Landlord & Renters’ Rights: What a Landlord Cannot Do

Updated May 3, 2024
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Most Americans prefer to rent a house instead of buying one. They do it because it has many advantages. If you  want to rent a property, you must follow the rules and learn all about the renters' rights.

To ensure the rental market is fair, we must protect the houses of both landlords and renters. If you wish to upgrade your living situation, determine your state's renters’ rights. 

As a renter, knowing what a landlord can't do is important. Read your state's local landlord and tenant laws carefully before renting to or from someone since sections of landlord and tenant law might differ from state to state.

Federal Landlord-Tenant Laws

U.S. federal landlord-tenant laws provide substantial protections for tenants and landlords. The Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act protect disabled renters from prejudice.

Landlords must protect security payments and tell renters if a rental unit was built before 1978 and has lead paint. Federal law says that renters can't be punished for standing up for renters' rights, and the Fair Credit Reporting Act says how to screen tenants.

Even though removal laws are usually handled at the state level, landlords must know renters’ rights and follow the rules set by federal law. To have a fair and proper relationship with your landlord, you need to be aware of federal landlord-tenant laws.

When it comes to government landlord-tenant rules and renters’ rights in the United States, there are a few important things to keep in mind:

  • Fair Housing Act (FHA) - The Fair Housing Act says that owners can't turn someone away because of their race, color, gender, sex, where they come from if they have a disability, or if they have a family. 

  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) - The Americans with Disabilities Act requires landlords to provide disabled tenants with full building access. They must make the property accessible to disabled individuals.

  • Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) - The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) says that renters have to do rental checks in a certain way. For example, getting written permission from the applicant and warning of bad things that might happen if the application is denied because of what a background check shows.

  • Security Deposits - Renters should be cautious about security fees, even though federal law has no specific rules. After moving out, they have enough time to get their deposit back or receive a list of what was deducted.

  • Lead-Based Paint - Your landlord must warn you about lead-based paint risks if the rental home was built before 1978. Lead-based paint regulations set out by the EPA must be strictly adhered to. The process includes spreading awareness, performing inspections, and making repairs.

  • Evictions - Even while states control most eviction laws, federal law requires landlords to provide tenants with written eviction notices and follow all legal processes. 

  • Retaliation Protections - Retaliation can take different forms. For example, raising the rent, threatening to evict, or disconnecting utilities. If a renter complains about health and safety or creates a tenants' union to use their rights under federal law, the landlord cannot punish them. 

Things That Landlords Can’t Do

As part of a tenancy agreement and renters’ rights, landlords are not allowed to do any of the actions mentioned below.

Discriminate against tenants

When someone is treated poorly because of who they are, it is known as discrimination. According to the Fair Housing Act (FHA), ignoring the renters’ rights and treating them unjustly is illegal. Discrimination happens when:

  • Someone is not allowed to rent a home.

  • They have to follow different rules.

  • They get different services than other people.

Whatever a tenant's ethnicity, gender, nationality, disability, or family situation, a landlord must treat them with respect and fulfill the renters’ rights. Any of these conditions may lead to legal action. These rules support variety and equality. How? By ensuring everyone has the same rights to a good standard of life.

Refuse to make reasonable repairs

Property owners must take reasonable steps to protect renters’ rights and keep the person’s home safe for tenant occupancy. Repairs must be made promptly, especially when the living conditions affect the tenant’s physical health and safety. Such cases include:

  • Roaches; 

  • Bed bugs; 

  • Rats; 

  • Leaky roofs;

  • Mold; 

  • Lead paint;

  • Exposed or faulty electrical wiring; 

  • Normal wear and tear, such as broken floor boards or clogged toilets.

Although property owners typically wait to make repairs until their insurance company covers the damage claim and protects renters’ rights, the landlord should—as soon as possible—repair damages that are caused by emergencies or natural disasters, such as

  • Floods;
  • Fires; 
  • Hurricanes or other storms.

Withhold the security deposit for a rental unit

The security deposit that a tenant pays to a landlord is meant to reimburse the landlord for:

  1. Rent owed;

  2. Property damage (beyond normal wear and tear caused by regular use); or

  3. Costs of removing, storing, or returning a tenant’s property and storage left in the unit.

While most states limit the amount a landlord can collect, a few states have no such limit, which slightly decreases renters’ rights. However, in all states, a landlord must return the finances to the tenant if there are no issues.

Where there are damages or unpaid rent to attach the security deposit, the landlord must send the tenant an itemized receipt and return the remainder, if any. A landlord cannot withhold the security deposit without letting the tenant know how it is being used –– this is against renters’ rights. Some states also permit using the security deposit as an investment. However, when the lease ends, the landlord should have the deposit returned to the tenant when the conditions are met, according to renters’ rights.

Enter the rental property unannounced or without notice

Once a property owner rents  to a tenant, the landlord’s rights  are limited. The renters’ rights include living on the property without intrusion and retaliation. This right to quiet enjoyment bars the landlord from entering the home without giving proper notice unless there is an emergency.

When a landlord plans to enter the property to make repairs, conduct inspections, or show the property to future tenants, the tenant must know, regardless of whether the tenant will be present. If the landlord fails to inform the tenant, entering the premises can be considered trespassing.

