Guide to 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.

Is it illegal for a landlord to raise rent too much?

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

Several cities also have rent control laws. As of 2022, these include New York City; many cities in California, including Los Angeles and San Francisco; Washington, D.C.; many cities in New Jersey, including Newark, Hoboken, and Jersey City; Portland, Maine; and St Paul, Minnesota.

Other than these jurisdictions that have rent control laws, landlords can charge whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as it doesn’t contradict a lease agreement. A landlord can even charge different rates for a similar apartment. For example, often when a tenant has been living in an apartment for several years, a landlord may decide not to raise the rent too much in order to keep the tenant there. But the landlord may charge much more to a new tenant.

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 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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