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Your Renters Rights — Including How to Communicate With a Landlord

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A woman sits on one side of a desk having a serious conversation with someone else that is off camera. In front of her, is a notebook.
Regardless of where you live, tenants have rights, and many groups in the Bay Area can help you communicate with your landlord. (JulPo)

Renters headed about 36% of the nation’s 122.8 million households in 2019. If you’re one of them, whether you’re renting a single-family house in a small town or a studio apartment in an urban 300-unit high-rise, you might feel like you’re at a disadvantage.

“In general in our country, we’re very oriented toward property ownership,” says Lisa Bates, a professor at the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University in Oregon. “Renters face an uphill battle in policy and in law because they’re always considered subordinate in terms of their rights in the space.”

But not owning your home shouldn’t mean you experience unstable living conditions, she says.

“No tenant is alone,” says Nina Rosenblatt, the know your rights training coordinator for the California-based tenants’ rights coalition, Tenants Together. “All tenants in all states have some extent of rights.”

This is true regardless of disability, family status, immigration status or age but regulations and resources vary depending on which state — and even zip code — you live in, so it’s important to understand your specific rights.

To start, here are some tips to help you become a more empowered renter regardless of where you live:

Learn to read your lease agreement

There is no standard rental agreement. So it’s critical to look at the unique contours of your lease and note any additions or omissions that might affect your standard of living or that might be outside local laws.

Look closely at any fees on top of monthly rent. If there’s a late rent fee, Rosenblatt says that number should be no more than about 5% of your monthly rent. And if a lease doesn’t specifically list a fee, know your landlord can’t tack on an arbitrary fee after the lease has been signed.

Rosenblatt says she’s also seen things like expensive application fees and move-in fees charged to new tenants for things like fresh paint, key fobs or the use of a freight elevator. So make sure any additional costs seem reasonable and affordable to you. If you feel something might be off, try and look at other local rental applications and lease agreements, or ask friends and family about their experiences renting in the area.

Also, look out for vague timelines and overly broad language. “Most states have a law which specifies that the landlord is responsible for making any appropriate and necessary repairs,” says Rosenblatt. So watch out for phrases like “the tenant is responsible for all damages and repairs” or “this lease can be amended at any time during the year of tenancy.” Phrases like these could be a landlord’s attempt to transfer responsibility to a tenant unfairly.

If you realize after signing your lease that some language or a clause seems fishy, Paula Franzese, legal scholar and professor of property law at the Seton Hall University School of Law, says fear not. Any clause deemed “unconscionable” or “oppressive” would be unenforceable if you sought legal action.

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Keep your receipts

When it comes to a healthy relationship with your landlord, thorough documentation and ongoing communication are key — starting as soon as you move into a new place.

Rosenblatt says, “Keep in mind the conditions of the unit and have documentation of what it looks like, especially in its initial condition.”

Off-kilter ceiling fan, missing blinds or stains on the carpet?

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Take a picture or video, says Rosenblatt. Don’t get your deposit dinged for issues that came before you. Make sure to send documentation to the landlord with a date and timestamp included.

Opt for email or text messages when contacting your landlord. “It is really important that all communication is written,” says Rosenblatt. If you talk over the phone, make sure there are “follow-up emails summarizing what was spoken about.” She says to include a timeline in the email of when a repair will be fixed by, for example, so there’s documentation of that agreement.

And if you have a persistent problem and receive inconsistent communication from your landlord — document that, too. “It’s important to keep records of the number of phone calls made,” says Franzese.

Learn some powerful words to resolve conflicts with landlords

Oftentimes, says Lisa Bates, the key to quickly resolving a rental dispute requires knowing what she calls “magic words” — phrases, often legal, that signal to a landlord you’re aware of your rights and can exercise them if needed.

For example: if your landlord is unresponsive to a repair request for something like mold or pests, the magic words might be city inspection or code enforcement.

Rosenblatt says you could try saying something like: “I want to work collaboratively with you on finding a solution. But if not, I’d like to request a city inspection, or I plan on going to code enforcement and getting them to come in and check out these conditions.”

This sort of language will often encourage landlords to take action because going through a city or county can be more time intensive and costly than just addressing the issue themselves, says Rosenblatt.

If you have a problem, don’t go it alone

Get to know your neighbors. Our experts say seeking out community and working towards joint solutions is a critical tool for renters who want to make a difference in their housing situation.

Especially if you live in a building with a lot of other units — the problems you’re dealing with likely affect more than just you. “If you have roaches, somebody else has roaches,” says Bates.

Connecting with fellow tenants can give you context for your issues, help you prepare if something like a rent increase is coming down the pipeline and give you strength in numbers when requesting action from a property owner.

Then, if your building doesn’t already have one, find or form a local tenant union. These organizations can provide writing templates, legal advice and other collective action options to help with difficult landlords.

And what’s more, they can help you act from a place of empowerment instead of intimidation. “It’s really important to not make decisions based on fear or panic,” says Rosenblatt. “Instead, [make] decisions based on tenant’s rights knowledge.”

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At KQED News, we know that it can sometimes be hard to track down the answers to navigate life in the Bay Area in 2023. We’ve published clear, practical explainers and guides about COVID, how to cope with intense winter weather and how to exercise your right to protest safely.

So tell us: What do you need to know more about? Tell us, and you could see your question answered online or on social media. What you submit will make our reporting stronger, and help us decide what to cover here on our site, and on KQED Public Radio, too.

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