A tenant has certain rights and responsibilities to follow after signing a lease.
A tenant or renter refers to someone who leases a rental property in which to live or work. In exchange for paying monthly rent, tenants have the right to occupy the space according to the terms of a rental agreement or lease.
By signing a lease, the tenant — sometimes referred to in the agreement as a lessee — agrees to comply with the terms and conditions detailed in the document.
Read your lease and ask questions before signing it — make sure you understand what you are agreeing to.
Basic tenant rights
A series of federal, state and local laws protect tenants. These basic rights cover your living space and what services come with the space. These tenant rights also showcase your landlord’s responsibilities.
Before you sign a rental agreement, check your state and local landlord-tenant laws. They give you recourse if the landlord does not meet his or her obligations.
Here are a few basic legal tenant rights:
Federal law protects tenants against any civil rights violations. The Fair Housing Act stipulates that landlords cannot refuse to rent a unit to someone bases on race, religion, sex, disability, nationality or family status.
A habitable home
A safe, secure place to live that includes functional locks, smoke detectors, working heat, electricity and plumbing. This includes functional floors and structural walls, plus a solid roof.
Landlords must also make sure any appliances included in the rent are safe and functional. If the property becomes uninhabitable, you must inform the landlord of any needed repairs.
Whether you live in a condo, apartment or rental home, your landlord must respect this space as your private space. While you need to provide access if something needs fixing or checked, your landlord may not enter your home — either to make repairs or to show the rental unit if you are moving — without giving you reasonable notice (usually 24 hours).
The only time a landlord may enter your home without notice is in case of an emergency like a flood, fire or another natural disaster.
Getting your security deposit back
Many landlords will ask for a security deposit equivalent to one month’s rent when you sign the lease. This payment covers any rent owed or damage you caused beyond wear and tear.
When you move, your landlord has to return your security deposit within a few weeks, depending on which state you live in. One way to make sure you get your security deposit back when you leave is to walk through the unit with the landlord before you move in and take photos showing its condition so any damages already there are clearly documented.
Landlords aren’t the only ones who have to follow the rules. Tenants get an eviction notice if they don’t comply with the terms and conditions outlined in the rental agreement. Some tenant responsibilities include:
Paying the rent
If a tenant stops paying rent, a landlord has the right to pursue eviction — no matter what the reason is for the lack of payment.
Buying renters insurance
Some rental agreements contain a clause that obliges tenants to get renters insurance, which covers any damage or loss to their personal belongings and the unit due to fire, flooding or theft. Your landlord’s property insurance will not cover you for this or in cases where your negligence causes property damage or injury to someone else. Even if your lease does not require it, it’s always a good idea to obtain renters’ insurance.
Maintaining the rental property
State and local laws make tenants responsible for keeping a rental unit in good share. That means it’s reasonably clean and well-maintained. While you are not responsible for major upkeep or repairs, you do need to keep up with space. This includes things like taking the trash out, not letting grime build up in the bathtub or sink or staining the floors. Also, you cannot damage the space by doing things like flushing clogging materials down the toilet or overloading the electrical system with multiple extension cords.
Leaving the place clean when you move out
To make sure your landlord does not withhold your security deposit, clean the rental unit and repair any damages before you leave. Take photos of the empty apartment as proof of the way you left it.
Things tenants cannot do
Most rental agreements detail exactly what tenants can and cannot do. Depending on your landlord and the local laws — you can face fines or eviction proceedings if you don’t follow the rules.
Here are some things you should not do in a rental unit without the landlord’s permission:
Sublet the apartment
Your name is on the lease, which makes you responsible for the rent or any property damage that occurs during the term of your agreement. Most landlords will not agree to someone else living in your apartment if you choose to move out before then.
Change the locks
If you’re worried about a previous tenant paying an unwanted visit to your space using their old key, you can ask the landlord to replace the lock.
Remove any landscaping
If you’re renting a home with a garden, note — the plants, shrubs, and trees do not belong to you, so don’t dig them up just because they aren’t your aesthetic.
Paint the walls (or anything else)
While some landlords will roll on a fresh coat of paint between tenants, most won’t. But that doesn’t mean you should take on that task yourself without asking first. You may want to ask your landlord about color choices, too.
Repair things without asking
You might be handy enough to fix things yourself, but making unauthorized repairs is a bad idea unless there’s an emergency such as an overflowing toilet.
State laws vary but in general, anything that needs repairing to ensure the safety of the property or those living there requires the landlord’s knowledge and permission.
Annoy the neighbors
Loud parties or bags of garbage in the hallway won’t make you any friends in the building. Worse, if other tenants complain about you, your landlord might be tempted to try to evict you.
Skip out on the lease
Tenants must pay rent for the dates included in the rental agreement or risk being sued by the landlord. If you must move out of the unit before your lease is up, inform your landlord, who can try to rent it to someone else. Otherwise, you will owe the remaining rent whether you’re living there or not.
Know your rights and responsibilities
Tenants receive protection under various laws, but it’s up to you to know what you’re signing when you agree to rent an apartment, house or condo. Knowing your tenant rights and obligations will help you make good decisions and deal with any problems that come up once you rent your new home.