Federal, state, and local laws often require landlords to make disclosures of certain information and policies to tenants. Although these laws differ from location to location, they typically require landlords to make the disclosures before tenants move in. Some laws mandate that certain language be directly incorporated into the lease or rental agreement.
Under federal law, when renting certain buildings built before 1978, landlords must provide tenants with specific lead-based paint pamphlets and forms. This is the only federally required landlord disclosure; all others are required by state or local law.
Many states require landlords to disclose:
Rent control ordinances typically require additional disclosures, such as the name and address of the government agency or elected board that administers the ordinance. Some cities require specific disclosures—for example, New York City requires landlords to inform tenants of the building's and the rental unit's bed bug history for the past year. (New York City Administrative Code § 27-2018.1.)
To see whether local rules apply, check with your city or county. Many municipalities and counties have local ordinances online—search for the name of a particular city or visit State and Local Government on the Net. You can also check with the office of your city attorney, mayor, city manager, or county administrator.
Part of a landlord's responsibility to provide habitable premises includes the obligation to warn tenants about hidden (not obvious) aspects of the rental property that could cause injury or substantially interfere with tenants' safe enjoyment and use of the dwelling—for example, a warning that the building walls contain asbestos insulation which could become dangerous if disturbed. Depending on the applicable law, landlords may make these disclosures orally or in writing.
But keep in mind that some problems need to be fixed, not merely disclosed. A landlord who warns a tenant about a hidden defect, such as a faulty heater, remains legally responsible if the heater makes the rental uninhabitable or unreasonably dangerous.
The consequences to landlords who fail to make disclosures vary tremendously. Some disclosure statutes mandate certain penalties for violations, but many do not. When a statute doesn't specify consequences, general rules take over—tenants can sue (typically in small claims court) for the damages they have suffered as a result of the nondisclosure
Disclosure laws that contain penalty provisions usually aren't as difficult to enforce as those that don't. Often, tenants can lodge complaints with a government agency, which in turn can impose penalties such as fines or the revocation of the landlord's rental license (if applicable). Tenants should note, though, that disclosure laws typically don't allow self-help remedies, such as breaking the lease or withholding rent.
Several disclosure laws carry specified monetary penalties. At the top of the list is the federally-required disclosure of lead paint hazards. First violations can result in a “notice of noncompliance” from the federal government, which gives landlords additional time to notify tenants. Civil and criminal fines of up to $16,000 per violation are also possible.
Some disclosure statutes provide for either a specified monetary damages award, or “actual damages,” which is an amount intended to compensate the tenant for calculable damages, such as lost work, moving expenses, or doctors' bills. For example, many states require landlords to disclose to tenants whether they will end up paying for common area utilities, such as heat and electricity. Failure to explain these arrangements commonly carries a preset damage amount or “actual damages,” which could be the cost to the tenant of paying for these utilities.
Some state disclosure rules specify an act or result that is not monetary. A common disclosure rule concerns the owner or agent's identity and address. Typically, failure to provide this information results in the tenant being able to pay rent and deliver legal notices and demands to, and expect upkeep from, the person who negotiated the lease or manages the property.