Landlord-Tenant Law

Updated February 23, 2024
4 min read
Landlord & Tenant Law: Themis, papers, pen, keys, house, book

Several constitutional provisions guide the relationship between a landlord and a tenant. These landlord-tenant laws are necessary to protect each party’s rights and clarify their responsibilities while the tenancy agreement is valid. The provisions also ensure that all disputes are impartially resolved to avoid further problems. The landlord-tenant law in each state covers several issues, including:

  • Basic rent

  • Eviction

  • Security deposits

  • Leasing

Landlord-tenant laws state that all landlords must provide habitable living areas for tenants. They also establish rules for the tenant’s use of a rental unit. Generally, landlord-tenant laws protect landlords and tenants alike.

Who Are the Parties?

According to landlord-tenant laws, parties to a rental or lease agreement are the landlord and the tenant. All landlord-tenant agreements have one landlord and at least one tenant, but some may include roommates or subtenants. The standard parties to rental agreements according to most landlord-tenant laws can be described as follows:

The Landlord

The landlord is the owner or official representative of the owner of the rental unit. A landlord may be an individual or a management company assigned the duty of managing the property. Landlord-tenant law requires landlords to make a rental unit livable for prospective tenants. While most landlord-tenant laws require landlords to handle repairs, California’s landlord-tenant law only requires landlords to repair serious defects. 

The Tenant

A tenant is a person, group of persons, or other entity recognized by landlord-tenant law that has signed a rental or lease agreement and has the right to occupy a rental unit. Tenants use rental properties for periods specified by rental contracts, and they may pay rent weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, quarterly, or as landlord-tenant laws allow. 

Generally, landlord-tenant laws protect tenants from exploitation. For instance, a landlord cannot deny a tenant access to the unit except in emergencies. When the landlord requires entry in a non-emergency situation, the tenant must receive notice according to the state’s landlord-tenant law.

Terms of Tenancy

Although a tenant may be limited to a landlord’s offer, negotiating a new offer recognized by landlord-tenant law is possible. Generally, a landlord-tenant agreement may be a tenancy based on a lease or a tenancy at will.

Tenancy Based on a Lease

A lease is a time-bound rental contract between a lessor who lets out a property, and a lessee who accepts usage of the property. Landlord-tenant laws state that this type of tenancy conveys property to the lessee for a long period, usually at least a year. Although fixed, the duration of a lease varies according to landlord-tenant laws. For instance, Indiana’s landlord & tenant law applies a maximum of three years to the standard residential lease. Longer agreements must be registered at the Recorder’s Office in the applicable county.

Tenancy at Will

A tenancy at will is a rental arrangement without a fixed tenure. Landlord-tenant laws recognize a tenancy at will even though there is no contract between the parties, allowing either party to maintain the arrangement as long as mutually agreed. Tenancy at will may be initiated after a rental agreement expires if either party is unwilling to renew the agreement. A tenant law attorney can help to ensure that both parties enjoy a mutually beneficial arrangement without a contract.

Obligations of The Landlord and The Tenant

All landlords and tenants have responsibilities clearly stated in the rental agreement or the state’s landlord & tenant law. Most landlord-tenant laws specify obligations for landlords and tenants, including but not limited to the following:

Landlord
Obligations
  • Maintain habitable conditions
  • Ensure that the unit is vacant before tenant moves in
  • Handle repairs according to landlord-tenant law or the rental agreement
  • Comply with housing and health codes
  • Meet other contractual obligations
Tenant
Obligations
  • Pay rent according to the contract
  • Maintain the rental unit
  • Give landlord notice of renewal or termination according to the agreement or landlord & tenant law
  • Consider a tenant law attorney for dispute resolution
  • Meet other contractual obligations

Negotiations

Landlord-tenant laws do not dictate the course of negotiations or how parties to an agreement should handle their discussions. However, both parties must have amicable conversations and reach a voluntary conclusion that agrees with the state’s landlord-tenant law. Tenants may handle negotiations or ask a tenant law attorney for legal advice based on local landlord-tenant law requirements. Negotiable terms include:

  • Length of rent or lease
  • Rent price
  • Maintenance and repairs
  • Parking
  • Modifications
  • Cleaning

Key Organizations for Terms of Tenancy

Several organizations handle tenancy matters according to landlord-tenant laws. In each state, the Attorney General’s Office is the organization to contact. Federal agencies include the:

Many Attorney General’s Offices feature a variation of the Consumer Advocacy & Response Division (CARD). This division handles consumer issues, including debt collection, tenant contract issues, mortgage servicing, financing, and related matters according to the state’s landlord-tenant law. Anyone needing consumer assistance or legal aid may find the consumer hotline or email to ask landlord-tenant law questions or to file a consumer complaint.

Terms of a Rental Agreement

The terms of a rental agreement are contract terms accommodated by landlord-tenant laws that state the specifics of an agreement between a landlord and a tenant. These agreements should include the following:

  • Parties: A simple tenancy agreement must identify all parties recognized by landlord-tenant law. This creates legal precedence for responsibilities and also helps to handle possible disputes. When there is a need to enforce action according to the state’s landlord-tenant law, only the parties listed in the agreement are liable.
  • Location: Landlord-tenant laws require the agreement to identify the building, land, or rental unit covered. The building’s address, floor, apartment number, or unit number should be clearly stated in the contract.
  • Rent: All parties should clearly understand the amount payable and the required deposit according to the state’s landlord-tenant law. The agreement may also include modes of payment and instructions, as well as applicable charges for each method. The frequency of payment — weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc. — should also be clear.
  • Purpose: If the agreement does not specify, a tenant may use the property or rental unit for any legal purpose according to landlord-tenant laws. However, a landlord may limit the use of a rental unit if said use could cause devaluation or damage.
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Payments at the Start of Tenancy

A tenancy begins when both parties sign the agreement and the tenant makes the first payment. While there may be several other payments, landlord-tenant law allows landlords to request rent and security deposits. However, some landlord-tenant laws may enable landlords to also collect the last month’s rent in addition to the first month’s rent and security deposit.

