent will often show you a unit that is a model. Before you sign any agreement or hand over any monies, insist on seeing the unit you will be renting. Models are often well maintained and stylishly appointed. Your unit may leave much to be desired. Bring a piece of paper and a pen, so that you can take notes, as you walk through the apartment. While you inspect the area, jot down any items that obviously need repair, such as marked walls and stained carpets. Then thoroughly inspect all appliances. Turn on the stove, dishwasher, garbage disposal, and all heating, as well as cooling units. Test any doors to ensure that they lock, as well as all windows. Open the refrigerator and ensure that it is working and clean.
In addition, all faucets should be turned on and inspected for potential leaks. You will want to run the hot water in all faucets and the bathtub or shower to ensure they are functioning properly. You also should flush all of the toilets in the unit. After you have inspected all of the obvious items, you should look for less conspicuous problems. This would include notating any offensive smells that might point to unruly pets or past water damage that might be causing mold to grow. Inspect all of the ceilings and window casings for any signs of water damage or leaks. To avoid potential infestations of insects or rodents, open all of the drawers and cabinets looking for any droppings, as well as other evidence.
Once you have completed this walk through provide a copy of all needed repairs to the landlord. The safest option is to avoid signing any documents until all of the items on the list have been properly remedied. You could also have the landlord sign a "promissory note" stating that all repairs will be made prior to occupancy, if you must sign a lease right away for some reason. Taking these precautionary steps can save you the aggravation of fighting your landlord down the road. However, if problems do arise, remember you do have rights and depending on your case, you may have a great leg to stand on. Your local tenant's association is available to guide you through the process of seeking a resolution to a bad landlord.