Provide an uninhabitable unit

According to federal law and renters’ rights, landlords need to provide their tenants with a rental unit that is liveable. What is considered an inhabitable property generally varies from state to state. Still, all premises must have specific basic requirements, such as running water, heating, plumbing, lockable doors and windows, and smoke detectors, according to local building codes. Landlords cannot neglect these necessities.

Evict tenants before lease termination

A landlord may want to evict a tenant for many different reasons, but the primary reason is typically when a tenant breaches the terms of the lease and neglects their rights. To expel, the landlord must notify the tenant using a notice of lease termination. What constitutes adequate notice may vary, but a typical starting point is at least 30 days.

To evict a tenant and keep their renters’ rights unviolated, the landlord must follow these steps:

  1. Serve an eviction notice — An eviction notice is a final notice that the landlord serves  the tenant. The notice will specify the terms breached, such as nonpayment of rent, and state the consequences.

  2. File the eviction complaint with the court clerk — If a tenant fails to heed an eviction notice, the next step for the landlord is to go to court to seek an eviction order that will legally force the tenant out of the property.

Renters may be able to defend their renters’ rights to remain on the property, especially if the landlord does not follow the proper eviction process.

Change locks or duplicate apartment keys

A landlord may have a copy of the key to the tenant’s apartment, but they cannot use that key to invade the tenant’s privacy. Changing the locks and effectively keeping the tenant out of the property can also constitute an illegal eviction and violate renters’ rights.

Increase rent without notice

When inflation grows and costs increase, property owners may need to raise rent to cover those costs. However, a landlord cannot increase rent without sufficient notice to the tenant. The property owner must write a rent increase letter that would reasonably notify the tenant.

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Turn off utilities and other services

If any utility or other service is included in the rental agreement, the landlord may not turn off these services without proper reason and notice. Being without these services may render the property uninhabitable or force the tenant to leave, which can be considered an illegal eviction and a breach of the renters’ rights.

Withhold important disclosures about the property

A landlord must disclose certain information about the property's condition, specifically any that may affect the tenant’s health or safety and the renters’ rights.

Retaliate against the tenant

Retaliation is when an owner does something terrible to a tenant because the tenant stands up for their rights under the law. Any kind of retaliation is against the law and would violate the renters’ rights. There may be things like

  • Removal threats;
  • Abuse; or
  • The sudden and unjustified lease end.

Federal and state laws protect renters’ rights and defend tenants from punishment. Landlords must treat tenant concerns fairly and reasonably, encouraging respect and cooperation.

What a Landlord Can Do

Whether you are a landlord or a tenant, it helps to know the renters’ rights and what a landlord can and cannot do. The following are some things that landlords can do regarding their properties:

  1. Screen potential tenants — This involves evaluating the prospective tenants’ rental applications to ensure they know their renters’ rights, can fulfill the terms of the lease agreement, afford the rent payments, and take proper care of the rental property. 

  2. Collect rent and security deposits — Some states restrict the amount a landlord can charge for a security deposit, but this is typically limited to one or two months’ rent.

  3. Charge for late rent based on the lease terms — The lease may specify an amount that the landlord can collect from a tenant in addition to the rent amount if the rent is paid after a specific date.

  4. Evict tenants for breach of contract — If a tenant is found committing illegal activities on the premises, the landlord can evict the tenant. A tenant can also be evicted for breaching any other lease terms and violating renters’ rights. 

  5. Enter the property with proper notice or in an emergency.

What to Do If Your Landlord Breaks the Rules

Tenants can take legal action against their landlords if they breach the lease’s terms and their renters' rights. A lease agreement is a legally binding contract that may help tenants remind landlords of the terms and rights of both parties. Therefore, the tenant can take legal action if the landlord breaches the lease terms and may sometimes be awarded damages.

It may be tempting to take legal action when the relationship with the landlord is strained due to violating the lease agreement and the renters’ rights. However, given the limitations of lawsuits, the tenant may wish to send the landlord written notice of the violation to prevent further breaches and allow them to correct the issue. A tenant may also opt for third-party mediation before taking other legal action.

Bottom Line

Landlord and tenant laws generally vary by state. Therefore, tenants should stay informed regarding renters’ rights and landlords’ obligations. Be sure that the terms of the lease are clear before signing. As a tenant, you will want to be aware of illegal things landlords do and what you can do about it. When in doubt, you may wish to seek legal advice from an experienced attorney.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Can tenants refuse to allow viewings?

In the United States, tenants can refuse visitors to their rental homes. They are within their renters’ rights to do so legally. Renter protections vary widely from one nation to the next.

If you don't want a visit from the landlord, they should let you know in advance so you may refuse the invitation. Remember that giving the tenants at least two days' notice is preferable. It will show that you are respecting the renters’ rights. The landlords are not obligated to contact you in an emergency, though.

Renters have complete control over the showing schedule and conditions for their properties. Before signing the lease, make sure you have carefully read it. Learn the renters’ rights and obligations as a tenant via research, discussion with the property owner, and assistance from neighborhood organizations.

How often can landlords inspect a property?

Landlords can visit rental properties for different reasons without violating the renters’ rights. Usually, they are required to help maintain the building's functionality. Sometimes, inspections are done to ensure the property is still safe.

Inspections typically happen when you move in or move out. Before doing inspections, landlords should check their state's laws and renters’ rights to know what kinds of notifications are reasonable and what kinds of inspections are unreasonable.

Landlords and property managers check the rental unit after tenants move out to see if it's in good condition. They should check the property at least once before the lease ends to ensure everything is okay.