Dealing with your landlord or manager can be challenging, to say the least, for many tenants. Protecting your rights begins with knowing the basics of landlord-tenant law, especially state law. In addition to being legally knowledgeable, relations with your landlord will be much easier if you are a responsible tenant—that is, you pay your rent on time, maintain your rental unit, and comply with your lease or rental agreement rules. And savvy tenants know to put everything in writing—from repair requests to your concerns about a noisy neighbor; good records of all communications with your landlord will provide valuable backup if a dispute occurs later and you need documentation.
But even a knowledgeable and conscientious tenant may run into trouble with bad landlords—those who trample your rights by entering your rental unit without notice, ignore your repeated requests to make necessary repairs, take unjustified deductions from your security deposit, try to terminate your tenancy for an illegal reason, or otherwise make your life miserable (and/or costly).
Whether you want to head off problems from the start (such as avoid overcharges on rental application fees) or fight what you consider an unfair termination of your tenancy, there are many resources that can help. Here’s a roundup of some of the best.
Not to brag too much, but Nolo is one of the leading national resources on tenant rights. When Nolo started more than 40 years ago, one of our first books was a tenant guide: California Tenant’s Rights (by David Brown and Janet Portman) was first published in 1972 and is inching up on its 20th edition. Through the years, we’ve published national books for tenants (Every Tenant’s Legal Guide (by Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart) and written hundreds of articles for the Tenants section of Nolo.com. Whether you want your state law on security deposit rules, the answer to a specific question, such as your landlord’s responsibility for mold in your rental, or a sample letter to send your landlord who’s violating your privacy, Nolo is a great place to start your research.
Many state agencies, such as the attorney general’s office, publish useful tenant legal guides, often including sample forms. Check your state consumer protection agency for details.
If you live in one of the four states, or the District of Columbia, which have some form of rent control or rent stabilization, be sure to check the local rules that apply. Start by checking the following resources available on the National Multi Housing Council website:
Several non-rent control cities have unique landlord-tenant laws: Chicago’s landlord-tenant ordinance, for example, requires landlords (excluding owner-occupied buildings with six or fewer units) to pay or credit tenants with interest on security deposits, while only larger (25 or more units) must do so under Illinois security deposit law. Even if your city does not have rent control, be sure to check other local ordinances that may apply. Your mayor or city manager may provide advice, or you can search local rules yourself at State and Local Government on the Net or Municode.
Many communities, especially those with rent control, have active tenant rights groups, such as the San Francisco Tenants Union, and online resources, such as TenantNet (New York City and State tenants).
To find local tenant advocacy groups, check out the Tenant Rights section of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) website. HUD provides a wide variety of local resources, including links to tenant unions and legal aid organizations for each state; even if you don’t qualify for legal aid services, you will find useful information on tenant rights on many legal aid websites.
If you believe that a landlord has discriminated against you, for example, by falsely denying that a rental unit is available or acting in a discriminatory way while you’re a tenant, there are many fair housing resources available at the federal, state, and local levels. HUD’s State Information section is a great place to start. Click on your state, then on “Get Rental Help,” for a list of local organizations that provide a variety of housing services.
The use and return of security deposits is a major source of dispute between tenants and landlords, which typically ends up in small claims court. For details on small claims court rules and procedures in your state, check out Nolo’s state-by-state small claims charts.