Rights of a Renter and Duties of a Landlord

Rights of a Renter and Duties of a Landlord

Almost 1 million people in North Carolina are renting their house or apartment.  Even though they are not the owners of where they live, it is their home.  As such, it is very important to them.  As somebody who has a home, but doesn’t own that home, what rights do they have?   

Your lease is the most important document to set forth both yours and your landlord’s rights and duties.  Several of the rights and duties I will discuss can be varied by that written agreement.  When you have a question, the first thing you do is pick up the lease and read it.  Generally however, the lease will assign certain duties to the landlord and certain duties to you, the tenant.  The landlord must:

1. Make any repairs needed to keep the place fit and safe.
2. Keep the plumbing, heating, and electrical equipment in good and safe working order.
3. Provide a smoke alarm.
4. Obey local housing codes.  In my hometown, that would be Wilmington NC.
5. Notify you if he sells the property.  (Unless your lease says otherwise, you are not required to leave if the property is sold.  The new owner takes ownership subject to the tenant’s rights from the lease).
6.  Notify you in writing of any complaints she has about your treatment of the property.
7.  Leave you alone.  Generally, a tenant has the right to treat the property as their own.  Unless there is specific language in the lease, a tenant has the power to allow or refuse the landlord or anyone else from coming on the property, just as if she owned it. 

What do you do if the landlord doesn’t follow these rules?  First, try and get it settled out of court.  Write your landlord a letter describing the problem in detail, ask him to make repairs, and ask for a response in a reasonable amount of time.  If it is an emergency or you have to have something quickly repaired to prevent further damage to the property, go ahead and do it and forward the landlord the invoice.  YOU CANNOT WITHHOLD RENT.  If you do, you will be in breach of the lease and the landlord can evict you and sue you for damages.  However, you can agree with the landlord on a lesser amount of rent if the problem is not resolved or will take some time to fix.  Any agreement you make with the landlord, get it in writing.  As PT Barnum once said, “a verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.” 

If you and your landlord cannot get the matter resolved, you can bring a claim against a landlord in court.  If the damages claimed for a breach of the landlord’s duties are less than $5000 you should bring the claim in small claims court.  For most breaches of a landlord’s duty, the damages are the difference between what you agreed to pay in rent without the defect and a fair rental value with the defect.  This is also called rent abatement.  For example, if your air conditioning breaks, you should only have to pay the reasonable rent for a property without air conditioning, instead of the full amount that you agreed to with air conditioning.  You do NOT have the right to simply end the lease.  If however, the defect is so severe that you are unable to remain on the property and are forced to move out, for example, one our Hurricane visitors blows the entire roof off the house, and the walls are threatening to cave in, you would have an action for any damages you suffered under a type of wrongful eviction called constructive eviction.   

If a tenant is wrongfully evicted, either through the property being unlivable or the landlord not using the proper court process to evict (called “summary ejectment”) you would have a claim for damages suffered.   These damages may include moving costs and the difference between the rent you were supposed to pay and the housing expense at your new home during the time that the lease was supposed to run.  Also, while rare, it is possible, if the landlord’s conduct or the problem is bad enough, that the court could award a tenant with three times their actual damages for an “unfair and deceptive trade practice.”  A landlord may also be liable for personal injury to a tenant or her guests if they are injured by a hidden defect that the landlord caused, knew about, or should have known about.  Finally, if the landlord refuses to return your security deposit, you can bring a claim.  Keep in mind however, that the landlord is entitled to take from the security deposit any rent you owe, damage other than normal wear and tear you’ve caused to the property, costs of finding a new tenant if you leave before your lease ends, and any court costs if you have been evicted in court.