(© Skip Nall/Pixtal)

In a perfect world, landlords and tenants would work together like a well-oiled machine, both generously doing their part to keep each other happy and not disturb their neighbors' "peaceful enjoyment of the premises," as phrased in Mississippi's landlord-tenant law.

In fact, lots of tenant-landlord relationships fit this description, but we've all heard horror stories about the exceptions. And laws that protect both parties have become so complex that understanding your rights can be like herding cats. Since landlord-tenant law varies by state, the key is knowing your rights -- preferably before you even sign your rental agreement. Understanding your state law and the terms of your lease are your best guarantees against future problems.

15 common renters' rights
Although renters' rights vary by region, many are pretty predictable. Here's a sample of rights likely to be addressed in your state's landlord-tenant law:

  1. The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to deny housing to a tenant on the grounds of race, color, sex, religion, disability, family status, or national origin.
  2. Residential rental units should be habitable and in compliance with housing and health codes—meaning they should be structurally safe, sanitary, weatherproofed, and include adequate water, electricity, and heat.
  3. Many states limit the amount landlords can charge for security deposits. (See this page on Nolo.com to find out if yours is one of them.)
  4. A landlord should make necessary repairs and perform maintenance tasks in a timely fashion, or include a provision in the lease stating that tenants can order repairs and deduct the cost from rent.
  5. A landlord must give prior notice (typically 24 hours) before entering your premises and can normally only do so to make repairs or in case of an emergency.
  6. Illegal provisions in a rental agreement (provisions counter to state law) are usually not enforceable in court.
  7. If a landlord has violated important terms related to health, safety, or necessary repairs, you might have a legal right to break your lease.
  8. If you have to break a long-term lease, in most states landlords are required to search for a new tenant as soon as possible rather than charging the tenant for the full duration of the lease.
  9. Damage or security deposits are not deductible for "normal wear and tear." Some states require that a landlord give an itemized report of any deductions.
  10. Most states require landlords to return refundable portions of a security deposit within 14 to 30 days after the tenant has vacated the premises, even in the case of eviction.
  11. Landlords usually can't legally seize a tenant's property for nonpayment of rent or any other reason, except in the case of abandonment as defined by law.
  12. Landlords are legally prohibited from evicting tenants as retaliation for action a tenant takes related to a perceived landlord violation.
  13. A landlord cannot legally change the locks, shut off (or cause to have shut off) your utilities, or evict you without notice; eviction requires a court order.
  14. If a landlord makes life so miserable for you that it forces you to move, it may be considered "constructive eviction," which is usually grounds for legal action.
  15. In many states, it's illegal for a lease to stipulate that the tenant is responsible for the landlord's attorney fees in case of a court dispute.

Protect yourself
Before you move in, tour the premises with your landlord, and note -- or better yet, photograph -- any existing damage. When you move out, if your landlord withholds part of your damage deposit, ask for an itemized list of charges and the reason for the charges. If there's a discrepancy between this list and the one you made before moving in, let the landlord know immediately. Keep copies of all correspondence with your landlord, as well as dated records of phone and in-person conversations.

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If you have a dispute
If your landlord takes an action that is illegal in your state or neglects a legality, you probably have grounds for legal action, but consider court as a last resort. First make every effort to resolve the problem by talking with your landlord. This is the simplest and least expensive approach to mediating disputes.

If the problem continues, enlist the help of a neutral party or a mediator. Mediators are usually publicly funded and available free or at low cost. To find out whether mediators are available in your area, contact your mayor's or city manager's office and ask to talk with someone about housing disputes or landlord-tenant mediation.

If all else fails, you can take financial complaints to small claims court, provided your claim is under a specified amount. Before you take this step, be sure to look up local law regarding your responsibility for attorney fees. Most larger cities offer free or low-cost legal support for tenants in case of a property dispute. You can also contact your state bar association to ask about its lawyer referral program, or check with local service agencies to find out about inexpensive legal clinics.

Resources
The following resources provide landlord-tenant information or assistance.

On the Internet:

  • Do a browser search using the keywords "landlord tenant [your state]" or "attorney general [your state]."
  • Look up your state Web site and follow links for Landlord-Tenant, Consumer Protection, or Attorney General.
  • Check out Nolo.com's Renter's Rights Resource Center or order information on landlord-tenant issues from them here.
  • If you live in federally assisted housing, see the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development's tenant site.

In your local phone book:

  • Check the Government pages for "Housing" listings.
  • Check the City pages for "Landlord-Tenant" listings.
  • If your phone book has Community Service pages, look for "Tenants Union" and "Volunteer Legal Assistance."
  • In the State section, look up your Attorney General's office; call and ask for the Consumer Protection division or a Landlord-Tenant specialist.
  • Look up the main number for your city or county government to learn about specific local laws.
  • In the City pages, look up the Department of Construction and Land Use.
  • For federally assisted housing, go to the "U.S. Government" pages for the number of Housing and Urban Development.