What a Landlord Can & Cannot Do: A Guide to Tenant Law

Millions of Americans inside and outside of cities rent rather than own their homes. As a result, tenants and landlords have a complex legal relationship. Both parties are granted exclusive rights concerning the property they technically share. Both parties must have awareness of these rights to properly co-exist within their lease agreement. If you’re a landlord of a rental property and don’t know what a landlord cannot do within a tenant’s space, you can easily sign yourself up for legal headaches in the future. Likewise, if you’re a tenant of a rental property and aren’t sure whether your landlord is allowed to do specific things from a legal standpoint, knowing your local tenant rights is the first step toward properly navigating the situation and improving your living situation.

In this article, we’ll break down what landlords cannot do, what they can do within their rental property, as well as explore a few aspects of tenant law to help new landlords understand their rights and assist confused renters with understanding their options in the case of their landlord breaking any of the following landlord and tenant rules and regulations.

What Your Landlord Cannot Do: 10 Major Issues

There are dozens of different rules dictating what landlords are and are not allowed to do concerning their tenants’ property and homes. While local tenant rights might fluctuate based on local regulations, numerous actions are considered unanimously unethical for a landlord to do. By knowing some of these most important restrictions on landlords, tenants can properly defend themselves if the situation demands.

Let’s explore 10 major things that landlords cannot do to protect tenants and themselves within their lease agreement. By understanding renters rights, tenants are protected and landlords can ensure they comply with the proper management practices to support long-term tenant happiness and continued rental income. Landlords cannot do the following actions:

  1. Enter a tenant’s home without proper notice

  2. Increase rent without notice

  3. Unlawfully evict tenants

  4. Discriminate against tenants

  5. Refuse to make reasonable repairs

  6. Withhold a tenant’s security deposit

  7. Use a tenant’s space

  8. Prohibit service animals

  9. Allow lead content

  10. Change locks without notice


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what your landlord cannot do

1. Enter a Tenant’s Home Without Proper Notice

A common question renters ask is, “Are landlords allowed to let themselves in?” The short answer is no, except for emergency circumstances.

A landlord cannot legally enter any tenant’s home without giving them proper notice, except for clear emergencies that pose a risk to the property or the tenant themselves. For example, if there’s a fire in a tenant’s home if the landlord enters to put it out, this would be considered completely legal due to emergency circumstances. But if the landlord entered the tenant’s apartment to simply provide a tour of the unit without giving proper notice, this would be considered illegal and a violation of renter’s rights.

Outside of clear risks to tenant safety, the tenant must approve all other entrances with proper notice until they are legally evicted. The concept of “proper notice”’ does introduce a bit of a grey area, as notice guidelines tend to vary by state-specific landlord rules and regulations. Be sure to check your lease agreement for any applicable rules for landlord entry. Additionally, tenants are not allowed to refuse landlords’ entrance to their homes if proper notice has been given and it is within business hours, such as 9 AM to 5 PM in most states.

2. Increase Rent Without Notice

Landlords are also not allowed to increase rent for their tenants without giving proper notice. In most cases, this means giving a minimum of 30 days’ notice before increasing even a single tenant’s rent. Specifics notice time frames should be spelled out in any rental agreement or lease so that tenants can properly anticipate when these rent increases might increase.

Additionally, landlords need to be careful if they rent in a rent-controlled or rent-stabilized city. These laws may limit how much you can increase the rent when a lease expires for renewal. Note that if a tenant moves out of a unit that is subject to rent control, it officially becomes deregulated. This means you can charge market rent in line with whatever rent payments your other tenants are making.

3. Unlawfully Evict Tenants

A landlord can’t unlawfully evict tenants or evict tenants without going through the correct channels. Landlords cannot simply remove a tenant’s items without taking the proper steps for legality’s sake. In most states, eviction processes are fairly straightforward and rigid, and may include:

  • A requirement to prove that the tenant is not abiding by your rules or paying rent on time

  • A requirement to provide a tenant with a formal eviction notice, allowing them to remedy the situation before kicking them out

  • A requirement to give the tenant enough time to vacate the property

Even after fulfilling these requirements, landlords must file eviction notices in court, then go through an eviction hearing. The judge must rule in the landlord’s favor before they can proceed to get a court order for eviction. Even though the eviction process can be very time-consuming and financially costly, landlords must follow the process to the letter to avoid any legal recourse and replace issue tenants.

4. Discriminate Against Tenants

As with any job interview or school application, discrimination has no place in a landlord’s schedule. The United States is a free country, and landlords are never allowed to refuse to rent to tenants based on discriminatory factors or otherwise discriminate against their current tenants. It may be a good idea to familiarize yourself with the Fair Housing Act, which outlaws discrimination based on:

  • Race, skin color, or ethnicity

  • Sex and gender identity

  • Age

  • National origin

  • Familial status

  • Physical or mental disabilities

  • Sexual orientation

  • Religion

If a tenant feels that their landlord has discriminated against them, they should definitely seek legal recourse. It is worth noting that landlords do have the right to screen tenants and deny them based on things like bad credit, a history of past evictions, or a concerning criminal background check. But, again renter’s rights state that they cannot be judged based on any of the factors listed above.

