Tenants' Rights: When to Hire a Lawyer

Lawyers are expensive, but there are times when hiring one might be necessary to protect your rights as a renter.

By , Attorney · Santa Clara University School of Law

Many issues tenants face are minor and can be easily resolved by common sense and checking reputable resources on landlord-tenant law. The more you know the law and your legal rights, the better.

The Tenant Rights section of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) website provides a wide variety of state and local resources, including links to fair housing groups, rent control boards, 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. The Nolo website includes many useful articles and books on tenant rights, from breaking a lease to mold in rentals, as well as small claims court (should your dispute involve a security deposit).

Some issues, however, are not easily resolved and can seriously threaten your enjoyment of your rental—or worse, your ability to stay in the rental at all. In these situations, getting a lawyer's help might be the most effective, albeit costly, way to protect your rights.

If you find yourself in one of the following situations, consider hiring a lawyer.

Your Landlord Is Evicting You

If your landlord serves you with a termination notice that you intend to fight, hiring a lawyer can increase your chance of success. Choose a local lawyer that is knowledgeable about landlord-tenant law and has significant experience fighting evictions. Such a lawyer can come up with effective strategies or creative solutions that you might not be aware of—for example, the lawyer could argue that your landlord's eviction was retaliatory (and therefore an illegal eviction) if the circumstances support such a defense.

Your Landlord Is Evicting You Without Proper Court Procedures

Landlords must follow eviction procedures set forth by state and local law. If your landlord tries to evict you by taking matters into their own hands—for example, by locking you out, canceling your utilities, or even removing your doors, windows, or possessions—consider hiring a lawyer. These types of "self-help" remedies are illegal. No matter how strong a landlord's case may be for ending a tenancy, a landlord doesn't have the right to take, or even threaten, any self-help actions against you.

Your Landlord Discriminates Against You

If you believe your landlord is discriminating against you, you might need a lawyer to stop the illegal actions and help you recover damages for any harm you suffered. One option is to hire a lawyer to sue the landlord in court.

Another option is to file a fair housing complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), or a state or local agency in HUD's Fair Housing Assistance Program (FHAP).

HUD and state and local agencies in FHAP receive almost 12,000 discrimination complaints a year. If HUD investigates your complaint and determines there's reasonable cause to believe your landlord has been discriminating, you'll get the benefit of having a HUD lawyer representing you in front of an administrative law judge at no cost. The judge can award you compensation and attorneys' fees, impose penalties against your landlord, and order other relief.

Your Landlord Won't Make Necessary Repairs

If your landlord isn't fulfilling important obligations under your lease and the law, it can lead to major problems. For example, think of the landlord who keeps putting off needed heating system repairs until winter is well under way, or the landlord who ignores a ground-floor tenant's requests to fix a broken window until a burglary occurs.

In these cases, you might decide to implement one of your state's tenant remedies on your own (such as rent withholding or "repair and deduct"), but you might need some coaching on how to do it right. Consulting a lawyer might be your best move. In addition, a lawyer can attempt to communicate with the landlord for you, explore the possibility of a quick settlement, and sue your landlord, if needed.

Your Landlord Isn't Fulfilling Promises

Sometimes, landlords make promises to encourage hesitant applicants to rent from them. For example, if an applicant is concerned about the neighborhood crime rate, a landlord might promise to install a more effective intercom system or an electronic, gated parking lot. If the landlord later refuses to honor the promise, you might need to hire a lawyer to write a stern letter to your landlord, with a reminder that landlords can be held liable for some criminal activities at their rentals, and threatening a lawsuit unless the landlord follows through.

You've Been Injured or Made Ill

Accidents can happen, even at a well-run rental property. However, if an accident is the result of the landlord's carelessness, your landlord might be liable for any injuries. For example, you might break your leg after slipping on an icy patch on the front steps of your building. (Perhaps the landlord should have arranged for regular de-icing, which would have removed the danger.) Or, you might discover an outbreak of mold in your rental—only after it has made you and your family very ill.

In this case you'll want a personal injury lawyer with experience in premises liability.

Even if your landlord didn't personally or intentionally create the problem, there are many legal theories available to convince a court or insurance adjustor that the landlord should be held responsible. Lawyers are skilled at identifying which theories might apply and crafting arguments using them.

Your Property Has Been Damaged

Sometimes, a landlord's failure to maintain the rental property causes damage to your personal property. For example, a landlord's faulty wiring repair job could spark an electrical fire in your living room, damaging your furniture and other belongings.

If you have renters' insurance, your insurance company will cover the loss and its lawyers will then seek reimbursement from your landlord. If you don't have insurance or have inadequate coverage and the damage to your property is substantial, consider hiring a lawyer to help you obtain reimbursement from your landlord. In the alternative, you could consult with a lawyer for an hour or two to get advice on how to proceed and what arguments to make to get reimbursed.

How to Get a Lawyer's Help

If you are in need of a lawyer, choose one with expertise in landlord-tenant matters. For help in getting a lawyer, read the article "How to Find an Excellent Lawyer" or go straight to Nolo's Lawyer Directory.

Hire a lawyer as a "coach." Hiring a lawyer doesn't have to break the bank. Depending on your needs, your budget, and your confidence in your ability to handle a matter on your own, you might find a lawyer who will agree to meet with you for an hour here and there as a coach. Even limited legal help can make a difference, and it might be all you need to steer your way toward a favorable outcome.

Check for an attorneys' fees clause in your rental agreement. Many landlords include an "attorneys' fees" clause in their lease or rental agreement to prevent frivolous lawsuits. If your lease or rental agreement includes this clause, you might be entitled to get reimbursed for your reasonable attorneys' fees and court costs if you win a lawsuit against your landlord. (Even if your clause appears to provide recovery only to a victorious landlord, courts in many states will rule the clause works both ways.)

As a practical matter, if you have an attorneys' fees clause in your lease or rental agreement, you will have an easier time finding a lawyer to represent you. Since the landlord pays the lawyer's bill if you win, a lawyer needn't worry as much about getting paid by you. Be aware that the clause likely applies only to disputes arising out of the lease or rental agreement (such as evictions, rents, and security deposit issues)—not to disputes involving personal injury, discrimination, or other such matters.

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