What Are Your Rights When Renting an Apartment?

When you’re renting an apartment, your rights are enshrined in three different places: federal law, state law, and the lease you happen to sign. It’s a good idea to know a little something about state and federal law as it pertains to renters in your area. It can be confusing, but there are nonprofits out there that are designed to help renters with this specific area.

The problem–and the reason you’ll need help–is that if your landlord is doing something illegal, you need to take legal action. You can’t simply stop paying your rent. (I know, it sucks, but that’s just not the way the law works unless you’re given special permission.) In any event, most of your rights and obligations will be expressed in the lease.

Law Trumps Lease

It’s important to note that you cannot agree to something illegal–at least, not in a legally binding sense. So the law usually works like this:

  • The lease sets out the specific parameters of the renting agreement
  • State law will usually override the lease in terms of what’s generally allowed
  • Federal law will usually override state law, although this tends to vary a little bit

In other words, it’s important that you be aware not only of what your lease says, but also what local laws and regulations say. That’s because, shocking though it may be, not all landlords are local. Many landlords are actually corporate entities, located in other cities, states, or even nations.

That means the lease you sign may or may not be specifically drafted to be legally binding in the state you’re in. It’s never a bad idea to spend some time and run your lease by an attorney, if you can afford it. That could save you some headaches in the long run. (How negotiable your lease is will likely be dictated by your local rental market; unfortunately, most rental markets have too many renters and not enough properties, putting you at a significant negotiating disadvantage).

What Rights Are Usually Spelled Out in my Lease?

Because they’re the ones that write them, leases are usually designed primarily to protect landlords. But there are some of your basic rights and processes that will likely be spelled out in the lease. This will provide you with vital information going forward. And, therefore, you’ll be able to know exactly what you can do in certain situations. For example:

  • A lease should tell you precisely what types of behaviors or events can lead to your eviction. Your lease will also tell you how late you can be with your rent before you’ll be evicted.
  • In general, a lease will also spell out late fees for rent, what happens if you can’t make your rent payment on the first, and so on.
  • Lease agreements will often spell out precisely how long management has to address issues that you’ve brought to their attention (ie: repairs, etc). If you’re waiting for the landlord to fix your stove, for example, the amount of time that takes could be specifically stated in your lease.
  • Policies involving pets and pet damage
  • Policies involving guests, how long those guests can stay, and what behavior is expected of those guests.
  • Behavioral guidelines for the apartment complex (listing, in general, what types of behaviors could get you into trouble with the apartment’s management).

It’s not uncommon for an apartment complex to require tenants to signs a lease as well as a policy agreement document, in which you’ll agree to a longer set of rules for the area in which you’ll be living.

How Can You Get Help?

Dealing with your landlord and your lease can be a daunting prospect. You aren’t an attorney, you haven’t been training for this your whole life. It can be difficult to parse a legal document for strengths and weaknesses.

There are a couple of ways you can get help, however. First is to seek out nonprofits that specifically deal with helping tenants cope with this area of the law. These nonprofits are definitely out there! You might have to use some Google-fu to find them, but they do exist.

Second, if you can afford it, you might want to hire an attorney that specializes in landlord and tenant law. Lawyers of this type are not uncommon, and they definitely have more experience in this particular field than you will.

Knowing your rights when renting an apartment can save you a lot of trouble in the long run.

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