Tenants have many rights, primarily under state law, including the rights to privacy, a livable home, the proper use of your security deposit, and nondiscriminatory treatment from your landlord. Most of these rights are yours, even if they’re not spelled out in your lease or rental agreement. But many states go a step further and require landlords to inform tenants of important state laws, individual landlord policies, or facts about the rental, either in the lease or rental agreement or in another writing—typically before the tenant moves in. In addition, local ordinances, particularly in rent control communities, often require certain landlord disclosures. Finally, federal law requires landlords to disclose lead-based paint hazards to tenants.
Here are examples of the types of disclosures your state law may require landlords to make to tenants:
See your state disclosure laws for details on the rules in your state.
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 may require specific disclosures—for example, New York City requires landlords to inform tenants of the building’s and the rental unit’s bedbug 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—just search for the name of a particular city. State and Local Government on the Net is a good source for finding local government online. 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. 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 requirements that are imposed by statute contain their own penalty or consequence provisions, but many do not. When the statute does not 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
Lawmakers know that when the only consequence for noncompliance is a tenant lawsuit, many landlords will take their chances that few tenants will sue—in other words, compliance will be low. So many disclosure laws have built-in penalties, which won’t require much of an effort for tenants to enforce. Consequences for landlord nondisclosure range from monetary penalties to various unique results. Contrary to many tenants’ beliefs, tenants are not usually entitled to consider the lease null and void.
Several disclosure laws carry specified monetary penalties. At the top of the list is the federally-required disclosure of lead paint hazards. First violations may result in a “notice of noncompliance” from the federal government, giving landlords time to notify tenants. Civil and criminal fines of up to $16,000 per violation are also possible. Of course, if a tenant is injured as a result of not knowing about the presence of a lead paint hazard, a civil judgment can result, of unknown amounts.
Some disclosure statutes provide for either a specified monetary damages award, or “actual damages,” which are the actual losses suffered by the tenant. 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.