It’s important to understand your rights as a renter.
The landlord-tenant relationship is complex. Each party’s responsibilities can vary by city, state and lease agreement. But federal, local and state laws secure renters’ rights.
The first step in exercising your tenants’ rights is to understand what those rights (and the laws that protect them) actually are. The second is to learn how to take action if someone violates your rights.
In this guide:
The right to fair housing
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 makes it illegal for landlords to discriminate based on race, sex, age, religion, nationality, family status or mental or physical disability. The Fair Housing Act applies to most rental units. There are exceptions for small rental properties, private clubs and religious organizations.
The law protects current renters and prospective tenants from discrimination for any of the reasons listed above. This discrimination can take many forms.
Federal Fair Housing Act protections
Sex, race, family status, age, religion, disability or national origin are examples of protected classes under the FHA. Landlords can’t refuse to rent to or negotiate with someone because of their protected status. They can’t set different terms or conditions, ask a renter to move out or force them to pay different fees or higher rent.
It’s against the law to state that only renters with particular physical and mental abilities or familial status can rent an apartment. The same goes for people of a certain age, race, sex or nationality. This applies to verbal statements and advertising, too. It’s also illegal for landlords to harass, intimidate, bribe or interfere with a renter’s right to equitable accommodation.
Definition of familial status
A landlord can’t refuse to rent to families with kids under 18 or discriminate against people seeking custody of children under 18. Landlords can’t deny legal guardians or pregnant women a home unless there’s a legal reason to do so.
Definition of sex
It’s against the law to only rent to men or women. Landlords also can’t discriminate because of a renter’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) offers resources, especially for LGBTQ+ renters.
Other protected classes
Certain state laws extend additional protections. Some make it illegal to discriminate because a renter receives alimony, child support or public assistance. Others ban discrimination based on physical characteristics like tattoos and piercings.
Search by state to learn about the laws in your area. If someone violates your rights, contact an organization on this list, reach out to an attorney or law firm or file a claim with HUD.
Rights for disabled tenants
The FHA and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protect renters with physical and mental disabilities. Under these laws, landlords must provide safe and accessible rental homes to residents with disabilities.
The ADA requires that common spaces are accessible. The FHA requires that most apartments, rental homes and condos built after March 13, 1991, include wheelchair-accessible doors, hallways and living spaces. Homes built before that date must have grab rails, accessible outlets and light switches, TTY phone systems, visual alarms and other accessible features put in place. Learn more about your rights in our accessible apartment guide.
If a landlord won’t rent to you or refuses to make reasonable accommodations so you can live in your home, you could file a complaint. Contact a Fair Housing Assistance Program (FHAP) or file a claim with HUD. Hiring an attorney with experience in discrimination claims can increase your chance of success.
The right to a habitable home
You have the right to a habitable home. That means the home you rent is a clean, safe space with access to heat and water. It’s structurally sound and free from pests.
A habitable home isn’t a threat to your physical health. A landlord must provide working safety measures like fire extinguishers, carbon monoxide and smoke detectors and fire alarms in your apartment. Most states require landlords to tell renters about environmental hazards like asbestos or mold before signing a lease.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and HUD also require landlords to tell prospective renters about lead paint in buildings built before 1978. Both parties must acknowledge the presence of lead paint in writing before the tenants move in. Landlords aren’t obligated to remove lead-based paint, just acknowledge it.
In most other cases, the landlord or property management team is responsible for removing toxins and making the rental home safe to live in. This doesn’t apply to damage caused by the current tenant.
Tenant rights include access to timely repairs and maintenance. A landlord will often include a timeframe for completing repairs. The lease may provide additional details about timing.
The right to privacy and notice for landlord visits
This is one of the most common landlord-tenant issues. Thankfully, renters’ rights are quite clear on the subject.
A landlord or property owner might own your apartment, but they can’t just barge in whenever they want. Landlords can only enter under certain circumstances. These include making or assessing repairs and showing rental units to insurance or mortgage professionals and prospective renters.
Landlords don’t need permission to enter during emergency situations like a fire or natural disaster. They can also come in if they think a tenant abandoned an apartment.
Most states require a landlord to give advance notice before entering an apartment, usually 24-48 hours. Rental agreements may provide more details.
Tenants have the right to request another date or time for a landlord’s visit. But they can’t deny them access if they have a valid reason to enter.
The right to fair credit reporting
The Fair Credit Reporting Act of 1970 gives renters the right to know what’s in their credit reports. If a property manager or landlord rejects your application, they have to disclose where they got the information. They also have to tell you how to contact the issuer. You just need to request this information from your landlord in writing.
This protects tenant rights because landlords have to provide evidence of bad credit. They can’t just deny your application for no reason. It can also catch clerical errors and alert you to possible identity theft.
Rights regarding notice of evictions
Evictions are one of the most difficult landlord-tenant issues. Landlords can legally evict a tenant for several reasons. These include nonpayment of rent, violating the terms of the rental agreement, significant property damage and failing to move out after a lease ends. The eviction process and eviction laws vary from state to state.
A landlord must follow the law in their state. Renters have the right to receive an eviction notice that details the reason for eviction. It must also provide a time frame for the eviction process. Residents should respond in writing and offer a solution that resolves the problem, if possible. (Eviction resources are available.) Once an eviction goes to court, the process is more difficult to stop.
If landlord-tenant communication breaks down and the issue isn’t resolved, the case goes to eviction court. If bad landlords try to evict tenants without an eviction court order, renters can get damages. Contact a lawyer or law firm immediately.
