Lesson preview: This lesson explains the general principles of residential rental laws and reviews the responsibilities of both the tenant and the landlord. We start from the issues covering all properties in the country and then focus on the issues relating to your specific situation. The tenants’ right to privacy is also covered. Lastly, we cover pest infestations, since both tenants and landlords have responsibilities regarding that issue. In this section we will cover general principles and use Washington as an example to explain the responsibilities for tenants, and landlords. You should use the links in Chapter 6 to find the information relevant to your state.
General Principles of Residential Rental Laws
There are laws that govern residential rental agreements and that serve both tenants and landlords. There are Federal laws, State laws and City Ordinances which together apply to your rental property, and set out the obligations for tenants and landlords.
The physical location of a rental property determines the laws applicable to the residential rental agreement. So, for example, a property located in the City of Tuscaloosa, County of Tuscaloosa, State of Alabama, the applicable laws are:
- Federal law, Alabama state law, and Tuscaloosa County Ordinances and City of Tuscaloosa ordinances.
These laws make clear the rights and responsibilities of each party, provide standards of fairness between the tenant and landlord, and describe how disagreements can be handled.
Discrimination, Housing Quality, Reasonable Accommodations:
- The Fair Housing Act is the main federal act in the United States intended to protect a buyer or a renter of a dwelling from seller or landlord discrimination.
- This federal act makes it unlawful for an owner or landlord to discriminate against or refuse to sell or rent a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, family status, or national origin.
- This and other federal acts also dictates that landlords must give a person with disabilities an equal ability to use and enjoy a rental property and any common areas through rules, policies, practices, or service.
- It is a violation of the Fair Housing Act for any landlord to refuse to make a reasonable accommodation in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to provide a disabled person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling unit, including public and common use areas. An accommodation that permits disabled tenants to experience the full benefit of tenancy must be made unless the accommodation imposes an undue financial or administrative burden on a housing provider or requires a fundamental alteration to the nature of its program.
Privacy – Tenants’ Right to Privacy or “Quiet Enjoyment:
- Every rental lease or contract includes a covenant of “quiet enjoyment” between the Landlord and Tenant. A “covenant” is simply an agreement that’s included in a legal contract, and that’s what a lease is – a legal contract. This “quiet enjoyment” covenant means that you, the renter, have the legal right to “quiet enjoyment” which means a “right to privacy” of the rental property. In fact, this holds true even if your rental agreement omitted such language. Therefore, a landlord cannot interfere with your privacy, and when they need access to your rental unit, must give you advanced notice (which we cover later in this chapter).
- “Quiet enjoyment” also includes your right to exclude others from the premises, the right to peace and quiet, the right to clean premises, and the right to basic services such as heat, hot water, electricity, and for high-rise buildings, elevator service.
- also Refer to Ch. 6 for links to the Tenant / Landlord laws in Alabama. The rest of this chapter gives examples that apply in the State of Washington.
A Landlord’s “Right of Entry”
This section of the Act covers Landlord’s right of entry, purposes of entry, searches by fire officials, and code enforcement officials for inspection purposes.
- Washington State law RCW 59.18.150 says (1) The tenant shall not unreasonably withhold consent to the landlord to enter into the dwelling unit in order to inspect the premises, make necessary or agreed repairs, alterations, or improvements, supply necessary or agreed [upon] services, or exhibit the dwelling unit to prospective or actual purchasers, mortgagees, tenants, workers, or contractors.
- RCW 59.18.150 (4)(a) A search warrant may be issued by a judge of a superior court or a court of limited jurisdiction under Titles 3, 35, and 35A RCW to a code enforcement official of the state or of any county, city, or other political subdivision for the purpose of allowing the inspection of any specified dwelling unit and premises to determine the presence of an unsafe building condition or a violation of any building regulation, statute, or ordinance.
- Immediate entry is allowed in emergencies, to avoid injury to people, or to limit damage incurring. For example, to stop a broken water pipe, or to fix damage to electrical cables.
Protecting Your Privacy (as provided by the Tenants’ Union of Washington State):
Washington State law details tenants’ rights to privacy and the requirements of advanced notification before a landlord may enter rental units.
Except in the case of emergency or if it is impracticable to do so, landlords must give advanced notice of needing access to your rental property:
- A 48-hour advanced written notice must be given you by the landlord to enter your unit, such as for a property inspection or the like.
- A 24-hours advanced written notice must be given you by the landlord if they are going to show your unit to a new prospective tenant or buyer.
- The written notice must specify the exact dates and time of entry, or specify a time period, listing the earliest and latest possible times for entry on designated dates.
- The notice must contain a telephone number of the landlord in the event that the tenant wants to object or reschedule the visit.
- Further, landlords can enter only at reasonable times. They cannot abuse their right of access to harass a tenant. The law does not specifically define reasonable times. If the landlord’s proposed notice times don’t work for you, offer alternate times when the property is available for inspection.
