Illegal Landlord Actions: How to Get Your Landlord in Trouble

Are you dealing with a landlord from hell?

One you initially thought was nice, but did a complete 180 once you started living there?

One that makes you want to tear your hairs out whenever he or she comes knocking on your door, block his or her number on your phone, or cross the opposite side of the street when you see him or her coming, because you are already anticipating a mouthful of complaints against you?

If so, you are not alone.

However, many tenants never lodge a formal complaint, believing they are powerless against their landlords. They just count down the days until their lease ends and they can finally move out.

You may have tried talking to your landlord, but it likely led nowhere. So, you may be wondering, what now?

You may want to get your landlord in trouble… with the law, that is. This means identifying any illegal actions that your landlord is doing and reporting them to the authorities.

Unbeknownst to many tenants like you, there are some things that landlords do that you may see as normal since they own the property, but the reality is, these acts are already considered illegal and in violation of a tenant’s rights.

Caught your attention? Can relate to it?

Then, keep reading.

Illegal Clauses in Leases

While you may skip reading anything that says, “terms and conditions,” you cannot do so when it comes to a lease. This is because leases are crafted by landlords, and it is easy for them to include terms considered illegal – whether they are aware of it or not.

In fact, it was discovered that majority of leases have illegal clauses that tenants are not aware of; many of those clauses are even thought of as normal, that is why tenants do not question it.

Any clause that violates the landlord and tenant laws, including state and common laws, are considered illegal. Since landlords have the responsibility to come up with the lease, the responsibility of checking the clauses present falls in your hands as a tenant.

If you see these clauses in your lease, know that these are considered illegal, even if they are commonly included in leases:

  • Tenant paying fort all the necessary repairs of the apartment
  • Using the tenant’s security deposit to pay for the unpaid utility bills of the tenant
  • Requiring the tenant to pay for, utilities, like gas or electricity, under the landlord’s name, even if it was not used by the tenant
  • In case the lease is terminated, the tenant must pay rent that covers the remainder of the lease even if he or she will no longer residing there
  • Making the security deposits non-refundable
  • Requiring tenants to waive their right to privacy, allowing the landlord to enter the unit anytime
  • Prohibiting tenants from suing the landlord
  • Considering tenants to be solely responsible for all the damages that can happen to the property
  • Preventing tenants from subletting the unit
  • Evicting non-paying tenants based on a landlord’s whims and through physical means
  • In case legal issues between the tenant and the landlord are brought to court and the tenant loses, he or she will pay for the legal fees of the landlord
  • Asking tenants to pay rent beyond the first and last month, as well as converting the rent into a deposit to protect the property from damage or as payment for furniture rental
  • Requiring tenants to oversee the maintenance of landscaping

Know that there may be other clauses deemed illegal that are not included in this list, so make sure to consult with an attorney to identify these before you sign. Even if the landlord is rushing you to sign the lease, you have the right to check every clause present.

If a landlord has multiple tenants in the same property, all tenants should be treated equally. This means giving them the same rights and privileges, so check if this applies to you. A tenant should also look for a clause that states that the landlord is responsible for making the unit habitable, as this is mandatory in any lease.

Even if you see an illegal clause, this does not mean that the lease must immediately be considered void. Only an attorney can gauge if these clauses will be considered void in accordance to state laws.

Can a Landlord Refuse to Rent to Someone?

Just as much as tenants want to deal with reasonable landlords, landlords also prefer renting out their units to tenants that will not be problematic. However, some tenants have this misconception that a landlord cannot refuse to rent out their property to someone who is interested.

Landlords are involved in a business, so they have the right to refuse to rent out their units to certain people, but only to some extent. In particular, landlords are not allowed to reject potential tenants due to reasons that can be considered discriminatory. Based on the Fair Housing Act, a landlord is prohibited from refusing to rent to potential tenants based on their:

  • National origin
  • Color or race
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • Familial status
  • Handicap or disability

Different states may also have local laws when it comes to tenant discrimination, such as related to sexual orientation, age, and their Section 8 participation. If a landlord refuses to rent out to a tenant ‘just because’, this is considered arbitrary discrimination, which is also prohibited.

On the other hand, landlords have the right to refuse potential tenants based on:

  • Pets, except those who require service animals
  • Criminal background or conviction
  • Credit history, including due their refusal to submit to a background check and credit report
  • Negative references, especially from a previous employer or landlord
  • Evidence of low income or low credit score, including having numerous debts
  • Previous bankruptcies
  • Having a previous eviction lawsuit, even if the tenant won the case
  • History of not paying rent or damaging rental property
  • Smoking habit
  • No rental history
  • Falsified information, including not completely filling out the rental application
  • Objecting the landlord’s lease terms
  • Frequent transfers or changing jobs
  • Having too many vehicles
  • Too many people to possibly occupy the unit
  • Evidence of drug habit even at present

Landlords must only screen applicants based on their income, credit and rental history, and background, and nothing else.

