When it comes to rental housing, both landlords and tenants have certain legal rights and responsibilities, most of which fall under state law. Tenant rights vary (often dramatically) from state to state, and sometimes by city (especially in localities with rent control).
In general, state laws spell out tenant rights in several areas, and typically include:
- prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of group characteristics, such as race, religion, and gender, including harassment (discrimination is one area that is also covered by federal law)
- protection of tenant privacy by limiting the situations when landlords may enter rental property (such as to make repairs) and requiring a certain notice of entry
- the right to "quiet enjoyment" of the premises (prohibiting your landlord from acting, or failing to act, in a way that seriously interferes with your ability to use the rented premises—for example, by failing to evict a tenant who is dealing drugs in the apartment next door)
- limits on the amount of the security deposit and how and when a deposit may be used and returned
- limits on nonrefundable fees, such as credit check fees, limits on late rent fees, and the right to a receipt on fees such as holding deposits
- the right to habitable rental housing, such as safe electrical and heating systems
- requirement for landlords to make certain disclosures, such as lead-based paint (this is also a requirement under federal law)
- specific rules regarding how and when a landlord may end a tenancy, including reasons that justify a termination (such as unpaid rent) and notice requirements
- allowable reasons for a tenant to break a lease and move out early (for example, because of a job move or health problem)
- specific rules and procedures regarding how and when a landlord may evict a tenant, including protections against retaliatory or unfair evictions.
State laws often specify legal remedies tenants have if their rights have been violated; many states, for example, allow tenants to withhold rent or move out if the landlord fails to provide habitable housing. State laws often levy financial penalties for landlord violation of tenant rights (such as failure to return a security deposit).
Tenant rights are in effect regardless of whether or not they are spelled out in a lease or rental agreement (although a lease or rental agreement may give a tenant additional rights not required by state law). In most states, language a landlord puts in a lease or rental agreement, saying a tenant gives up a legal right (such as to habitable housing) won't be effective—regardless of whether or not the tenant waives the right.
For details on tenant rights (as well as responsibilities) in your state, see the Nolo book Every Tenant's Legal Guide (renters in California should see California Tenants' Rights). Nolo also publishes similar legal guides for landlords. You may also seek advice from a local tenants' organization (if one is available in your community).