Understanding Landlord-Tenant Rights: What a Landlord Can and Cannot Do

You might find that you are continuously reminded how few rights seem to be available to landlords and how many responsibilities are required of landlords. Rental owners always seem to ask the same questions: “What can I do about an unruly tenant?” “Where are my rights?” In this guide, we’ll look at the rights of the landlord, and what they legally can and cannot do.

Rights? What Rights?

Although it may seem like the scales have been tipped in favor of the tenant when it comes to rights at the property, the truth is that landlords do have some. First of all, you have the right to rent the property. Here are some other rights that landlords may exercise if need be:

  • A landlord has the right to maintain the property. This means that they have the right to make most types of repairs themselves. This right, however, may be restricted to only the owner and not repair personnel. For example, lead legislation in many states allows property owners to actually remove lead paint themselves; however, hired personnel must be licensed.
  • A landlord has the right to a hearing in a court of law to dispute claims made against them. If a claim of housing-code violations is brought against them, they have the right to defend themselves in a hearing regarding such claims.
  • A landlord has the right to properly screen for good tenants. This includes requiring permission for the release of credit, criminal, and eviction history from potential tenants as a policy for screening. But landlords must be careful not to discriminate with screening policies.
  • A landlord has the right to verify a rental application and to refuse to rent to anyone whom they discover has lied on the application.
  • A landlord has the right to charge a tenant a security deposit and to use this deposit if the tenant does damage to the rental unit.
  • A landlord has the right to not permit animals or pets in your rental unit unless the animal serves a purpose for handicapped or disabled tenants, such as a seeing-eye dog used by the vision-impaired.
  • A landlord has the right to have tenants pay for their own utilities as long as the utilities are separately metered and this is properly agreed upon in the lease or rental agreement.
  • A landlord has the right to sell the rental property.
  • A landlord has the right to make a profit from their property as well as to not make a profit from it.

Common sense should be used in exercising certain rights, and if there is a question, the landlord should consult an attorney. Keep in mind that a landlord’s rights can be modified by a court decision—they could be prevented from exercising certain rights.

What a Landlord Doesn’t Have the Right to Do

There are several things landlords must not do. The penalties for violation of these rules differ by state and municipality, but all are certainly punishable by fine or imprisonment:

  • A landlord does not have the right to discriminate against people while renting the property. There are specific federal and state guidelines that landlords must be careful to follow or risk serious penalties.
  • A landlord does not have the right to remove tenants or their belongings physically from a unit without following the specific court procedures and obtaining the appropriate court approvals. State legislation regarding eviction will differ, and some are more lenient than others.
  • A landlord does not have the right to change the locks on a unit, often called “lockout,” to force a tenant out.
  • A landlord does not have the right to enter a unit that is occupied without the tenant’s approval unless a dangerous emergency exists. For example, if a gas leak is noticed and the source appears to be inside a tenant’s unit, the landlord is allowed to enter or permit emergency services to enter to investigate the problem. Otherwise, typically 24- or 48-hours’ notice is required before entering a unit.
  • A landlord does not have the right to shut off utilities that either the landlord or the tenant is supplying as a way to force the tenant out of a unit.
  • A landlord does not have the right to remove personal property, such as furniture, automobiles, or pets, without first obtaining the tenant’s permission. Charges of theft could be brought against the landlord in these instances.
  • A landlord does not have the right, in many areas, to make improvements to a property that would otherwise require someone to have a license, such as an electrician.
  • A landlord does not have the right to willfully destroy the property without the proper permissions from local authorities.
  • A landlord does not have the right to make changes to your property if it is protected by local or state historical societies unless proper permission is obtained.
  • A landlord does not have the right, in some areas, to use the property any way they see fit without proper approvals from zoning boards and other local authorities.
  • A landlord does not have the right to force a tenant to obey the law or clean the unit.
  • A landlord does not have the right to shift the responsibility to the tenant for making important repairs to the unit or building unless both parties specifically agree to those terms.
  • A landlord does not have the right to quit! Many areas have created legislation such as “blight ordinances” and “property maintenance codes” that force the landlord to sell the property if they decide to no longer rent the units. This, in effect, does not allow the landlord to quit, especially if the housing market does not ensure a speedy sale. The only other option may be to give the property away or go bankrupt. Leaving a property empty, however, is not an option in these areas.

Every state differs regarding landlord-tenant legislation and the rights that are guaranteed to each. But one thing remains true: when it comes to landlord-tenant rights, a landlord really doesn’t have many rights other than to pay their property taxes and maintain their property or suffer the consequences.

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