When your landlord sells you out (© Push/Getty Images)

© Push/Getty Images

Marjorie Freeman has one more day before she has to leave her apartment. Her belongings aren't packed, and the 53-year-old curtain maker has yet to clean her Tampa, Fla.-area duplex — mainly because she's still scrambling to find another place to live.

The property's former owner told her she would have at least 90 days to vacate when the new owner took over. Instead, she was given 30 days — the only notice required by Florida law for tenants with a month-to-month lease. And the only "for rent" sign she has found is the one on her own apartment, which the new owner hopes to rent for a
much higher rate. "I have no idea where I'll go," she said.

Renters across the country are being forced to move, as developers riding the real estate boom convert rentals into condominiums. But tenants' rights don't go out the window just because a building changes hands. State and local laws give renters certain protections that their new landlords must observe. A careful scrutiny of these regulations could mean the difference between a few weeks' and a few months' notice, and could mean more money back from your deposit.

"The rules that protect tenants have gone quite a … way in evening the playing field," said attorney Janet Portman, author of "Every Tenant's Legal Guide" and "Every Landlord's Legal Guide."

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For Californians, the renting life is good
Of course, these rules vary widely, depending on where you live.  While many southern states like Alabama and Mississippi offer renters little in the way of protections such as rent control, others like Washington, New York and California are much more progressive, requiring landlords to provide more advanced notice to vacate, more flexibility in handling repairs and greater hurdles to evicting tenants.

In tenant-friendly California:

  • Landlords converting apartments to condos are required to give tenants first crack at buying their unit at a fair market value.
  • At least 15 cities have some form of rent control, allowing landlords to raise rents by only small amounts each year. In these cities, renters cannot be evicted without cause, even if a building is sold and they don't have a long-term lease. "You can't kick a tenant out unless they have done something wrong," such as trashing their apartment or failing to pay rent, Portman said. (This also is true in New York City.)
  • In Los Angeles, landlords are required to pay you interest for each year they keep your deposit.
  • In San Francisco, landlords have to pay to relocate you if they decide to convert the building to a condo.

While not all states are as progressive in these areas, there are some universal rules that govern the rental market. Most importantly, landlords planning to convert a building into a condo must give tenants written notice of this. And in all cases city regulations trump state laws, and state laws override anything that is written in your lease. Federal housing laws mostly apply to discrimination cases and to buildings that receive federal funding.

Know your lease
Unfortunately for Freeman, the tenants that are most vulnerable are those with month-to-month leases. Most states require landlords give those tenants just 30 days' notice to vacate a unit, even in tenant-friendly California.

"A person with a month-to-month agreement can be given notice with no reason at all," Portman said.

In Washington state, however, even month-to-month renters are entitled to a minimum of 90 days when their building is being converted, so it's worth checking with your state housing authority.

In general, though, renters with long-term leases have more rights when a building is sold.  Most states require new owners to "step into the shoes" of the old owner, assuming all of their responsibilities and leases. This means:

  • If you have a lease, the new owner typically has to honor it for the length of its term.
  • Once you have paid a deposit, the new owner can't charge you a new one or require you to pay additional fees.
  • The old landlord can either transfer all of the deposits over to the new owner, or may pay them back to you, Portman said. If that money is refunded to you, the new owner can't require you to pay more than you did before.

Move-out pressure
Moreover, Portman said, landlords are responsible for providing a basic level of service for the rent you are paying. The renovations for a conversion cannot inconvenience you so much that you're denied amenities such as uninterrupted water and electricity, and access to the apartment pool or laundry room.

This doesn't mean all landlords play by the rules: Some tenants in New York are now dealing with owners who rent out their neighbors' vacated apartments as hotel rooms, filling their lobby with tourists and their luggage.

In other places, the pressure is less subtle. Kristin Jobe, a 40-year-old check-cashing manager from Phoenix, said her new landlord, who is converting her building to condos, has forced out many tenants of her building by repeatedly shutting off water and electricity. To complete renovations, the owner also has removed security lighting and doors that Jobe says are necessary in her high-crime neighborhood. "It's just wrong. It feels like a tactic to get me out," she said.

When given her 30-day notice to vacate, she decided to withhold rent, rather than pay for what she calls substandard service.

Fight back, but do it right
Jobe's frustration is understandable, but withholding rent without checking state and local laws could make matters worse, Portman said. Half of the states, including Arizona, do allow tenants to withhold rent if basic services aren't provided. But oftentimes, this money must be put into an escrow account until the landlord can rectify the situation. In other areas, the tenant has to take the landlord to small claims court to get some of her rent refunded for the time in which construction posed a problem.

In any case, Portman said, Jobe needs to send her landlord a certified letter alerting him to the problem and stating her intention to withhold rent until the problem is fixed. That way, she said, future landlords who check on her rental history will have some written proof that she's not just a deadbeat, and there was a problem that the landlord was made aware of. Otherwise, "They will say this person didn't pay her last month's rent and it will be a gamble if she will be believed," Portman said.

Once you're ready to leave your apartment, Portman said, it's also important to know what you should be getting back from your security deposit. Landlords can only deduct from your security deposit for "normal wear and tear" and cleaning. If the carpet is wearing out, the paint is yellowing or the fixtures are rusting, that's probably not your responsibility. However, if your pets have used the molding as a scratching post or your in-house bike repairs have left a big oil stain on the floor, that's on your tab. Some states, Portman said, define normal wear and tear, making it easier for tenants to get their money back. Check with your state and city housing departments to see if those conditions are spelled out.

If you're not given enough money back, or you are evicted without cause or proper notice, you can take your case to small claims court, which handles most disputes involving sums less than $7,000 to $10,000. If you're seeking more than that amount, then you should probably hire a real estate attorney, Portman said, though it's rare for most cases to go that far.

While many renters say protections are inadequate and renter activism dead, Portman said conditions are better now than they were just a few decades ago, with more regulations around notice to vacate and responsibility for repairs spelled out.

But, to be sure, for every state that has put more protections in place for renters, there are those where landlords have more power. "Tenants have more rights in the District of Columbia and in California than almost any other state," said Arizona landlord Joel Kaplan, who has owned and rented properties elsewhere. "In Arizona, renters have almost no rights. Thank God! It's great to be a landlord here."