Penalty for Renting Illegal Apartments

Too often, tenants end up unknowingly renting illegal apartments because they are attracted by the low rent. Unfortunately, it can be challenging to discover its legal status by sight alone; an apartment may be well-built but still be considered illegal.

If you already signed the lease when you discovered that you are renting an illegal apartment, you may be wondering if you will be subjected to any penalty. The good news is, only your landlord will pay for any penalties, which can amount to $15,000 or more. However, you may have to move out asap because of it; your landlord may be liable to shoulder your relocation costs, depending on state laws.

Many states consider the lease in such scenarios as unenforceable, which means all its terms are considered void. However, your landlord has no obligation to return your past payments. This gives you the right not to pay rent, but it also gives a landlord a reason to evict you.

But if you choose to stay even if your landlord refuses to legalize the rental property, know that this is a very risky move. While you still have the same rights as tenants renting legal apartments, the authorities may require you to move out at any time and there is no guarantee that the unit .

What a Landlord Cannot Do

Most tenants have this notion that since their landlords own the property, they are at the mercy of their landlords. What they fail to realize is that there are limits to this, and some landlords take advantage of that belief.

There are so many things that landlords cannot do, but the most common are:

  • Entering the rental property if the tenant was not informed beforehand, except during emergencies
  • Retaliating against tenants because a tenant complained about something, such as the condition of the property
  • Preventing a tenant who is behind on rent from entering the rental property
  • Forcefully evicting a tenant without obtaining an eviction order, as well as evicting them through physical means
  • Suddenly raising the rent without notice and beyond state limits
  • Discriminating against tenants
  • Turning down tenants’ repair requests, forcing tenants to do the repairs themselves, or getting the repairs done but with the landlord hiring unlicensed contractors
  • Not disclosing if the property contains lead-based paints and other hazards, including not doing any lead testing even through the use of lead paint test kits
  • Skipping the required inspections before renting out the apartment, including not doing routine inspections
  • Deducting a tenant’s security deposit because of other reasons not involving repairs on damages caused by tenants
  • Refusing to return the security deposit
  • Charging other fees that cannot be properly explained by the landlord and are not included in the lease
  • Violating the rights of tenants considered as protected class, particularly those with disabilities, such as prohibiting them from bringing service pets and family members to live with them
  • Not disclosing that a tenant was rejected because of a negative credit information using another source aside from the tenant’s credit report
  • The unit is not considered habitable, violating the Warranty of Habitability
  • Asking for a security deposit that exceeds the limits set by the state (if present, as certain states do not set limits to it), as well as requiring different amounts for different tenants
  • Asking the tenant questions that are considered invasive or out-of-bounds
  • Using the unit leased to the tenant as the landlord’s extension of his or her storage area
  • Not providing a written lease, or asking a tenant to sign outdated or “standard” ones
  • Cutting off the utilities of tenants when unable to pay rent or for other reasons

Different states have different laws when it comes to tenant-landlord relationships, but those mentioned above will apply to most states. If a tenant feels like his or her rights are being violated by the landlord, it is best to check the local laws and consult with an attorney to know what to do next.

Can Landlords Do Random Inspections?

While a landlord technically owns the property, he or she does not have the right to access it at any time, even if his or her excuse is to conduct a random inspection. At the same time, tenants have the right to privacy, but they are also not allowed to completely prohibit the landlord from entering and checking on the rental.

Landlords have the right to enter their rental property as mandated by law, but they cannot do so without informing the tenants beforehand. But if the landlord decides to conduct an unannounced inspection, a tenant has the right to refuse entry; a landlord doing so may violate the tenant’s Right to Quiet Enjoyment.

All states require that landlords inform their tenants in advance through a written notice that they will inspect the property. The notice must include the exact date and possible times when the landlord plans to inspect, as well as contact information if the tenant wants to reschedule it.

Most state laws require tenants to receive the notice of inspection from their landlords at least 24 hours in advance, but there are also some states that require a 48 hours advanced notice.

Some states also require that inspections done by a landlord occur during “reasonable hours”, which typically means business hours or between 8 AM to 6 PM. This inspection may be conducted a few times a year, but not too often that a tenant feels harassed or inconvenienced.

Drive-by inspections, on the other hand, do not require a prior notice, since a landlord will not enter the premises and will only observe and check the exteriors of the property.

Rental Property Inspection Laws

If a landlord says that he or she will do a rental property inspection in a few hours, most tenants would think that it is well within the rights of the landlord to do so. What they did not know is that there are laws related to rental property inspections of landlords that protect tenants.

At the forefront of it is the “Right to Quiet Enjoyment,” which states that tenants have the right to use the property without being disturbed by anyone, even those who are considered to have a superior title, such as the landlord. Different states also have their own laws related to it.

