Rent Rules and the Legal Rights & Obligations of Tenants
If you are looking at apartments or reviewing a lease, you may see the rent as a fixed amount that you simply need to pay at a certain time in a certain way. Rent is not always straightforward, however, and you should be aware of your rights and obligations as a tenant. For example, if you live in an area governed by rent control, you may be able to challenge a landlord’s ability to increase the rent or terminate the tenancy. This section provides a basic overview of the main issues to consider if you are a prospective tenant or a current tenant.
Limits on Rent
A landlord generally has the right to charge any amount of rent that they choose, except in an area governed by rent control or in the state of Connecticut. Rent control applies in certain cities and counties in New York, New Jersey, California, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. In Connecticut, tenants can challenge rent that they believe is excessive.
If the landlord follows the appropriate notice procedures and complies with any policies in a lease or rental agreement, they generally can increase the rent at their discretion as well. There is an exception if the landlord increases the rent to discriminate against a tenant based on factors like race or religion, or if the landlord increases the rent to retaliate against a tenant for exercising a legal right.
Deadlines for Paying Rent
The standard procedure is for rent to be paid monthly in advance on the first day of the month. Some landlords provide different arrangements, however, such as paying the rent in biweekly intervals or setting the deadline on the day that the tenant moved into the unit. When the due date falls on a weekend or a holiday, the rent usually needs to be paid by the next business day. A landlord sometimes can set different types of deadlines for different tenants, but this can also be illegal discrimination, depending on the situation.
If you have an oral lease, which is valid if your tenancy is one year or less, you may not know when rent is due. It is probably safe to assume that it is due on the same day that it would be due if you had a written lease that did not address the issue. This rule varies by state, but it is generally prudent to assume that rent is due at the start of the term. (You also should try to get your lease put in writing if possible.)
Landlords or state law may offer a “grace period,” a period of a few days after rent is due before a landlord may begin charging late fees. However, not all states mandate grace periods.
Grace periods may be provided by state law or individual lease or rental agreements. However, a landlord’s acceptance of late rent does not create a grace period on which you can rely absent a state law or written agreement. (You may have a grace period in terms of receiving a termination notice based on non-payment of rent, but this is a separate issue and depends on the specific law of your state.)
How to Pay Rent
Leases and rental agreements usually provide a specific process for paying rent. Some common examples are automatic debit from your bank account, automatic billing to your credit account, or mailing a check to the landlord’s business address. Sometimes a landlord will send someone to your unit to collect the rent, or they may ask you to drop it off at their office if the landlord or manager has an office on the property.
Generally, a landlord has the right to choose a certain form or forms of payment that they will accept. If you choose to write a personal check, you should be aware that the landlord is entitled to demand a certified check or money order instead. Postdated checks may or may not be accepted. Also, even if the landlord has previously accepted a certain form of payment that is different from what the lease or rental agreement provides, they are not required to continue accepting it permanently.
A landlord can change the way in which rent is paid, just as they can change other terms in a lease or rental agreement. This requires proper notice, however, which means at least 30 days under a rental agreement and possibly longer. A landlord cannot change a provision in a lease until the lease period expires.
Late Fees and Returned Checks
Unless the lease or rental agreement provides for late fees, a landlord may not impose a fee of any amount for paying rent late. However, some states allow landlords to pursue an eviction if the rent is late even by one day, so you may want to think twice before challenging a reasonable late fee if you live in one of these states.
Late fees and fees for returned checks must generally be reasonable, but they may not be worth challenging if the tenant will risk eviction.
Even if the lease or rental agreement provides for a late fee, it must be reasonable and, in some states, must fall within a certain dollar limit. This means that you generally cannot be evicted for failing to pay a late fee that is found to be unreasonable or otherwise in violation of state law. In determining whether a fee is unreasonable, courts will consider when the fee begins to apply, whether it increases without limit, and how much it is in proportion to your rent. Rather than fighting the late fee through the eviction process, you can also opt to pay the fee and then challenge it afterward in small claims court.
If your rent check bounces, the landlord can charge you a fee if you were given notice that the fee would apply. Similar to late fees, the extra charge must be reasonable. Some states allow landlords to charge interest on returned check charges.
Partial or Delayed Payments
If you are facing financial difficulties and cannot pay all of your rent on time, you may be able to negotiate with the landlord to pay part of your rent now and the rest later. You should let the landlord know about the situation in writing as soon as possible, and you should explain why it is only temporary. If possible, you should offer to pay some of the rent on time. You should also provide a written agreement stating your promise to pay the remaining rent by a certain date. This will protect you in case the landlord changes their mind or forgets about the agreement and tries to evict you.