Renting myths

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You think you know the law about renting a place to live? We bet you don't.

Landlords and tenants have a lot of reasons to dislike each other – from the landlord charging too much to the tenants not taking care of the property, and dozens of reasons in between. But those two groups can bond over this one trait they both share. They’re idiots about their legal rights.

Recently, the real estate website Zillow quizzed landlords and tenants about the laws that affect them [1]. Surprisingly, 47 percent of renters answered at least half of the questions wrong. Even more surprising, 50 percent of landlords graded about the same.

Both sides were most ignorant to background checks, credit requirements, and security deposits – with an amazing 82 percent of renters and 76 percent of landlords answering those questions wrong.

That’s sad, because the law is supposed to help you navigate tricky situations. So, consulted a nationally known rental expert to debunk the biggest rental myths…

1. A landlord has 60 days to return your security deposit

Almost all the renters surveyed – 82 percent – believe the landlord has 60 days to return a security deposit after the tenant moves. In fact, “It’s typically less than 60 days, but the actual time frame varies by state,” says Ron Leshnower, a real estate attorney and author of Every Landlord’s Property Protection Guide: 10 Ways to Cut Your Risks Now [2].

“For example,” he says, “landlords of Massachusetts properties have up to 30 days to return security deposits to tenants, but the time limit is only 20 days for tenants renting at properties in Rhode Island.”

2. If it’s in the lease, it’s legally binding

“Some landlords think if they include language in their lease and get tenants to agree to it, then they’re all set,” Leshnower says. Not true.

“If a lease clause goes against federal, state, or local law, then it’s unenforceable.” So, even if you signed that lease, no court will make you abide by it.

3. As the owner, the landlord can enter your home anytime

The landlord may own the property, but when you’re living there, you have the right to live peacefully.

“Landlords who wish to enter an apartment for non-emergency reasons need to provide reasonable notice and do so at a reasonable time,” Leshnower says. The amount of notice varies by state, but your landlord generally can’t pop over with anything less than an hour’s notice, and never in the middle of the night unless there’s an emergency.

4. If a landlord wants to evict you, he can

If a landlord decides to evict you, he has to have a justifiable reason — you broke the lease — and then go through the court system. He can’t simply toss your belongings on the street like they did in all those Depression-era black-and-white movies.

In fact, if you’re paying rent and sticking to the lease, he’s not even allowed to try something called a “constructive eviction.” Leshnower describes that as “turning off the heat, water, or other utilities, or removing windows.” If your landlord pulls this stunt, you have a court case against him.

5. A landlord can end your lease early to move in family

In response to the Zillow survey, 62 percent of renters believe a landlord can end a lease early if he wants to move in one of his family members. Also, not true.

“A landlord doesn’t have the right to end a lease early and force a tenant to leave simply because he wishes to rent to his family,” Leshnower says.

6. A landlord can opt-out of repairs in the lease

Many renters believe a landlord only has to make repairs if he agrees to do so in the lease. But, a tenant is never responsible for all repairs. Leshnower says, “Landlords can’t stipulate that they have no duty to perform needed repairs.” In fact, all landlords are legally obligated to perform any repair that puts your health or safety at risk.

7. A landlord doesn’t have to rent to someone recovering from drug abuse

Apparently, a lot of people believe this – 76 percent of landlords and 82 percent of renters told Zillow a drug conviction in a tenant’s past is enough to deny them an apartment. Not so.

“Landlords can’t turn people away simply because they have used drugs in the past,” Leshnower says. If they do, they’re violating the Fair Housing Act, which Leshnower describes as “a federal law that protects prospects and tenants against discrimination based on a disability — which includes addiction.”

8. If you get evicted, you might have to pay a landlord’s court costs

Some lease clauses insist the tenant must pay the landlord’s attorney fees and court costs if the tenant gets evicted. Leshnower says those aren’t uncommon — or legal. He calls it just another example of “a clause that would violate state or local law.”

So, what should you do if you’re a landlord or a tenant who has no clue what’s legal? Search online for your state and “rental law.” From Massachusetts [3] to California [4], you’ll find your state government has compiled all you need to know.

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Meet the Author

Angela Colley

Angela Colley


Colley is a freelance writer based in New Orleans.


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