Q&A on Improvement and Alterations

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Question:

My lease forbids me to make any repairs, alterations, or improvements to the premises. Is this legal?

Answer:

Clauses prohibiting tenants from making any repairs, alterations, or improvements to the rental are standard in many leases and rental agreements. Often the lease will provide more detail, as to what’s forbidden, such as nailing holes in the wall, painting the rental unit, or rekeying any locks without the landlord’s permission.

But be aware that in certain situations, tenants have a narrowly defined right to alter or repair the premises, regardless of what the lease or rental agreement says. For example, disabled tenants are allowed to modify their living space under the federal Fair Housing Acts, under specified conditions. Another federal law gives tenants limited rights to install wireless antennas and small satellite dishes.

And statutes in some states allow specific alterations. For example, state laws in Texas and Virginia allow tenants to install burglary prevention devices.  Also, in many states, tenants have the right to repair defects that make the rental unit uninhabitable. (Usually, the tenant must first notify the landlord of the problem and give the landlord a reasonable amount of time to fix it.)

If you’re in doubt about some improvement or change you want to make to your apartment, check with your landlord first. If you make an improvement without getting your landlord’s permission, such as installing a built-in bookcase or dishwasher, the improvement may end up becoming the landlord’s property when you leave; in fact, leases and rental agreements often spell out the landlord’s right to certain improvements or structural changes that affect the use or appearance of the rental unit.

For a detailed discussion of tenant rights when it comes to repairs and alterations, including a landlord-tenant agreement regarding improvements, see Every Tenant’s Legal Guide or (if you’re renting in California), California Tenants’ Rights.

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