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Illegal Landlord Actions: How Landlords Can Get in Trouble

Landlords usually fall into one of three categories. Many are incredibly good, handling their responsibilities and respecting your rights as a tenant. Some are bad, blatantly shirking their duties, and sometimes the law. Finally, a portion are inexperienced. While they may want to do right by you, they might not know everything that entails.

In both of the latter cases, there’s a chance that the landlord will do something illegal. But ignorance of the law isn’t necessarily a defense.

As a tenant, knowing what the illegal landlord actions are is vital. Not only will it ensure that you understand your rights, but it also lets you know when it may be wise to take action yourself.

What Are Illegal Landlord Actions?

Illegal landlord actions include anything a landlord does that violates the law. This can include direct interactions with tenants, content in a lease, or activities on a property that is occupied by a tenant. If the state or local regulations bar it, it is illegal.

Landlord-tenant laws vary from state to state. Additionally, there may be city, county, or municipality rules that augment state law. What qualifies as illegal landlord actions in one area may count in another.

If you want to protect yourself as a tenant, it’s wise to familiarize yourself with local landlord-tenant statutes and regulations. That way, you fully understand your unique rights.

However, some illegal landlord actions are fairly universal. If you want to know more about those, here’s a look at activities that are usually against the law.

Common Illegal Landlord Actions

Locking Tenants Out Without Going to Court

Landlords do have the right to evict tenants for various reasons, such as non-payment, breaking the tenets of the lease, or disturbing other residents. However, they can’t lock tenants out without going through the proper legal channels. A court order is required to prevent a tenant from accessing a dwelling.

To put it simply, if a landlord locks you out of a space you are renting without a court order, that’s illegal.

Entering the Property Without Notice for Non-Emergencies

While the landlord may own the dwelling, you still have a right to privacy. The landlord isn’t allowed to enter your unit without advanced notice in most cases. They also have to have a good reason.

Usually, this means they have to provide you with a written notice stating when they plan to enter and why. Precisely how much notice they need to give varies, though it usually falls between 12 and 48 hours. However, some states don’t specify a number, instead simply stating that “reasonable notice” is a must.

If a landlord fails to give notice or appropriate justification – based on local law – entering your unit is illegal.

It is important to note that landlords can enter a dwelling without notice for emergencies. For example, if a gas leak is suspected in your unit, they can come in immediately. Usually, they legally have to inform you when this occurs, typically by leaving a notice upon exiting.

Retaliating Because of a Complaint

Whether you file a complaint with the landlord or with a local housing authority, you are legally protected against retaliation. That means your landlord can’t threaten you, raise your rent as punishment, or move forward with eviction proceedings just because you had a grievance.

They also can’t intentionally make the living conditions increasingly uncomfortable in hopes of making you move. For example, if they skip necessary repairs after you file a complaint, that’s retaliation.

Essentially, retaliation in any form is illegal, regardless of the nature of your complaint.

Raising Rent Without Required Notice

Landlords do have a right to raise your rent. However, they can’t do it on a whim. Instead, they have to give proper notice.

Exactly what that entails varies by state. Usually, 30 to 60 days’ notice is required for tenant-at-will (where you don’t have an active lease) or month-to-month arrangements. If a lease is in place, they may be barred from changing your rent amount until the period in the lease ends. And they may still have to give you 30 or more days’ notice.

In most cases, that notice can’t be verbal. Some states allow it to simply be in writing. Others are more stringent, requiring it to be sent by certified letter.

Without proper notification, the rent increase is illegal, making it unenforceable.

Retroactively Raising Rent

Rent increases can’t be retroactive. As mentioned above, proper notice is required. As a result, any attempt to raise rent retroactively, which would cause a tenant to unjustly owe back rent, is illegal.

Raising Rent Above the Limit

Some states limit how much a tenant’s rent can be increased in a certain period. Usually, this only applies to rent-controlled or rent-stabilized properties, where local regulations limit increases. In most cases, there is a percentage maximum that applies.

If you’re in a covered property and the landlord tries to increase your rent beyond the maximum, that’s an illegal landlord action.

Not Properly Handling Necessary Repairs

As a tenant, you have a legal right to a safe dwelling. Additionally, if a repair is needed to maintain a safe dwelling, the landlord is required to handle it.

Landlords aren’t allowed to turn down repair requests indiscriminately. Additionally, they can’t make tenants handle the work themselves. In many areas, there are rules about who the landlord can hire as well, ensuring that they send a licensed contractor to fix the problem for you.

