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When a tenant signs a rental lease agreement, a certain amount of landlord responsibilities are assumed by the owner of the rental property. Specific tenant rights vary from state to state, but renters need to be aware that they can take action against a negligent landlord.

David Shapiro, director of the Legal Studies department at South University — Richmond, says that tenants should communicate any issues they have with their landlord in writing.

“Keep a copy of whatever you send,” Shapiro says.  “It’s hard to ignore a letter. If you think the landlord is playing games, you can always send a copy by certified mail. It’s well worth the money because you have actual proof that you sent him this.” 

Shapiro says it depends on the terms of the rental lease agreement as to what the tenant rights and landlord responsibilities involve. 

“Almost every state requires that the landlord is responsible for keeping the premises habitable,” Shapiro says.

He says that keeping a rental property habitable includes things such as ensuring it has hot and cold running water, heat, windows with screens that close, is water tight, and is free of rodent or insect infestation. 

It may be worth paying a lawyer for an hour of time to find out what your rights are.

If the landlord does not make necessary repairs, says Maggie Kinnear, director of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society’s Tenant Hotline, the tenant needs to keep good records to show that the landlord was on notice of the need for the repair.  She says that tenant rights allow the renter the following options:

1) Repair and Deduct. “This should only be done for minor repair issues and the tenant should contact an attorney before attempting this remedy to make sure all of his or her bases are covered because the tenant has to have a very thorough paper trail, including receipts and notices to the landlord,” Kinnear says.

2) Contact Code Enforcement. “Each city or county has a housing code ordinance and inspectors who can require the landlord [to] make repairs and may bring the landlord before a court that can fine or imprison the landlord, depending on the severity of the violation[s],” Kinnear says.

3) File a lawsuit seeking damages based on the landlord's failure to make repairs. “This can include actual damages suffered by the tenant, general damages, punitive damages, as well as diminution,” Kinnear says.

4) Move. “If the place is not habitable, the tenant may be able to claim that there was a constructive eviction and break the lease,” Kinnear says. “Any tenant who thinks they may be in that situation should contact a lawyer and should also have the property inspected by Code Enforcement before they move out. The default rule is that a tenant-at-will must give 30 days notice; however, if there was a lease agreement, then the tenant should check that agreement to determine what the timeline is for giving notice.”

renters rights

Kinnear says that Georgia law does not allow tenants to withhold rent. 

Shapiro agrees that tenants should never withhold their rent from the landlord.

“Once you get past the state of notifying the landlord and he doesn’t comply, consult a lawyer,” Shapiro says. “It may be worth paying a lawyer for an hour of time to find out what your rights are. You can actually escrow your rent in some states.”

In order to do this, Shapiro says you must file a court action. Instead of paying rent to the landlord, the tenant pays into an escrow account. The landlord has to go to court and prove he’s fixed the problem to receive the rent money, Shapiro says.

Importance of Reading the Rental Lease Agreement

Shapiro says that it depends on the terms of the rental lease agreement as to whether a landlord can raise the rent more than once per year.

“Generally the landlord is not allowed to raise the rent more often than once per year,” Shapiro says.  “When the lease is getting ready to continue into the next year or renew, then you should consult [with your landlord] to see what amount it will be.”

Shapiro advises tenants to watch out for automatic lease renewals, where they need to tell the landlord by a certain date that they do not plan to renew their lease, because otherwise it will be automatically renewed for them.

“Sit down and read the entire lease,” Shapiro says. “If you have a question, talk to a lawyer.”

Landlord Responsibilities with the Security Deposit

Kinnear says that a landlord has 30 days from the date that the tenant moves out to either return the security deposit, or send a written notice detailing why they are keeping some or all of the deposit.

“The notice must be sent to the tenant's last known address, so the tenant should have his or her mail forwarded and should give the landlord written notice of his or her new address,” Kinnear says. “If no notice is sent, the tenant is entitled to the deposit back and may be entitled to treble damages if the landlord has 10 or more rental units.”

If a tenant does not receive their security deposit, a notice detailing why they will not be receiving their security deposit, or if they disagree with the reason they will not be receiving their security deposit back, they may need to file a lawsuit to recover the deposit, Kinnear says.

The information in this article is provided for general information purposes and should not be relied on as a substitute for actual legal advice. You are encouraged to consult with an attorney to obtain professional legal advice on renters’ rights.