10 Things a Landlord Cannot Do, According to the Law

When you sign a lease or are a month-to-month tenant, you’ve entered into a contract with a landlord, and that means you both have certain rights. Even though the landlord owns the rental property, they still need to follow landlord-tenant law, which includes both federal and state-specific laws. If you’re going to be a renter, you should know what a landlord cannot do.

1. Discriminate against prospective tenants

Landlords are subject to the federal Fair Housing Act, which protects seven classes: race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, and disability. If a landlord won’t rent to you just because you’re Black, Catholic, or have two children, for example, that landlord would be breaking the law.

If you are one of the protected classes, keep in mind that you can’t expect to get the rental unit just because of your protected status: You still must meet landlord requirements, such as income and credit score. But if you do meet landlord requirements, and they still won’t rent to you, you may suspect it’s solely because of your classification. If you believe a landlord is discriminating against you,  you can file a complaint with HUD.gov and they will investigate.

2. Reclaim the property during your term

Another federal law, called “the right to quiet enjoyment,” means that once you have a lease or are a month-to-month tenant, you get to live in the rental unit undisturbed for the lease term, or in the case of a month-to-month tenancy, until you get a notice to vacate (usually one month’s notice, depending on your state law).

This law protects you from a landlord who decides they want their property back during your tenancy. They can’t do that. If they want the property back, they need to wait until the lease is up or give you proper notice.

3. Provide a subpar unit

The third and final federal law is called “the warranty of habitability.” This means landlords need to provide tenants with a livable rental unit. The specifics on what makes a unit livable vary by state, but generally speaking, landlords need to provide their tenants with running hot and cold water, doors and windows that lock, heat, plumbing, electricity, a property free from pests, smoke detectors, and a rental unit that meets local building codes.

If you have a problem with your rental unit, tell your landlord. They get a chance to fix what’s wrong, but the problem needs to be resolved in a timely manner, usually no longer than 30 days.

4. Keep your security deposit

The purpose of a security deposit, which is typically equal to one month’s rent, is to cover any damages you might have caused during your stay in the rental unit. If you didn’t cause any damage, the landlord needs to return your security deposit. If you did cause damage, the landlord needs to deduct the cost of the repair and provide you with an estimate of the cost or a receipt. You would then get the balance of your security deposit returned to you—if there is any. There are specific state rules on how long a landlord has to return your security deposit, usually 30 days.

Some tenants believe the security deposit can be used in lieu of paying last month’s rent. In most states, if you don’t pay last month’s rent, landlords can keep the security deposit, but that is not what a security deposit is for. If the landlord uses the security deposit to cover last month’s rent, they would then need to come after you for money if you damaged the unit.

5. Enter the property unannounced

Some landlords think that because they own the rental property, they can come in whenever they like. This is untrue. Your rent provides you the right to live in your property undisturbed. The exception is if there is an emergency situation and the landlord needs to get in to save the property.

In most leases, landlords list the reasons they can enter the property, but with proper notice, usually 24- to 48-hours notice. They might want to enter to inspect the property, to make repairs or improvements, or to show the unit.

6. Change the locks

Some landlords, in an effort to get you out if you stop paying rent or break a lease term, will change the locks on you. They might wait until you leave for the day and then change the locks or the code, locking you out, with no access to your possessions.

No matter how frustrated the landlord may be with their tenant, these types of “self-help measures” are not legal. If your landlord locks you out, you can take them to small claims court, and you could be awarded monetary damages.

7. Turn off utilities

Another measure some landlords take if you stop paying rent is to turn off the utilities, another type of self-help measure. This can happen only if the utilities are in the landlord’s name. Even if you stop paying for the utilities, the landlord needs to keep them on.

The reason landlords cannot shut off utilities is that the unit would then not meet warranty of habitability standards – see above.

8. Increase the rent in a rent-controlled unit

If you live in a rent-controlled unit, your unit is mandated by government rules and regulations. As such, the landlord must abide by rent control ordinances. How much a landlord can charge for rent, how much they can raise your rent each year, and when they are allowed to evict a tenant can all fall under rent control regulations.

9. Retaliate

You’re allowed to complain to the city if your rental unit is in a sub-par condition and the landlord isn’t doing anything about it. Some tenants are afraid to do this, thinking the landlord might retaliate, perhaps by evicting them or not renewing their lease. Landlords cannot retaliate if you have complained in good faith about a housing violation.

This one is a bit tricky, however. You would need to prove that whatever negative action the landlord took against you was solely because you complained. It’ll probably be difficult to prove that you didn’t get your lease renewed, for example, solely because of the complaint you made. In most jurisdictions, landlords are under no obligation to renew a lease. They never have to renew.

The exception is rent-controlled units or jurisdictions with “just cause” eviction laws, meaning you can only be evicted for a reason, not just because the landlord wants you out.

10. Ask you invasive questions

During the application process, the landlord can ask you a lot of things: your name, current address, who you work for, how much you make, and can request that you agree to a credit and background check. Those are all normal screening methods that many landlords use.

But landlords cannot ask you certain questions because that could possibly be seen as a violation of the protected classes’ rights under the Fair Housing Act. Some questions landlords cannot ask you include the following:

  • What country were you born in? The reason: goes to national origin.
  • Do you have a service animal? The reason: goes to disability.
  • How many children do you have? The reason: goes to familial status. (Note: you can ask how many occupants will be living there, as some jurisdictions or buildings have occupancy laws.)
  • Would you like directions to the nearest church? The reason: goes to religion.

The bottom line

It’s best to be informed regarding what a landlord cannot do so that you won’t be taken advantage of. Read your lease to make sure your landlord abides by it, and look up the landlord-tenant law for your state. That’s as easy as looking online and searching for “landlord-tenant law [your state’s name]” to learn the law and how it applies to your situation.