If a landlord isn’t taking care of needed repairs in a reasonably timely manner, they likely aren’t following the law. However, precisely what that means can vary, so you’ll need to check local rules to see what is required when.

Removing Money from Security Deposits for the Wrong Reasons

Generally, security deposits have a single purpose; to cover damages caused by tenants. Legally, landlords can’t use the money for any purpose outside of the law.

Now, damages, in this case, can be material or financial in most states. For example, this could include physical harm to the property, like a hole punched in the wall, as well as back-due rent. With the latter, that’s financial damage.

However, landlords can’t use the security deposit to fix normal wear-and-tear. The damage has to be beyond what occurs through standard use. If it isn’t, removing the money is illegal.

Acts of Discrimination

Any act that is considered discriminatory in the eyes of the law is illegal. This can include excluding applicants of a certain race, background, gender, or other protected characteristic, as well as treating them differently due to those factors. The same goes for treating tenants differently because of their association with a protected group.

Additionally, landlords can’t discriminate against families. While they can limit the number of tenants in a unit, usually based on the number of bedrooms, they usually can’t deny a tenant solely because one (or more) of the tenants would be a child. Landlords also can’t prevent a person with a disability from living with a service animal, even if the dwelling is traditionally a no-pets property.

Early or Excessive Late Fees

While most states do allow landlords to charge late fees if rent isn’t provided in a timely manner, precisely when they can levee that fee and how much they can charge is often dictated by law. Some states require a grace period, preventing the landlord from applying a late fee until that time has passed. Trying to require a fee before that time is, therefore, illegal.

Similarly, many states limit the size of the late fee. This ensures they remain “reasonable.” At times, states require that any potential late fees be discussed in the lease, too.

Usually, you need to review local late rent laws to determine what is and isn’t allowed. That way, you can determine whether a fee assessed by your landlord is or isn’t legal.

Shutting Off Utilities

Unless a utility shutoff is for the purpose of handling a necessary repair, landlords typically can’t turn off a tenant’s water, electricity, or gas. This is true even if the tenant is late paying rent.

Utility services are usually considered musts for maintaining a livable dwelling. Since landlords are required to do so, shutting off utilities when it isn’t because of repairs is a no-go.

Taking Property When Rent is Late

Landlords cannot seize a tenant’s property to make up for late rent. They also can’t hold your property hostage, vowing to return it once you pay what’s owed.

If a landlord takes your property and refuses to return it, their actions are illegal. Often, it’s considered theft. Additionally, you may have the right to file a lawsuit and receive payment for damages.

Failing to Get Required Inspections

Certain inspections are required by law. For example, certain states have habitability inspections or new certificate of occupancy approvals whenever a unit is occupied by a new tenant. Fire inspections might be necessary, allowing a state or city official to confirm the rental has the right smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in place.

These inspections help ensure that units are safe and legally rentable. If a landlord doesn’t get these handled, that’s an illegal action.

Not Disclosing Property Risks

Landlords have to let you know if any risks come with a property. For example, they have to disclose – usually in writing – if there is lead paint, mold issues, or other potential hazards.

Generally, these disclosures have to be presented at the time you sign a lease. This ensures that you understand any risks before agreeing to move in, giving you a chance to change your mind if you aren’t comfortable with the hazards. If those disclosures aren’t present and there is a qualifying issue, your landlord likely the law.

What to Do About Illegal Landlord Actions

If you believe your landlord is doing something illegal, the first thing you should do is familiarize yourself with local landlord-tenant law. This gives you a chance to determine if it’s actually an illegal landlord action. Plus, some rules also outline your rights regarding such incidents, providing you with clear direction about next steps.

Next, you should gather proof, if possible and appropriate. This is especially true when it comes to failing to complete repairs, shutting off utilities, or any other action that comes with physical evidence of wrongdoing.

In some cases, you would then contact your landlord in writing about the issue. For example, if there is a necessary repair, you can discuss the matter in writing and mail it as a certified letter.

However, you can also contact your local housing authorities. Depending on the nature of the problem, they may be able to step in, or point you in the proper direction.

At times, you may be within your legal rights to sue your landlord over an illegal action. However, this should rarely be a first step. Instead, you should address the problems through a certified letter or work with your housing authority. By doing so, you are laying the groundwork for further action, such as a lawsuit, if they fail to comply with the law.