Poverty Finance: Know Your Rights as a Renter

Just because you rent your apartment doesn't mean you don't have any rights. While landlord/tenant laws vary by state, with some states being tenant-friendlier than others, landlord abuse is pretty common everywhere.

1. For Crying out Loud, Don't take Legal Advice from your Landlord

Just because your landlord tells you he's acting within the law, it doesn't mean she is!

Many landlords truly believe they are acting legally when sometimes they are just misinformed. Others are truly criminals. The only way to find out for sure is to do your research. Don't take the landlord's word for it.

2. Your Landlord Cannot Just Lock You Out

There's no test or certification exam to become a landlord, so many smaller landlords may not realize that it's illegal to just toss someone's stuff on the streets and change the locks. This is called a "self-help eviction" and is illegal.

In every state except Arkansas, tenants have the right to fight eviction and remain in their home while awaiting their day in court. (Source)

2. There may be clauses in your lease which contradict the law - and therefore aren't valid

Sometimes landlords write up leases which have unenforceable clauses - basically, parts of the lease which are illegal and therefore void.

Remember, this is usually very state dependent, so be sure to look up what the rules are in your state.

For example, if you live in New York or Illinois, and your landlord includes a clause that says subletting is not allowed under any circumstances, this is illegal. In NY and IL, property law gives tenants the absolute right to sublet as long as they follow the guidelines for requesting approval for a sublease. (Source)

Here are some other iffy clauses landlords stick in leases, which might be unenforceable in your state:

Can the landlord just drop in to my apartment any time?

 Any provision that declares that the landlord may enter the rental unit at any time without providing notice may be a no-go. Many states say that the landlord can't just come in with no notice, whether it's written in the lease or not. In some states, the law requires landlords to give 24 hours to two days' notice. (source)

Can my landlord just take the property back if I'm late on rent?

Any clause which states that the landlord can take retake the property if the tenant falls behind in paying rent may be unenforceable. There are rules around repossession of the property, and evictions usually have to follow a court procedure.

Can my landlord just make up any late fee he wants?

Once again, this is state dependent, but many states have laws which restrict landlords from setting excessive late fees. Oftentimes higher than 5% is a no-go for landlords. (source)

Can the landlord raise rent mid lease?

Month-to-month tenants are generally out of luck here, but if you have a lease with a fixed term, the rent can't be changed except by mutual agreement. Once again the specifics on rent increases varies by state, but if you're in the middle of a year-long lease, the landlord generally can't surprise you

How To Check Your State's Landlord/Tenant Laws

For a great resource to check up on landlord/tenant laws by state, check out this state map by Landlordology.

Just click on your state and read through what's written there.

How To Get Cheap Legal Help (For Poor People)

I'm not a lawyer, and I'm definitely not YOUR lawyer. If you are having issues with your landlord, it may be worthwhile to seek out legal help. There are many local nonprofits which provide legal help for lower income folks. Check out lawhelp.org's state map to find help in your area.

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