This 5-Minute Crash Course Will Teach You Your Rental Rights

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Perhaps you want a crash course in renting, as it's your first time doing it, or perhaps you're practically a rental expert, but you still want to brush up on your rights.

Either way, having a firm grasp on your rental rights will not only help you identify when they are being broken, it will also arm you with the knowledge and confidence to assert them in such instances.

If you think wrapping your head around rental rights is too complex, we've got you covered with a 5-minute, rental-rights crash course. So grab a coffee, find a comfy seat and get acquainted with these seven questions that cover the basics of rental rights:

Do I need a written lease?

If there are no appropriate state or local laws that have jurisdiction over a particular renter's query, the lease terms you agree to with your landlord will control your rental rights.

Most landlords use a standard lease agreement form, but you can also request to negotiate your own terms.

It is possible, in some states, to have an oral agreement, if the lease expires in less than a year; however, it's always good to have a written lease agreement to avoid problems down the road.

Most landlords use a standard lease agreement form, but you can also request to negotiate your own terms. if you object to the standard terms.

What laws control my renter's rights?

State or local laws generally control what your rights are as a renter, meaning where you live matters. The types of laws that deal with the physical property and the terms of your rental agreement are called "housing laws.”

The requirement that landlords do not discriminate in selling or leasing property comes under federal jurisdiction, specifically under the Fair Housing Act. It states that landlords cannot refuse to lease you a property or negotiate with any person based on race, color, religion, gender, familial status or national origin.

State or local laws generally control what your rights are as a renter, meaning where you live matters.

There are also federal laws, like the Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act, which can affect your rights as a renter. This particular federal law protects renters by requiring “the disclosure of known information on lead-based paint and lead-based paint hazards before the sale or lease of most housing built before 1978” by landlords.

How much rent can my landlord charge?

You'd think there would be a simple answer to that question, but unfortunately, there isn't. The short answer is that it depends on a couple of factors, like if your apartment is rent-controlled or not.

If your apartment is rent-controlled, your state's laws control how much the landlord can charge. Even if your property is not rent-controlled, most states still have rules regarding limitations on deposits, whether the landlord must use an escrow account and whether the landlord has to pay you interest at the end of the lease when the deposit is returned to you.

If your apartment is rent-controlled, your state's laws control how much the landlord can charge.

For instance, in Maryland, the landlord cannot charge a deposit equal to more than two months of rent. If the landlord overcharges, they will be liable to return three times the amount over the maximum to the renter, plus reasonable attorney fees.

Who says an apartment or building is fit to live in?

This question concerns “habitability rules." Most states have laws requiring that a rental property is free of vermin and provides heat, light and a working indoor-water supply.

In Maryland, for example, landlords must keep the rental property structurally sound, maintain a healthy environment (no lead-based paint) and meet state safety standards.

If a landlord refuses to make necessary repairs, then the renter has legal recourse.

If a landlord refuses to make necessary repairs (i.e. fixing a leak, dealing with mold issues or exterminating insect infestations), then the renter has legal recourse. They can even withhold part of the rent after giving the landlord appropriate, required notice. Always check with your state's laws on the issue of withholding rent before actually doing so.

Who has access to my rental unit during the time of my lease?

In most jurisdictions, both the landlord and the renter have rights to access the property. In Maryland, this is known as the landlord's "right to enter" the premises.

You, as the renter, have the right to privacy in your leasehold. However, the law balances this right against the landlord's right to inspect the premises, to enter in case of emergencies, to make repairs and to show the apartment to new renters.

An emergency does not require notice to enter.

Most jurisdictions require notice given to the tenant that the landlord is requesting access to the premises during regular business hours. The two parties can also agree upon a mutually convenient time.

However, an emergency does not require notice to enter. A local jurisdiction, like Prince George's County in Maryland, may apply additional reasonable restrictions on the notice requirement, by mandating 24-hour notice to the renter before the landlord can have access. Again, it's important to check up on your specific state laws, so you're not caught off guard.

Are there rules about eviction, too?

There definitely are. While it sounds repetitive, rules about the eviction process are also state-dependent. For example, in some states, the landlord can put your belongings on the curb when they evict you. In other states, they must store your belongings for a certain period of time.

In some states, the landlord can put your belongings on the curb when they evict you.

Granted, there should always be a solid reason why a landlord wants to evict you. Usually, it will be because a problem between the landlord and tenant arose, but it could not be solved. Common problems generally include lease violations, late rent payments or the tenant breaking the law.

Usually, landlords will use an eviction notice to inform you of their decision that they no longer want you residing in their rental property.

Where can I go for help with more landlord or renter questions?

You can contact your state's Attorney General's office, your local consumer protection agency and, if you meet income guidelines, your Legal Aid office.