Tenants’ Rights

People who rent their homes place a considerable amount of trust in their landlords. Tenants are at a significant disadvantage in their basic relationship to a landlord, since the landlord has a certain amount of power to make their home unlivable or render them homeless. Some provisions of state landlord-tenant law, much like consumer protection law, address this imbalance. These include a landlord’s duty to make reasonable repairs to a leased property and a duty to give notice before evicting a tenant or otherwise excluding him or her from the property.

Landlord-Tenant Relationship

A lease contract, or lease agreement, gives a tenant the right to occupy real property as a residence. A tenant’s usual obligations involve the payment of rent on a monthly basis, the payment of a security deposit, and various restrictions related to matters like pets and noise levels.

Most lease agreements have a specific duration, such as one year. The parties may renew the lease as is, or the landlord may present new terms, such as higher rent. A lease agreement without a specific duration, often called a “month-to-month” lease, should require a minimum amount of notice prior to termination, so that a landlord cannot require a tenant to vacate the premises by an unreasonable or impossible deadline.

Housing Discrimination

The federal Fair Housing Act and other federal laws, as well as many states’ laws, prohibit discrimination in housing rentals based on various factors, which might include race, color, national origin, gender, religion, or family status. This last category includes minor children residing with parents or legal guardians and pregnant individuals. A landlord therefore may not refuse to rent to a person because he or she has legal custody of a child, or because of his or her race, religion, or other characteristics.

Rent Payments

The payment of rent is mostly governed by the contract between the landlord and tenant. A lease agreement should state exactly when rent payments are due and when rent is considered late. If the due date falls on a weekend or holiday, when the mail is not delivered, the lease should state that the payment is due on the next business day, or at some other reasonable time. Landlords typically may not require payment of rent early under any circumstances.

If a tenant misses a rent payment, the landlord should notify the tenant that payment is due. The landlord may assess late fees if they are included in the lease agreement. The landlord may also serve an eviction notice if the tenant misses a payment, although most landlords only do this once a tenant is significantly behind.

Repairs and Maintenance

The implied warranty of habitability requires a property owner or manager to maintain a living space according to a minimum standard that enables people to live there. This warranty is written into law in some states, such as Maine, but it has legal effect in most jurisdictions. A failure to keep a property in a minimally habitable condition could constitute constructive eviction of a tenant.

Landlords have a general duty to maintain common areas that are not part of any tenant’s lease and to repair conditions that make the property unsafe or unlivable. This includes repairing roof leaks, foundation problems, plumbing and electrical systems, and structural damage. It might also include appliance repair, if the appliances are part of the leased property and not the tenant’s personal property. A landlord might not be legally responsible to repair damage caused by the tenant’s own reckless or negligent behavior. Many states do not allow tenants to withhold rent to cover repairs a landlord should have made.


A tenant has the right to “quiet enjoyment” of the leased premises, which includes the right to exclude others. The landlord has a limited right to access the leased premises for repairs and maintenance, or other duties associated with the lease. This usually requires advance notice to the tenant.

Security Deposit

A lease agreement may require a tenant to put down a security deposit at the beginning of a lease term. The landlord may use the deposit, at the end of the lease, to repair damage caused to the leased premises by the tenant, or for which the tenant was responsible. A security deposit usually may not be applied towards ordinary wear and tear.

The landlord must account for the security deposit and refund any unused portion to the tenant, but tenants in many states must take affirmative steps to trigger these responsibilities. In Texas, for example, a tenant must demand a refund of the security deposit in writing and provide a forwarding address where the payment should go. The landlord has 30 days from the date it receives the demand to provide a refund and a written accounting of any deductions. Failure to meet these requirements by a landlord may entitle a tenant to damages.

Breach of Lease and Eviction

A landlord’s main method of enforcing a lease agreement is eviction, but this can be an expensive and time-consuming process. Most states require notice and a judicial proceeding in order to evict a tenant. This often involves a notice of delinquency with a demand to pay overdue rent, or repair some other default, by a certain date. If the tenant has not complied by that date, the landlord may file for eviction in a local court. In some situations, the landlord may change the locks or take other action to exclude the tenant from the property at this point. A tenant may appear in court and may be able to avoid eviction if the landlord failed to follow the required procedures.

Beating an eviction in court does not absolve a tenant from the responsibility to pay rent. A landlord may collect unpaid rent in an eviction proceeding, or through a breach of contract action separate from eviction. Many state laws require a landlord to mitigate damages from a breach of lease. For example, a landlord may not claim 12 months of rent from a tenant who breached a one-year lease after only a few months. Most lease agreements include a provision for liquidated damages, such as one or two months’ rent, if the tenant breaches.