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Renting an Apartment : Your Rights (and Theirs)

In most cases, renting an apartment is a pretty smooth operation -- it’s pretty rare for a tenant-landlord relationship to go truly sour. After all, everyone involved has an incentive to keep things cordial and above-board. That said, you never know what’s going to happen, and it pays to know your rights and your responsibilities.

Tenant rights are, for the most part, set by state law, and though the following rights are pretty common from state-to-state, you should check to make sure they apply where you live. But before we get to your rights as a tenant, let’s talk about your responsibilities:

Your responsibilities: The short version is that you need to act like an adult – you don’t own the place, you’re probably not alone in the building, and you need to act accordingly. Specifically, a tenant must:

  • Keep the apartment clean
  • Put out garbage in proper containers
  • Use electrical and plumbing fixtures properly
  • Follow local, county, and state housing, health and safety rules
  • Not damage the landlord's property or disturb neighbors
  • Not let guests do either of those things
  • Use appliances with care
  • Notify the landlord when repairs are needed

Your landlord's responsibilities:While you’ve got responsibilities as a tenant, you also have certain rights. Generally speaking, a landlord is responsible for the following things:

  • Obeying all health and safety laws and regulations
  • Making repairs needed to maintain the property in good condition
  • Keeping all common areas safe, clean and in good repair
  • Maintaining all electrical, plumbing, heating and air conditioning fixtures and applications that the landlord provides or is required to provide
  • Providing and maintaining garbage cans and providing for trash removal where there are four or more units in the building
  • Supplying running water and enough hot water and heat at all times, unless there are separate heating or hot water units for each dwelling unit and the utility fees for the heating and hot water are paid directly by the tenant to a public utility company
  • Giving at least 24 hours notice to a tenant before trying to enter his or her apartment and enter only at reasonable times unless there is an emergency
  • Not abusing the right to enter

And there are some things your landlord just can’t do, no matter what the situation. Among other things, he or she can’t:

  • Shut off utilities
  • Take anything that belongs to you
  • Lock you out of your apartment to force you to pay rent or leave the apartment
  • Raise the rent or threaten to evict a tenant for taking legal action
  • Harass you with repeated visits to your apartment

Dealing with problems:If your landlord isn’t living up to his or her legal responsibilities, you do have a few options. For one thing, you can sue, either for money or to force the landlord to make a required repair, for example. Send a notice to the same address as the rent checks are sent and the landlord is required to make the repairs within 30 days.

If the landlord doesn’t comply, you still have options. Just don’t stop paying rent – you’re still liable for that. Of course, if you want to keep your landlord from collecting that rent, you do have options:

  • Take your rent check to the clerk of courts every month. They’ll hold it until the repairs are made.
  • Ask to the court to legally force the landlord to make the repairs. They may even decrease the rent for the period the repairs are not made.
  • Move out – life is short, and some things just aren’t worth the hassle. (Just don’t forget to give proper notice.)

Eviction:Pay your rent and live up to your end of the lease, and you won’t have to deal with this at all. If you do default, though, the landlord can force you out. You’ll get a written eviction notice, and after a few days the landlord can file that notice in court. If he wins his suit and you still don't vacate, he can ask a local law enforcement officer to remove you from the apartment. Which means that it’s probably a good time to start packing.

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