Tenant-Landlord Law and Renters Insurance

What you need to know about tenant-landlord law whether you're a renter or property owner.

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Long gone are the days when all a landlord had to do was make an apartment or rental unit available to a paying tenant.

Today, both federal and state laws require apartment and home owners, as well as renters, to abide by a number of other rights and duties that govern the modern landlord-tenant relationship.

For example, beyond "delivering possession" of a property to a tenant at the beginning of a lease, a landlord has to provide a "habitable" apartment or house that is free of vermin (cockroaches and mice are good examples) as well as serious defects—like poor electrical wiring, gaping holes in the floor, even walls covered in lead-based paint--that could cause harm or otherwise endanger a person's safety.

(Most states prohibit landlords from adding language to a lease that says you, the tenant, "waive" or give up this right, by the way, so keep an eye out for wording that suggests it or something similar.)

Landlords have to respect your right to privacy, too--with certain exceptions. That means they can't just waltz into your apartment or rental home without warning (or advanced permission) unless there's an emergency. Otherwise, he or she has to give you some amount of notice—this often depends on the state (more on this later)—before entering your living space to show it to prospective renters, make repairs, or the like.

Federal law also prohibits landlords from refusing to rent to someone who has an animal who helps them deal with a physical or mental disability even if they usually have a "no pets" policy.

And then there are the state laws that dictate things like how much money a landlord can require you to hand over for a security deposit or for pre-paid rent, how quickly he or she has to return your security deposit to you once your lease has ended, and whether or not they have to detail for you how your money was spent if you don’t get your entire deposit back.

Note: not all states or cities address the situations described above in their housing laws, so be sure to check out sites like HUD.gov's tenant rights page and Tenants and Landlords: Select State and Local Laws to learn more about the law where you live.

Broad Discrimination Protection for Tenants, Too

Federal housing law also broadly protects renters from all sorts of discrimination, including age, gender, race, religion, physical or mental disability, and more. (Some states prohibit discrimination in housing based on marital status or sexual orientation, too.)

Beyond that, it prohibits landlords from taking part in a number of additional discriminatory actions, such as:

  • Indicating a dislike of or disinterest in—or even a preference for—prospective tenants who are part of a protected class (like the ones just mentioned)
  • Refusing to rent to people who are in one of these categories
  • Providing different facilities or services to those in a protected class
  • Harassing tenants
  • Breaking a lease (ending a tenancy) for some discriminatory reason

Renters' Rules and Duties

As a tenant, you have certain laws and duties to abide by as well. Here are a couple of noteworthy examples:

You have to pay rent—Although this rule is sure to seem like a no-brainer at first glance, there are some exceptions to keep in mind. For instance, if you move into your apartment or house and find it unlivable for any of the reasons mentioned earlier, you may be freed from your duty to pay rent. The same is true if your landlord refuses or fails to make certain major repairs, such as to your living space's electrical, heating, plumbing, or water lines, or to your apartment's or home's roof or floors.

You have to preserve the premises—In other words, you can't trash your rental property—unless you're willing to say goodbye to your security deposit. If your goal is to get that money back, you're going to want to leave your unit in the same condition it was in when you stepped through the door at the beginning of your lease.

State-by-State Differences

Many of the situations described above differ depending on the state, and sometimes even city, in which you currently live and rent.

A case in point: if you decide to rent an apartment or house in Alaska, your landlord will be unable to ask for a security deposit that totals more than two months of rent (unless the place you're eyeing up costs more than $2,000 per month).

Or, if the apartment or rental home of your dreams is in South Carolina or Texas, your landlord will be legally obligated to return your security deposit to you within 30 days of the end of your tenancy.

Also, there are situations like North Dakota, where landlords are required by state law to put security-deposit funds in a federally-insured, interest-bearing savings or passbook account. (If you live in Florida, on the other hand, and if your landlord places your security deposit in an interest-bearing account, he or she has to pay you either 5 percent interest or 75 percent of the account's interest rate.)

A few other landlord-tenant requirements that tend to differ from state to state (and sometimes even from city to city within a particular state):

  • The form and timing of notices regarding tenancy termination or eviction due to unpaid rent (in writing or not, five days in advance, seven days, etc.)
  • The timing of notices related to the intention of entering a tenant's home
  • The need for advance warning when it comes to rent increases (especially if they're going to be above a certain percentage)

Some city and state housing laws also require rental properties within their jurisdictions to provide heat that's capable of maintaining a minimum temperature (65 degrees in Connecticut and Vermont, 67 degrees in Wisconsin), often for a certain number of hours or during certain times of day.

Insurance and Landlord-Tenant Law

There are a number of ways apartment and home owners and renters can satisfy all of the rights, responsibilities, and laws discussed so far, with industry-specific insurance being one of them.

If you're a tenant, for instance, renters insurance often can provide you with various amounts of liability coverage.

(For more information on renters insurance, or to compare renters insurance quotes from a handful companies, go here.)

If you're a landlord, on the other hand, buying the right forms of insurance on your rental property can ensure you're covered should any accidents happen or should your apartment or home be damaged in any way.

Specifically, these are the three types of insurance that apartment or rental home owners tend to purchase for their properties:

Personal liability insurance--This kind of insurance helps protect you from any violations of fair housing laws that may pop up, or any injuries that may happen to your tenants due to defects or other issues related to your property, including slips or falls.

Property insurance--This type of insurance, on the other hand, covers structural and physical damage to your property (as well as other structures on your property), as well as items—like washers and dryers, even microwaves--on the premises that are used by renters but that you own.

Rent insurance--Sometimes called "fair rental value coverage" or something similar, this insurance product reimburses landlords for income that's lost due to their property becoming uninhabitable because a covered event (such as a natural disaster or a tenant's actions).

It isn't unusual for all of the above—and more, such as insurance that covers a landlord in the event of equipment breakdown or covers loss of value or increased costs due to the enforcement of municipal laws or ordinances—to be offered as part of a package that's referred to as any of the following names: apartment owners insurance, landlord building insurance for apartment owners, landlord property insurance, or even simply landlord insurance.

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