An Overview of Landlord-Tenant Law in the United States

by JRO on July 4, 2013

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The U.S. landlord-tenant law is the regulating law that outlines the responsibilities and rights of both the landlord of a property and the tenant. In most cases, each state will govern these relations; however, there are federal laws that cover aspects such as commercial and residential leases. One example of this is the 1866 Civil Rights Act, when the Federal Fair housing Act prohibited housing discrimination in the rental market. While the landlord-tenant laws differ slightly from state to state, there are some general similarities that are present. Both contract and property laws govern these relationships, which are considered common among all states.

Generally speaking, a landlord will lease or rent a commercial or residential property to a tenant. In order to avoid the occurrence of a misunderstanding, each party will sign a detailed contract that stipulates all terms of the lease, which includes the time period and the payment amounts and due dates. There are some special situations when there will be no signed lease, but an oral agreement is reached instead.

Duration of Tenancy

The duration of the tenancy can be expressed several ways. For example, it may be for a specific time period such as 12 months, or for an indefinite time period such as month to month. There are also circumstances when the lease can be terminated by either party, which is known as an “at will” stipulation. If a tenant is not willing to leave the premises when the specified time period arrives, the tenancy is then referred to as “at sufferance,” at which time the tenant will still be responsible to pay rent until the tenant is evicted or a new agreement is reached.

There is no requirement of notice to terminate a lease which carries a specified end date; however, an “at will” or indefinite lease will typically require proper notice. If the amount of notice is not stipulated in the actual lease, there is typically a state law that determines the amount of notice that must be given by either party.

Responsibilities of the Landlord

Once a rental agreement is reached, the landlord is responsible for delivering the physical possession of the rental to the tenant. While the landlord will own the property, they are not allowed to enter the rented property without giving notice to the tenant. They do have the right to inspect the property, but it is required by law to provide a 24-hour notice prior to entering the location, unless it is in the event of an emergency.

With residential leases, the landlord has a duty to provide a premise that is suitable for human habitation. There are certain municipal codes regulating housing, as well as state laws that specify the new housing standards that must be met. If a landlord does not meet these stipulations the tenant may be able to withhold rent until the proper repairs are made.

Responsibilities of the Tenant

It is law that the tenant pay rent on time. If it is not paid in a reasonable time period additional fees may be assessed or the tenant is subject to eviction. The eviction process will vary from state to state, however, it is crucial that the landlord not forcibly remove the tenant, as this is not permissible.

It is also the responsibility of the tenant to keep the property in good repair. This does not mean they must mend broken fixtures, which are the landlord’s responsibility, but they must maintain the property and make ordinary repairs.

If you plan to rent, or offer property for rent, understanding these laws is crucial to ensure that you create a positive rental experience.


Gerard Taylor is a freelance writer specializing in legal issues such as Consumer Rights, Class Action Lawsuits, Criminal Defense, Civil Procedure, Constitutional Law and other areas as well.

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