However, this does not mean that a landlord is completely prohibited to go inside the property until the tenant vacates it. There are valid circumstances when a landlord can enter the unit, which are:

  • Conduct an inspection of the property and the entire premises
  • Renovate or do necessary repairs
  • Showcase the rental property to other possible tenants, as well as prospective property buyers
  • During an emergency
  • If the tenant has been away for some time, typically for at least seven days, as the tenant may have left the property for good without informing the landlord

Note that state laws vary when it comes to the privacy of tenants; some states may see all these as valid reasons for a landlord to enter the property, while others may only consider a handful of them. And in certain states, there are no laws related to it.

When it comes to inspections, landlords typically do it mainly to check for any damages. These inspections fall under four categories:

  • Move-in inspection – to check on the condition prior to the tenant moving in
  • Move-out inspection – to find any damages that may have been caused by the tenant during his or her occupancy, and is ideally done when the tenant starts vacating the property
  • Routine – to catch any issues early to avoid costly repairs in the future, as well as to check for any illegal activities or lease violations of tenants
  • Drive-by inspection – to see if a routine inspection is needed; landlords will only check on the exteriors and will not go inside the rental property

These inspections are also covered by the Right to Quiet Enjoyment Law. But if a landlord insists that there is no such clause in your lease and that gives him or her the right to do the inspection at any time, you should know that there is an “Implied Covenant of Right to Enjoyment,” which means that the law still applies even if not explicitly stated on your lease.

During an inspection, the landlord is expected to respect the privacy of the tenant when doing so. This means that the landlord is limited to doing a visual inspection and by just walking around the unit. He or she must not go through the personal belongings of the tenant, including searching the cabinets or pantry, but they can take photos of the property as reference to an extent.

Ideally, tenants must be present while the landlord conducts an inspection to avoid any issues. But if not, a landlord must inform the tenant that he or she has conducted an inspection while the tenant is away.

Can a Landlord Take Pictures of My Apartment Without Permission?

It is common for landlords to take pictures of the apartment during an inspection, but this does not mean that they can do so without the permission of tenants. If a landlord plans to take photos, he or she must first inform the tenant about it and the purpose of doing so.

Valid reasons are:

  • For record-keeping or insurance purposes
  • To document any damage present
  • To be used for advertising the rental, in case you are vacating soon

Landlords must not purposely take photos of the personal belongings of the tenant, as this may be considered an invasion of their privacy. If unavoidable, such as when capturing the view of the damage present, the landlord must inform the tenant that his or her belongings will be in that photo.

Installing recording equipment, both audio and video, inside the rental is also not allowed, even if a landlord claims that it is for security; it can only be installed outside the unit.

Taking exterior photos is a different story. Since it is done outdoors, a landlord may do so even without your permission. However, they must still make sure that your belongings are not included in the photo.

Can a Landlord Move Your Personal Belongings?

If a landlord comes to your unit to conduct an inspection or show the property to potential tenants or buyers with your permission, this permission does not extend to giving him or her the right to move your personal belongings.

The apartment may be owned by the landlord, but the tenant’s belongings inside that apartment are still considered property of the tenant, and a landlord has no right to move it around. But if it is necessary, the landlord must talk to the tenant about it and let the tenant handle it, unless the tenant gives explicit permission for the landlord to do so.

An exception applies if the landlord sees them as a potential hazard or affects the comfort of other tenants, but only if those belongings are found outside the rental. If a landlord moves them around, he or she must inform the tenant about it.

But if the tenant is already in bad standing or unable to pay rent, state laws will apply. Depending on the these laws, landlords may be given the right to move or even own the belongings of such tenants after some time.

In case a tenant has already vacated the premises but left behind some personal belongings, a landlord must still give ample time for a tenant to collect it, even if he or she still owes rent. A notice must first be given to the tenant informing him or her where the items will be stored and for how long. If it remains uncollected after the deadline, the landlord can dispose of it, but it must follow state laws.

Can A Landlord Paint While the Rental Property is Occupied?

In case your landlord informs you that he or she plans to paint the rental property you are occupying, especially if your lease is about to end and you will be vacating afterwards, you may wonder if the landlord has the right to do so.

Painting is generally considered as cosmetic work, so it does not fall under an ‘emergency repair’ that warrants immediate attention. This means tenants have the discretion whether to allow the landlord to paint the property or not under the Right to Quiet Enjoyment law. But because of the possible health effects associated with painting, landlords should ideally only paint a rental property when it is unoccupied.

An exception applies if lead-based paint is involved. If this type of paint is damaged, your landlord must address it asap. Damaged lead paint will create toxic lead dust, which is dangerous to everyone, especially children and pregnant women. Too much exposure can cause lead poisoning, which can be fatal.

