A few tips can go a long way
By Colleen Steppa
Do you remember that one place you lived? Where the leaky sink never got fixed, the landlord showed up with no notice, and your security deposit vanished like the wind even though you left the place spotless?
Most people have a story about a bad experience as a tenant. If insanity is doing the same thing the same way over and over and expecting different results, then best way out of the cycle of rental madness is to educate yourself on your rights and do things differently. This article will outline some common issues renters have and provide resources for further reading and advocacy if you find yourself in trouble.
The best way to protect your rights is to be a good tenant. The first step is to really read that lease agreement before you sign it. Don’t get a secret cat or let your cousin stay for free on the couch, because your landlord will eventually figure it out and then you’ll have nothing to stand on if you ever need to go to court.
Also, though this isn’t a legal responsibility, it doesn’t hurt to be kind and polite to your landlord even if you feel they’re not following the rules. If you have a disagreement, offer to settle it civilly and in person before you consider other action. Assume your landlord has good intentions and let this assumption show in your conversation and actions.
Your unit must be safe to live in. Safety means that your unit is up to code and reasonably energy efficient. Look here to reference housing codes: dli.mn.gov.
You have the right to receive a Certificate of Rent Paid (CRP) for the time that you lived in the rental property and paid rent. This is a form that may allow you a tax credit, and your former/current landlord is required to provide it to you by January 31 of the year following the rental period. More information on the CRP is here: revenue.state.mn.us.
You have the right to privacy. A landlord needs to give you notice before they enter your unit and they are only allowed to enter the unit for reasonable business purposes. Your landlord may enter your unit without notice to prevent injury to people or property, if immediate entry is required to ensure tenant safety or to comply with law enforcement.
You have the right to terminate your lease early due to domestic violence, leaving on active military duty, if the unit is not up to code, or you are being harassed by the landlord.
The Application Process
Your landlord may not charge you a screening fee if they know beforehand no unit is available to rent. They cannot accept a fee without giving you a written receipt, or use, cash or deposit the fee that you’ve provided until all prior applicants have been rejected.
A prospective landlord is required to return this fee to you if you are not entering into a lease, and they must notify you if you are not selected as tenant within 14 days. If you are denied the unit, you can request a copy of the tenant screening report within 60 days which will state why you were denied. The report costs $3, but this fee can be waived if the prospective tenant receives public assistance.
There is no state legal limit to how much a landlord may charge you for a security deposit. Unless there are damages beyond normal wear and tear or cleaning is required, your landlord must return the security deposit at the end of your lease with interest at the current rate of 1% per month. You do have the right to be present when your landlord is doing their final inspection of your unit so you can see what they record as damages.
If your landlord refuses to return the security deposit without due cause, you can send them a demand letter. Law Help MN provides a template here: lawhelpmn.org.
Your landlord must provide copies of outstanding inspection orders if they have received a citation if these pertain to the unit/common areas, and specify code violations that may threaten your health or safety.
Signing the lease
Understanding the agreement
A typical lease should contain at least the following items:
- when rent is due
- when notice to move must be given
- the amount of the security deposit and what it covers
- times when the landlord may enter the apartment
- parking rules
- who pays the cost of heat, lights, water, and other utilities
- how repairs are made
- garbage disposal
- appliance maintenance
If your lease doesn’t contain these or other terms, ask your landlord and get their responses in writing. Leases are negotiable. You have the right to receive a written copy of your lease if your building contains more than 12 residential units.
Again, review your lease before signing. If you find any content you believe is illegal, you can ask the landlord to remove it. Wait until your application has been approved before negotiating, print out the statutes that you believe the lease violates, and set up a time to bring these to the landlord. When changing the lease, make sure all changes are written onto the lease and both you and your landlord initial the changes.
Check your lease to see what types of repairs are required for the landlord to fix. Make a written request for the repair and keep a copy of your request. If the repair is not required by the terms of the lease or it is your fault, you may be required to pay for it. If your landlord ignores the request for maintenance and the issue is a code violation, you can report this to the Deparment of Housing and Urban Development at portal.hud.gov.
Your landlord can allow you to provide maintenance on your own unit and be paid for the work. If you have this agreement, be sure you have terms in writing which outline how and when you will be reimbursed, and for what types of maintenance you’ll be responsible. Don’t assume you’ll be reimbursed for fixing something yourself if this agreement hasn’t already been made in writing.
MN Attorney General
This free publication is a great starting place for self-education: ag.state.mn.us
Their site offers a portal to email an attorney and forms you can print off to make formal requests for repairs, privacy violations, security deposit returns, and more. The help line and sections of the website are available in Spanish and Somali: homelinemn.org, or hotline 612.728.5767.
Legal Aid MN
Provides legal resources on a variety of issues, including housing. The housing section details information on tenant concerns, indexed by type of issue, including a section on the specific rules which apply to public and subsidized housing. This site is also available in Spanish, Somali, and Hmong, www.lawhelpmn.org.
HUD’s guidelines on the Americans with Disabilities Act
Outline of housing rights and protections for people with disabilities: portal.hud.gov
Editor’s Note: Colleen Steppa is not an attorney. Anyone seeking legal assistance for housing law should contact an attorney.
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