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

Key Takeaways


Millions of Americans 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. If you’re a landlord and don’t know what you’re allowed to do to tenants’ homes, or if you’re a tenant and aren’t sure whether your landlord is allowed to do specific things from a legal standpoint, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s break down what landlords can and cannot do and dive deep into tenant law.

10 Things a Landlord Cannot Do

There are dozens of different rules dictating what landlords are and are not allowed to do concerning their tenants’ property and homes. However, tenants need to know 10 major things that landlords can’t do in order to protect themselves, and landlords need to know what they can’t do to avoid getting into legal trouble. These include:

  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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landlord tenant law

1. Enter a Tenant’s Home Without Proper Notice

A landlord cannot legally enter any tenant’s home without giving them proper notice, with the exception of clear emergencies. For example, if there’s a fire in a tenant’s home in the landlord enters to put it out, that’s legal. The tenant must approve all other entrances until they are legally evicted. However, what counts as “proper notice” depends on your state, so be sure to check your lease agreement for any applicable rules. 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. 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. 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 your favor before you 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.

4. Discriminate Against Tenants

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. Landlords do have the right to screen tenants and deny them based on things like bad credit, but you cannot discriminate against tenants based on race, religion, gender, family status, disability, and other protected statuses. It may be a good idea to familiarize yourself with the Fair Housing Act, which breaks down what you are and are not allowed to screen for when selecting tenants.

5. Refuse to Make Reasonable Repairs

A landlord can’t refuse to make any reasonable repairs, as it is their duty to make sure that all rental units are both 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

  • Heat and hot water

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. 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.

7. Use a Tenant’s Space

A landlord can’t legally use a tenant’s space without proper cause, such as an emergency. Renters are protected from landlords using their space for other purposes, such as office space or recreation.

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. 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, you have 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.

What if Your Landlord Breaks These Rules?

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.

Summary

Ultimately, landlords and tenants must abide by the above rules to ensure that housing arrangements are fair 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. 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.


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