Who is a tenant?

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Question:

Who is a tenant? 

Answer:

A tenant is an adult who has signed a lease or rental agreement (or has an oral rental agreement) with a landlord to rent property, such as an apartment, condo, or house. The tenant has a legal relationship with the landlord that creates various responsibilities for both parties. For example, the tenant must pay the rent on time, comply with landlord pet rules, and give proper notice before ending a lease or rental agreement. Under most state laws, tenants have specified rights if the landlord fails to meet responsibilities to provide habitable rental housing, return security deposits, respect tenant’s privacy, and comply with other legal requirements.

A person can gain the status of a tenant even if he or she has not signed a lease or rental agreement, if the landlord has accepted the person’s presence on the rental property or has accepted rent from the person.

The term cotenants refers to two or more tenants who rent the same property under the lease or rental agreement. Cotenants share the same legal rights and responsibilities for the rent and other terms of the lease or rental agreement. In addition, each cotenant is legally responsible for complying with the terms of the agreement, including being obligated to pay the entire rent if others fail to pay their share (the legal name for this is “jointly and severally liable”). Cotenants may not terminate another cotenant’s tenancy (with a few exceptions, such as San Francisco’s “master tenant,” only landlords can terminate or evict a tenant).

Landlords may limit the number of tenants who live in a rental unit, as long as their occupancy policy is tied to health and safety needs or is driven by a legitimate business reason or necessity, such as the capacities of the plumbing system.  Occupancy policies that don’t meet these criteria may result in a charge of discrimination against families.

Some related terms include:

  • Roommate. Two or more people, typically unrelated, living in the same rental unit, and sharing rent. A roommate is usually, but not always, a cotenant.
  • Assignment. The transfer by a tenant of all the rights of tenancy to another tenant (the “assignee”); unlike a subtenant, an assignee rents directly from the landlord.
  • Subtenant. Someone who lives in a rental unit but has not signed the lease or rental agreement.

For a comprehensive 50-state guide to rights and responsibilities of tenants, see Nolo’s book Every Tenant’s Legal Guide (or, California Tenants’ Rights, if you rent property in California).

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