If dealing with damaged lead paint, your landlord has a valid reason to paint the rental property even while currently occupied, since it already involves your safety. However, he or she must follow lead safe practices, including keeping people not involved in the work, like you, away from the work site.

This means you must not be in the unit while the pros are dealing with the lead paint. Depending on state laws, your landlord may shoulder your temporary relocation, as well as refund a portion of your rent equivalent to the days you were away.

You may also ask your landlord to conduct bulk lead paint testing if he or she has not done so before. That way, your landlord can identify other surfaces that contain lead paint and deal with all of them in one go if needed, ensuring your safety once the work is done.

But if the paint is in very poor condition that it can already be considered a hazard even if it is negative for lead, or state laws require the landlord to repaint, it may fall under the Warrant of Habitability. This means your landlord is obligated to make necessary repairs, even if you are living in the unit. However, your landlord is also obligated to compensate you for the hassle.

What is Considered Harassment by a Landlord?

Tenant-landlord relationships are not always perfect. And in some cases, landlord do hostile acts to tenants whom they feel are going against them. Unfortunately, many tenants experience this from their landlords, but they are not aware that those acts may already be considered as harassment.

They mistakenly believe that those acts are still within the rights of the landlord, so they just learn to deal with it, fearing their landlord will retaliate against them and evict them anytime. Not all tenants are aware that they are protected by the law against landlord harassment, and that they can do something about it.

If you see or experience your landlord doing these to you or to other tenants, know that these acts may be considered as landlord harassment:

  • Depriving you of the use of facilities that are stated in your lease
  • Cutting off your supply to utilities to force you to vacate the unit or pay rent
  • Changing the locks of the unit without notice to prevent the tenant from entering it
  • Going inside an occupied unit without prior notice to the tenant, even without an emergency
  • Threatening to evict a tenant who refuses to give up the unit before the lease is up, even if the landlord offers to buy out or pay the tenant
  • Conducting routine inspections very often or at unreasonable hours for the tenant
  • Using false charges to give a tenant a three-day notice or any similar eviction notice
  • Physically or verbally threatening a tenant
  • Rejecting repair requests
  • Deliberately disturbing the peace of tenants and invading their privacy, including starting construction activities to annoy tenants
  • Rejecting a tenant’s rent payment or not acknowledging it
  • Lying and spreading false information
  • Destroying the personal belongings of tenants, including removing them without a court order
  • Refusing to give recommendations that were requested by a tenant, which will be given to other future landlords
  • Unreasonably raising rent with or without notice
  • Giving a fake eviction notice
  • Sexual harassment, including making crude or vulgar remarks
  • Singling out a tenant and not giving him or her the same privileges as other tenants
  • Doing acts against a tenant that is considered criminal in nature
  • Spying on tenants, including placing recording equipment inside the unit

There are plenty of acts that can be considered as harassment, and a tenant must call out his or her landlord for actions that make him or her uncomfortable. If it does not get resolved, tenants can consider legal actions.

What Can You Sue a Landlord For?

If you feel that your landlord has committed illegal acts or harassed you, violating your rights as a tenant, it is possible for you to sue your landlord. However, this should be your last resort if all else fails; you should try to talk it out with your landlord first. Once you sue, you can expect your relationship with your landlord to worsen; it may be best for you to find a new apartment if you decide to sue, even if you win your case.

Suing a landlord must be done with the help of an attorney who will assess the situation and tell you the best way to address it. You need to prepare yourself because it can be a lengthy and costly process; the amount you can get if you win your case may not even be enough to cover your legal expenses.

If you want to win your case, make sure that you have a valid reason to sue your landlord and have strong evidence to back it up; it cannot be just because he or she annoys you. Some of these reasons are:

  • Withholding your security deposit even if your lease is up and no deductions are to be made
  • Discrimination
  • Illegal terms or clauses present in your lease
  • Not refunding you for repairs you paid for that were made on the unit
  • Breaching the Warranty of Habitability by neglecting your unit and refusing to do necessary repairs
  • Failing to inform you of hazards present, such as lead paint, asbestos, and mold
  • Illegally entering the apartment
  • Injuries that occur in the rental property that are due to the landlord’s neglect
  • Evicting illegally
  • Violating a tenant’s Right to Quiet Enjoyment
  • Using a tenant’s security deposit for reasons other than those mentioned in the terms of the lease and state laws
  • Missing or damaged belongings due to the landlord’s neglect
  • Non-reimbursement of your living expenses when you had to temporarily move out due to issues with the unit
  • Landlord is unresponsive and refuses to communicate, even about matters involving the rental property

Most landlord-tenant disputes are handled by a small claims court, as these cases only involve money. These courts allow a tenant to sue a landlord for a maximum of $3,500 to $10,000, depending on the state. But if you plan to sue your landlord beyond that account, you must use a different court.

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