Renters and Tenants

Guide to the Law for Renters in the United States


Rental law in the U.S. varies significantly by state and city. (See our Guides to Law for Renters in LA, SF, California, NYC). However, certain basic requirements apply throughout the country. Here’s what you need to know.

Renters (aka tenants) are generally defined as those in long-term rentals (usually more than 30 days). Landlord-tenant law applies to long-term rentals, but not necessarily to short-term rentals.

Does a rental need to meet a basic standard of living?

Yes. In general, the landlord must maintain the apartment in good working order. But the tenant is also responsible to reasonably maintain the unit and not damage anything or cause any of the issues such as mold.

As to utilities, including water, gas and electricity, landlords do not have to actually pay for these, but must at least make them available for tenants to pay for.

If the landlord substantially fails to provide any of these things, the unit may be considered “untenantable” or “uninhabitable” (unlivable). The tenant can also sue the landlord for violation of the “warranty of habitability.” (But as always, talk to a lawyer before taking any such actions).

Is it illegal to raise rent too much?

California and Oregon have recently become the first states ever to pass a statewide rent control law. In Oregon, landlords may not raise rent over 7% + inflation each year. In California, landlords may not increase rent by more than 5% + inflation each year.

But several cities also have rent control laws that are often stronger protections for tenants. For example, New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and others.

Is there rent control on businesses?

No, although New York City is considering a form of it, in the Small Business Jobs Survival Act. The SBJSA would force commercial landlords who want to raise the rent to negotiate with their business tenants.

Is it illegal for landlords to keep a property empty for too long?

Generally, no, but San Francisco just passed a new law requiring commercial storefront owners to register and pay a fee for any “vacant or abandoned” storefronts. A retail space is considered vacant or abandoned if it is unoccupied for 30 days.1San Francisco Building Code Section 103A; 110

What is a “lease”?

A “lease” to rent a residence is simply a type of agreement (aka contract) which states the terms of the rental. Most leases include various rules for what you can and can’t do with the place.

Am I required to be on a lease to rent an apartment?

Many landlords require all adult residents of an apartment to be on a lease, and the landlord can usually evict (through proper proceedings) those not on a lease.

However, some rental situations are more informal and do not have a written lease. In this case, there is considered to be an “oral agreement” (aka “verbal agreement”) about the lease. Oral rental agreements are usually valid and can be enforced in court, however, it is usually quite difficult to prove the terms of the oral agreements. Thus, it is in everyone’s interest to get rental agreements in writing.

Resources

Get help with your legal issues as a tenant (or landlord). This area of law is called landlord-tenant law or real estate law.

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