Attention All Renters: Do You Know Your Rights?

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You've finally found it - the apartment of your dreams. Maybe that means it comes with a parking space and laundry facilities. Or maybe your piece of paradise has hardwood floors and lots of light or maybe it's ultra-modern. And the move-in costs don't even require a bank loan.

Naturally, you start wondering - is it too good to be true? Maybe the apartment was the scene of a violent crime or a death. Even worse, maybe the family above you is a troupe of tapdancers. Or that dog next door might start yowling and never stop after your move-in day. Does your potential landlord have to warn you of these property turn-offs before you sign the lease and move in? What are your rights?

Renters' Rights

Renter and landlord rights are generally covered by state and local statutes. In short, laws vary depending on where you live. Housing laws typically cover concerns about the physical property and the terms of the rental arrangement. Major areas spelled out by most states include the following:

  • The amount of rent you pay: Some areas are rent controlled. Rent control limits the amount of rent landlords can charge. In addition, security deposit limits are determined by law.
  • The condition of the rental property: Most laws require that rental property have certain standards for habitability. While this may seem subjective, habitability typically means a vermin-free apartment with functional plumbing, electricity and heat.
  • Access to the rental property: Both landlords and tenants have rights regarding property access. In most places, landlords have to notify a tenant in advance before they enter the property. There are obvious exceptions in emergency situations, like a flood caused by a water leak.
  • Eviction: In a perfect world, everyone would pay their rent on time and move out after giving proper notice. In the real world, renters sometimes abandon property and landlords need to evict. Laws protect the rights of those involved and may even anticipate unusual circumstances. For example, if someone in Iowa is evicted and leaves their personal property behind, the landlord has the right to pile the stuff on the curb. In other places, the landlord must store the property for a set length of time.
  • Liability: If there is an accident on the property, who is liable? What if the property's condition leads to a health problem or is hazardous? Local laws also address these issues. Recent cases have involved the presence of lead paint and mold in older buildings.
  • Discrimination:Under federal law, housing discrimination is illegal. Rental discrimination is enforced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. No one may be denied access to a personal property rental on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or disability.
  • Disclosure: So, what about that former axe-murderer tenant or the family of bagpipers in the building? Does your landlord have to disclose death, suicide or disease to you? Local codes dictate what landlords have to disclose. In some places, a landlord must disclose if a death occurred on the property; in other communities, only violent deaths must be disclosed. Often, there's a statute of limitations on disclosing death. If you're really wondering, consider meeting your new neighbors to ask questions and satisfy your curiosity.

How to find out about your housing rights

Whether you are a renter or a landlord, it pays to learn your rights. For more information about your local housing laws, see if your community has a Fair Housing Board. Such groups are usually non-profits or government organizations set up to help people understand their housing rights. You may also find city or state websites with information on rental legislation and answers to frequently asked questions. There's no reason not to ask the questions that confirm the rental of your dreams won't turn out to be a nightmare.