5. Refuse to Make Reasonable Repairs

A landlord can’t refuse to make any reasonable repairs, as it is their duty to ensure that all rental units are safe and habitable. Tenants may take legal action against you if you fail to make reasonable repairs, particularly if they compromise tenants’ health or safety. As an example, if there is mold in a rental unit, you must take care of that mold ASAP. You’ll also need to make reasonable repairs regarding:

  • Insulation

  • Locks

  • Cooling Systems

  • Elevator Functions

  • Heat

  • Hot Water

Maintenance costs are a natural part of any rental property management process. Landlords are suggested to conduct regular inspections of property operations to ensure all maintenance is running smoothly to avoid tenant complaints and prolonged technical complications.

6. Withhold a Tenant’s Security Deposit

Many landlords require that their tenants give them security deposits before they can sign a lease contract. Security deposits are also usually one month’s rent to cover any damage that a tenant may cause to their rental unit during their leasing period. Most states require you to put the security deposit into an escrow account for the duration of your tenant’s lease term, and the money can only be used for repairs for damage caused by the tenant in question. You are not allowed to keep the security deposit if your tenant doesn’t cause any damages to your property. If you misuse the security deposit, you could be sued in small claims court. Note, however, that many landlords are allowed to keep security deposits if their tenants break their leases early. The security deposits, in these cases, are used to cover any unpaid rent.

To avoid inappropriately breaking landlord rules while still ensuring security deposits are used in the case of tenant damages, landlords should make sure to schedule a unit inspection a few weeks before the tenant’s move-out date. This allows tenants to repair any issues ahead of time as well as understand where any potential charges might come from later on once they’ve moved out, increasing transparency throughout the entire process.

7. Use a Tenant’s Space

As one of the most straightforward of the list of what a landlord cannot do, landlord-tenant laws state that a landlord cannot legally use a tenant’s space without proper cause, such as an emergency like the example we discussed above. Renters are protected from landlords using their space for other purposes, such as additional office space or recreational purposes.

8. Prohibit Service Animals

If a tenant has a trained service animal, as described in the Americans with Disabilities Act, landlords are required to rent to tenants even if there is an existing “no pet” rule in place for other tenants. Additionally, if a rental property allows animals but has a restricted breed list, they must allow this breed if they are a trained service animal with the proper documentation.

If you’re a landlord, you can request that a potential tenant or current tenant provide you with paperwork proving the service animal’s status. If they provide that proof, typically obtained from their physician, landlords are legally required to let them stay and make reasonable accommodations for their service animal.

9. Allow Lead Content

Lead can be very poisonous and can gradually build up in the body over time. Therefore, landlords are never allowed to rent apartments that have lead content, like lead-based paint. This is a more common concern for older apartments or homes.

Furthermore, landlords are still responsible for checking modern homes for lead content and making repairs if lead content is discovered.

10. Change Locks Without Notice

Lastly, landlords cannot change locks without letting their tenants know ahead of time. This also means landlords can’t forcibly evict tenants from their property by changing the locks while they are out. If you’re a landlord and try this, you could get into major legal trouble as this is one of the quickest ways to interfere with a tenant’s happiness within your rental property.

what can a landlord not do

Federal Anti-Discrimination Laws

The Federal Housing Act is just one set of protections against discrimination between a landlord and tenant. There are also additional specifications within the Civil Rights Act of 1968 to be aware of:

  • In no circumstances can a landlord discriminate against tenants based on race, religion, gender, family status, disability, and other protected statuses.

  • A landlord cannot refuse to rent to a person based on a protected status.

  • Landlords cannot use a different set of screening requirements, provide different services, or require a larger security deposit for different groups of people.

  • Landlords cannot say there are no vacancies if there are vacant units in an effort to steer people away from the property.

  • A landlord cannot advertise preference for a specific protected class when marketing properties, during showings, or at any point in the leasing process.

What If Your Landlord Breaks Tenant Rules And Regulations?

If your landlord breaks any of the above rules, you have several possible means of recourse. For example, you can file a claim with the Department of Housing and Urban Development by making a request in writing and, if possible, photographing the damage if a landlord doesn’t make repairs or has locked you out of your home. You can alternatively call the local department of health for your city and report problems. If you’re locked out of your home, you can also call the police, as a landlord is not allowed to refuse you access to your rented space even if they are attempting to evict you. Of course, you can always pursue justice through lawsuits or small claims court.

The smartest thing tenants and landlords can do to ensure no confusion occurs during rental property operations is fully read their lease agreement before tenant signature and landlord finalization. At this stage, any questions can be answered and tenants can have a stronger understanding of their renter’s rights, and landlords can ensure they’re following the proper steps to efficiently running their rental property.

Summary

Ultimately, landlords and tenants must abide by the above rules to ensure fair housing arrangements and that renters are not taken advantage of by their landlords. If you’re a landlord, brush up on the above rules to avoid getting into trouble due to simply not knowing what landlords cannot do. If you’re a renter, make sure you know these rules so you can protect yourself in case you ever encounter a landlord without your best interests at heart. Both tenants and landlords should properly communicate their expectations to keep tenants content in their living situation and landlords legally protected during their property management processes.


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