An eviction can damage your credit and make it hard to find a home in a safe location. Hiring a lawyer can help.
“Nationwide, only 10 percent of tenants are able to secure representation in eviction cases, compared to 90 percent of landlords,” Emily Benfer of the Princeton University Eviction Lab explains. “Where tenants are not represented, the vast majority lose their case.”
The right to recover a security deposit
Renters also have the right to have their security deposit returned at the end of a lease. Many rental agreements require security deposits to fix damage caused by residents or a pet. Security deposits are also used to cover incomplete rent payments.
Landlords can use a security deposit to fix the damaged rental unit or to pay off unpaid rent. But they need to provide the renter with an itemized list of expenses for which the landlord used the security deposit. They also need to return the unused portion of the security deposit to the tenant.
A renter should know local laws since some states limit how you can use security deposits and how large they are. Certain security deposits (like pet security deposits) aren’t refundable. Check your lease for the details.
The right to quiet enjoyment
Residents have the right to quiet enjoyment, called “Covenant of Quiet Enjoyment” in a lease. It guarantees residents the right to enjoy their rental property without “substantial interference” from a landlord.
If a landlord starts hammering nails in the middle of the night or fails to enforce quiet hours or no-smoking rules, they could be in violation. Refusing to repair a rental unit until it becomes uninhabitable, revving engines or throwing loud parties would be a violation, too.
A renter who can prove their landlord acted in bad faith could earn monetary damages or a full or partial rent refund. A lawyer who specializes in landlord-tenant issues will be an important ally.
Protect your rights
Now that you’ve reviewed your rights, you understand the protections provided by the law and your lease. If you’re a victim of discrimination or another legal issue, there’s more work ahead.
You may need to report a renters’ rights violation or file a landlord-tenant dispute. You might need to file a claim, challenge an eviction or take legal action.
Read the rental agreement
If you’re not sure if your landlord has violated your tenants’ rights, re-read your lease carefully. It can provide evidence to support your case or clarify a legal issue.
In a perfect world, you received a copy of your lease when you signed it. Some states must provide a copy of your lease agreement after you move in and after every annual renewal.
Otherwise, you can request a copy of your rental agreement from your landlord or management company in writing. That’s a good habit to get into for all landlord-tenant communications.
Get everything in writing when documenting a legal issue. You need clear evidence and an organized system for keeping track of all the details.
“Documentation is important, whether you’re talking to a lawyer, going through the court system or going through a housing discrimination case,” says Kelly Gorz, Associate Director of High Plains Fair Housing Center in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
“Keep track of any kind of communication you have with your landlord — any emails, texts, receipts. Keep a notebook. If you talk to them in person, write down the date, what you asked for and what they said. Take pictures at move-in and walk-out. Take videos. Definitely don’t pay in cash. Make sure you have some kind of record of payment, whether that’s a check or certified mail.”
Study tenant rights in your state
Legal protections for renters vary widely by state and territory. They can even vary from city to city, so research the laws in your location thoroughly.
“Contact local fair housing offices and your city planning and development offices, too,” suggests Gorz. “They are very connected to their local community resources.”
Renters in HUD housing can call 1-800-MULTI-70 (1-800-685-8470). Assistance is available in English and Spanish. HUD also details tenant rights organizations and services by state and territory.
Some state attorney general websites also have information for renters. Enter your state to learn if yours is one of them.
Report discrimination to a partner agency
Reporting discrimination can feel overwhelming. Filing a claim with a community organization that specializes in FHA issues can make the process feel more manageable.
A renter can usually work directly with an organization in its own state. Staff members serve as advocates for renters who are filing an FHA claim, facing an eviction notice or dealing with another legal issue. Some can provide a lawyer or other legal services, while others provide free education and outreach.
Report FHA violations to HUD on the phone
Renters can also report housing discrimination complaints directly to HUD by calling 1-800-669-9777. The TTY is 1-800-927-9275. It’s always free to call.
Provide your name and address, as well as the name and address of the person who discriminated against you. Include the date the violation occurred, the address of the rental property and a brief description of the incident.
If HUD finds evidence of discrimination against a renter and the case goes to court, HUD will provide a lawyer for free. A renter can also retain their own attorney.
Report discrimination to HUD in writing
Tenants can also provide these details in writing. File an online complaint in Spanish or English on the HUD website.
Or, download this form and mail or email it to the closest regional office. The form is also available in Arabic, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Russian, Somali, Cambodian and Vietnamese.
Retain an attorney
If you’ve been a victim of discrimination, you’ll need a lawyer that specializes in discrimination cases. If you’re challenging an eviction or you’re in the middle of a landlord-tenant dispute, select an experienced landlord-tenant attorney.
Free legal help is also available. Search by state to find a pro bono attorney or law firm in your area.
Challenge unmade repairs
If a landlord doesn’t make necessary repairs or the apartment is uninhabitable, renters have options. First, submit a request for repairs in writing and document any response.
Next, check your city and state’s maintenance laws. Information is often available at the local housing or building authority office. The health departments or fire stations might also provide help.
If the problem violates building or health codes or the apartment isn’t safe to live in, contact local authorities. Inspectors may order the landlord to fix the problem.
Knowledge is power
Every renter should know and understand their rights. That’s the first step to preserving them. And if your landlord violates your rights are violated, take the necessary steps to resolve the issues so you can enjoy a safe and happy home.