Rent increases are never, ever fun. Every year, I hold my breath when it’s time to renew my lease, in the hopes that the hike is still within my housing budget. Sure, it may be easier than ever to find homes for rent online, but I love where I live, and would like to stay there as long as I can.
Fortunately, my landlords have always played fair. But let’s be frank—some don’t. And when that happens, it leaves many tenants wondering: What are the rules on raising rent, anyway?
Read on for answers to the questions that keep renters up at night.
How often can landlords raise rent?
Landlords can’t just raise your rent whenever they feel like it; they have to wait until whatever contract you’ve signed with them expires, says Robert Pellegrini, president of PK Boston, a real estate and collections law firm with offices in the Greater Boston area. That means that if you have a lease, they can’t raise it until the lease term expires.
For example, if you’ve signed a one-year contract, it’ll be a year before rent can go up, or two years if you’ve signed a two-year lease (which is why signing a lease for two years or longer is wise, to keep the rent down).
Meanwhile, if you’re renting month-to-month, your rent can’t increase until the end of any given month. Simple rules. But real rules.
How much notice should renters receive of rent increases?
In most states, renters must be granted at least 30 days’ notice before a rent increase is enforced, although that can vary based on how much the rent will actually go up. In California, for instance, that advance notice expands to 60 days if the increase is more than 10% of the rent.
These rules are also typically true for a “tenant at will” (i.e., you do not have a lease) and, more surprisingly, a tenant in a rooming house, where you are likely to pay rent weekly.
“In this case, one would assume that seven days’ notice would suffice. Not the case!” says Pellegrini. “Tenants in rooming houses still require 30 days’ notice for a rent increase.”
No matter how strange your leasing terms may seem, or how unorthodox your housing situation, you may be surprised when it comes to your rights concerning rent increases.
How much can landlords legally increase what renters pay?
As unfortunate as it may be, rent increases are common, and many tenants expect some kind of increase every time their lease comes up. Still, some renters might find it hard to believe just how much the price of their housing goes up every year.
“When it comes to how much a landlord can raise rent, anything flies,” says Pellegrini. “There are no rules, and it’s totally at their discretion.” Except, of course, if you’re living in a rent-stabilized or rent-controlled apartment, in which case there are strict government provisions in place governing how much rent can be raised (or if it can be increased at all).
Finding one of these rent-controlled apartments is something like locating the holy grail. So, if you don’t know if you have a rent-controlled apartment, the chances are you do not.
If that’s the case, you, your lease, and your wallet are mostly at the mercy of your landlord and the rental market in your area. However, there are some exceptions to what your landlord can do, for example: raise the rent to punish a renter.
“If it looked to a judge like the landlord was raising rent punitively—say, for example, to get ‘payback’ for the tenant contacting the Board of Health for a health code violation—then this is not OK, and the landlord could be found guilty and made to pay as much as triple damages and court costs,” says Pellegrini.
In this case, it’s not about your rental agreement, the length of your lease, or even a housing market increase in your area. It’s about what is legal and illegal. If you think you may be a victim of a punitive rent increase, contact a lawyer.
Can a landlord raise rent retroactively?
The short answer is no. In most cases, if a landlord has slapped a tenant with a retroactive rent increase, he was negligent in letting the tenant know about the increase at the appropriate time. The renter can’t be held responsible for a rent increase he or she genuinely didn’t know about.
“Often, a landlord provides notice of the increased rent retroactively together, to try to bully renters out, knowing that the tenant might be overwhelmed due to the ‘back rent’ and would be more likely to vacate,” says Pellegrini.
If this is the case for you, be aware that a tenant can file suit against a landlord, or simply counterclaim if an eviction has already been initiated by the landlord.
What should renters do if they think their landlord illegally raised the rent?
So, now that you know a bit more about rent increases: What if you’re realizing that your rent may have been increased illegally?
Maybe your rent was increased illegally on a rent-controlled apartment. Or, perhaps you’re looking through your rental agreement and realizing that you weren’t due for an increase.
There are things you can do to protect yourself from an illegal rent increase.
“A tenant should keep track of every correspondence they receive,” says Pellegrini. “They should also take notes when communication is verbal, and keep track of the dates of each communication.” This is especially important when trying to prove harassment (to pay rent or otherwise).
But don’t assume that your landlord is automatically the bad guy.
“In my opinion, the vast majority of landlords do the right thing, and, out of the slim percentage that do not, they aren’t even aware that they did something incorrectly,” says Pellegrini.
“So, in all but a few cases, I’d highly recommend that the tenant communicate with the landlord first if something doesn’t seem right. If the tenant ends up in court, or starts things off in a threatening way, they should remember that the landlord owns the property. And, if the landlord finds the tenant to be difficult to work with, the landlord is entitled to allow the tenancy to expire and find a new tenant.”
So, you should yourself (and your money) from an unfair increase, but don’t go so far as to threaten your landlord and put your housing situation at risk. Remember that your landlord could have made an honest mistake.
It’s also possible that you could have miscalculated an increase along the way. If you come on too strong to correct the situation, you could potentially end up facing eviction.
Watch: Is It Smarter to Rent or Buy?