Security Deposits

According to landlord-tenant law, a security deposit is an amount paid by the tenant as a deposit for repairs of possible damage caused during the tenancy. Landlord-tenant laws allow landlords to use the deposit to repair those damages instead of paying out of pocket.

Landlord-tenant laws limit how much a landlord can collect as a security deposit. For example, the landlord-tenant laws in Massachusetts and the District of Columbia prevent landlords from collecting security deposits of more than one month’s rent. In Maryland, Missouri, and Iowa, landlord-tenant laws allow landlords to ask for two months’ rent for the deposit.

Last Month’s Rent

The last month’s rent is a prepayment for the last month of the tenancy. If a landlord collects this payment, the tenant will not have to pay rent for the last month of the lease. Some landlord-tenant laws allow landlords to specify that the last month’s rent will be used as a security deposit. These tenants can then request a full refund if no repairs are necessary.

State Sanitary Code

A state’s sanitary code is a set of rules and regulations that provide a minimum standard for health requirements. These requirements may include standards for waste disposal, plumbing, and conditions for healthy habitation. For instance, the Massachusetts State Sanitary Code requires that all residences have a bathroom, kitchen, heat, hot and cold water, and windows.

Eviction

Landlord-tenant laws protect tenants from indiscriminate eviction. Landlords who need to evict tenants must go through an eviction process as specified by the state’s landlord & tenant law. Generally, the parties are encouraged to try settling disputes before filing complaints with the Attorney General’s Office or going to court. Where all attempts at resolution fail, landlords may begin the eviction process according to their state’s landlord & tenant laws.

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Find Help and Resolve a Dispute

Parties looking to resolve disputes may simply schedule a meeting to address their issues. These meetings should clearly communicate each party’s rights and responsibilities according to the signed contract or the state’s landlord-tenant laws. If this meeting fails, parties can try local housing associations, tenant associations, or the district attorney’s office. There may also be community dispute resolution centers that help solve issues according to landlord-tenant laws, sometimes for a small fee. These methods help both parties avoid court hearings and litigation costs for tenant law attorneys.

The Eviction Process

The eviction process may take a few weeks or months, depending on factors like the reason for the eviction or the state’s landlord-tenant law. According to most landlord-tenant laws, the process usually includes the following:

  1. Notice: A landlord begins by giving the tenant a Notice to Quit as prescribed by the state’s landlord-tenant law. In Texas, the notice must be in writing and should give the tenant at least three days to vacate the unit.

  2. Court hearing: If the tenant refuses to leave, the landlord may apply for a court order. The tenant may hire a tenant law attorney if he or she has a reason to challenge the eviction.

  3. Removal: If the landlord wins the case, the tenant must leave. If the tenant still doesn’t vacate the property, landlord-tenant laws allow law enforcement officers, such as sheriffs or marshalls, to forcibly remove the person or persons. 

Ending the Tenancy

Landlord-tenant laws in different states are clear on how to end tenancy. While either party may terminate a tenancy, the process may differ between states. For instance, Minnesota’s landlord-tenant law states that, for periodic tenancies, the tenant must provide the landlord with written notice at least one full rental period before the tenancy’s final day. The landlord-tenant law in California requires a landlord to issue a 30-day notice if the tenant has maintained a month-to-month tenancy for less than a year. Tenants renting for at least one year should receive a 60-day notice instead. 

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Frequently Asked Questions

Who to contact for tenant rights?

Tenant rights usually fall under the purview of the state’s Attorney General (AG). Tenants requiring information about applicable rights may contact the AG’s office. Only an attorney can give legal advice on the state’s landlord-tenant law specific to a particular case.

What can a landlord not do?

In most states, the landlord-tenant law clearly limits a landlord’s behavior. For instance, a landlord cannot arbitrarily end a tenancy agreement early, enter a rented unit in a non-emergency situation, or discriminate against tenants.

How do I report that my landlord is violating housing codes or health and safety regulations?

Tenants are encouraged by their state’s landlord-tenant law to report health, safety, or housing code violations. A tenant should first contact the landlord to resolve a safety or quality issue. However, if the issue is not resolved in a reasonable manner or time, the tenant may eventually file a complaint with the appropriate local or state authority.

How does a landlord evict a tenant?

A landlord may evict a tenant according to the landlord-tenant law in the state. The process usually begins with serving an eviction notice and may require a court hearing if the tenant does not move out within an allotted time. If the landlord wins the case, the court will appoint an official to remove the tenant.

What can a landlord use a security deposit for?

According to landlord-tenant laws, a landlord can only use a security deposit to cover costs incurred for repairs, cleaning, disposal, or damage caused by the tenant. Security deposits may also cover utility bills or unpaid rent if included in the tenancy agreement or addressed by the state’s landlord-tenant law.

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