- If your unit is up for sale, for example, there may be a lockbox key holder placed on the unit to allow access while you’re away, but all privacy laws apply to potential purchasers and real estate agents entering the unit.
Pests – infestations
The responsibility for pests and pest infestations are shared by both the landlord and tenant. The following helps determine who is responsible for controlling pest infestations.
- Landlords are obligated under Federal and State Laws to comply with the Warranty of Habitability which means that the property is suitable for human habitation and provides minimum standards of water, heating, security, safety.
- Washington State law requires landlords to fix infestations. Depending of the situation, if the tenant is responsible for the infestation, the tenant must pay to fix the problem. See the section below.
- An infestation is not defined but would be seen as an amount of pests that impact on the health, safety, and well-being of occupants of a property, or that might make a negative impact on the structure of the property.
- By example, a few spiders or a few wasp nests are natural occurrences which could be eliminated by relocation, cleaning or spraying. By contrast, many wasp nests that cannot be controlled by normal actions or a colony of termites damaging the property are considered a “pest infestation.”
- The general expectation is that tenants will keep the property clean, tidy, and will deal with any pests they can access unless these are grow into full “infestations” or the tenants are not able to access the pests for treatment or for repairs. It’s also expected that landlords will deal with infestations or where the tenant cannot access the pests for treatment or for repairs.
- Regarding costs of pest control:
- tenants pay for controlling pests that are not considered “infestations”
- tenants pay for controlling infestations they introduced, or could reasonably have controlled. For example, if a tenant brings bedbugs into the property which were not previously in the property, then the tenant must pay for the remediation. If bugs from a neighboring apartment move into the neighboring apartment, the tenant who brought the bugs into the complex is responsible for the cost of the pest control. If through hoarding or being unclean in a home, an infestation occurs, then the tenant who keeps the unclean home is responsible for the pest control costs.
Tenant Responsibilities – using Washington State as an example
When you sign the rental lease agreement, you agree to take care of the property. As such, state laws govern some of the things you can and cannot do, as a measure to ensure the property is properly cared for.
These are the responsibilities a tenant MUST do when renting a property:
- Pay rent and any utility bills as dictated by your rental lease.
- Abide by all city, county and state regulations.
- Keep your rental property clean and sanitary.
- Dispose of garbage properly.
- Pay for fumigation of any pest infestations caused by you.
- Properly use the property’s plumbing, electrical and heating systems.
- Upon moving out, restore the property to the same condition as when you moved in, with the exception of normal wear and tear.
As a tenant, regulations also dictate what a tenant MUST NOT do:
- Engage in or permit drug-related or gang-related activity on the property.
- Permit damage to the property.
- Allow excessive garbage to build up in or around the rental unit.
- Cause a nuisance or substantial interference with other tenants’ use of their property.
Landlord Responsibilities – using Washington state as an example
Landlords also have legal responsibilities regarding the rental properties they provide. The quality of rental housing effects everyone in a community. Therefore, laws are in place to make sure renters are provided safe and comfortable housing, and that housing is offered with fairness to all.
These are the responsibilities a landlord MUST do when renting a property:
- Maintain the property so it does not violate state and local laws in ways that endanger the tenants’ health and safety.
- Provide the fixtures and appliances necessary to supply heat, electricity and hot and cold water.
- Keep shared or common areas reasonably clean and safe.
- Make repairs when something breaks in the property.
- Provide good locks for the house and give you keys for these locks.
- Replace a lock or configure an existing one for a new key, at your expense, when you ask to have this done after getting a court order granting you possession of a rental unit and excluding your former co-tenant (example: ex-spouse, ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend, if a restraining order has been filed against them).
- Fix damage to the chimney, roof, floors, or any other structural parts of the living space.
- Make a good attempt to get rid of any insect, rodent or other pest problems, except when you (the tenant) cause the problem.
- Provide smoke detectors and make sure they work when you move in.(You are responsible for buying new batteries and maintaining smoke or carbon monoxide detectors.)
- Fix electrical, plumbing, heating systems if they break.
- Fix other appliances that come with the rental.
- Make repairs needed to make sure the house is weather-tight.
- Set water heaters at 120 degrees when a new tenant moves in.
- Tell you the name and address of the landlord or the landlord’s property manager.
- Provide you a receipt for your rent payment if you pay in cash, even if you do not ask for a receipt. If you pay in any other form, the landlord must provide you with a receipt upon your request.
- If more than one family lives in a house or apartment building, the landlord must provide garbage cans and arrange for the trash (and in some cases, recyclable items) pick up. If only one family lives in the house or apartment building, the landlord does not have to provide trash pick-up. The landlord does not have to pay for damages or problems that are your fault.
- The landlord cannot ask you to do something illegal.