Renting a home can be a walk on Easy Street—or a tug-of-war with your landlord.
You’ve got rights as a renter. Of course, your landlord has rights too. If all goes well during your tenancy, there’s no reason that the two of you should butt heads. But if something goes wrong, you should know what the laws that govern your tenancy are—they can make your life a lot easier and help you come out on top financially.
If you have the urge to make some improvements to your place, read the fine print of your lease before you jump into repainting the bedroom or tiling the bathroom. Many leases have clauses that prohibit you from making any alterations to the property, and disobeying this provision could cost you your security deposit at the very least.
If it costs your landlord more than that to undo the improvements you put in, you could end up in small claims court for the rest of the money. And while it’s not likely to happen, your landlord is legally allowed to evict you for breaking the terms of the lease by altering the property.
Even if there’s no explicit prohibition in your lease, it’s probably a good idea to get your landlord’s permission anyway, ideally in writing—and before you start. This way you’ll have proof of permission if anything happens after the fact. And who knows? If your landlord thinks the work you’re proposing to do is a good idea—one that might increase the rental’s future value— you might even be able to deduct the costs from your rent.
Whether your landlord will make repairs on your apartment if you request them depends on what you’re asking for—and on his or her attitude. While your landlord has to keep your residence in a habitable state, cosmetic repairs aren’t required by law, so don’t be surprised if your request for a new carpet or new fixtures falls on deaf ears. Of course if you have a good relationship with your landlord, or you can show a reason why the repair you want would be a good investment, you might get lucky.
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE
You’re carrying on a long tradition when you start dealing with landlords. The relationship between landlords and tenants comes from the feudal system that existed in Europe between the tenth and thirteenth centuries.
Back then, rulers who owned land gave portions of it to lords, who would rent it to other people in return for military service or some of the profits from working the land. The rural tenants had no rights, and nowhere to go for better living conditions.
The landlords of nineteenth-century cities were equally autocratic, though in a vastly changed landscape of crowded tenements. They prospered by jamming as many people as possible into as small a space as possible—something that still defines city living.
Eventually, laws established minimal standards for plumbing and ventilation and required air space between buildings. One consequence was the push upward. Instead of five- or six-story walkups, metal-framed skyscrapers— a term first used to describe a tall building in 1891—changed the image of a landlord from hard-hearted individual to impersonal corporation.
The loose network of laws that establish your rights as a tenant continue to evolve, helping to guarantee equal access to housing and eviction protection as well as to plumbing, heating, and other necessities.
If you decide to move out of your place before your lease is up, chances are you’ll be leaving some rent behind. That’s right—in most states, if you leave early, you’ve still got to pay for the apartment until the landlord finds a new tenant. And it’s not impossible that you might end up being charged for part of what it costs your landlord to re-rent the property.
On the other hand, your landlord is obligated to find a new tenant as soon as possible, which means you hopefully won’t have to pay out the rest of your lease. And some landlords will let you leave early if you pay a termination fee or give up your deposit rather than have to pay the rent every month. If you’ve got this opportunity, it could save you money, especially if you’re not sure your landlord will be able—or willing— to re-rent your place right away.
It pays to think ahead about possible resolutions. Sometimes the only time you can choose the termination option is when you sign the initial lease, not when you renew.
GET OUT AND STAY OUT!
It’s probably the last thing you want to think about when you’re moving in, but if you know a little about how eviction works, you’ll be prepared if you ever have to face it. Every state has its own particular laws, but almost all of them require that your landlord give you written notice and prove in court that you’ve done something that’s worthy of eviction.
A landlord can give you three different kinds of eviction notices:
- A pay or quit notice means that you’ll face eviction if you don’t pay your late rent
- A cure or quit notice means that you’ve broken one of the terms of your lease, and if you don’t remedy it—by getting rid of that unauthorized pet, for example, or turning down your music—you’ll be evicted
- An unconditional quit notice means you’re out and don’t have the chance to correct what you did wrong These notices are usually valid only when you’ve repeatedly been late with the rent or have otherwise broken your lease, or if you’ve used your apartment illegally in some way, such as running a business out of it.