Illegal Actions a Landlord Might Take Without Realizing It

Some seemingly innocent actions are actually illegal

Image shows a landlord entering an apartment. Text reads: "Legal guidelines for landlords: consult lawyer before declining to rent to someone for reasons other than poor credit or bad references; rent increases are only legal at certain times and within specific percentages, which vary by state; deduct from security deposit for damage done, but not for normal wear and tear"

Image by Jo Zixuan Zhou © The Balance 2020

There are good landlords, there are bad landlords, and there are inexperienced landlords. Whether you're purchasing your first rental property or you've been a landlord for years, understanding what you can and can't legally do is critical to your success. Weighing an action in advance can save you a world of trouble later.

Legal Actions
  • Declining to rent to someone due to poor credit or references is acceptable, but speak to a lawyer before declining for any other reason.

  • Increasing the rent is fine... at certain times and within certain percentages, so check your state's code to make sure you're within those boundaries.

  • Landlords can deduct from security deposits for damage done by the tenant, but not for reasonable wear and tear.

Illegal Actions
  • Landlords can't lock tenants out of their dwellings without first getting a court order for eviction, even if they haven't paid rent in months.

  • You can't retaliate against tenants for complaining about uninhabitable conditions.

  • Landlords can't enter a rented dwelling without first providing reasonable notice, except in the case of emergencies.

Nonpayment of Rent

A landlord might want to avoid a lengthy eviction process—which can often take as long as two months—or she might want to avoid the risk that the tenant will pay the rent due when he gets to court but will stop paying again right after the court date. For whatever reason, you can't simply lock your tenant out of the dwelling. Instead, you must move through proper legal channels and take him to court to get an eviction order first.

Problem Tenants

Tenants sometimes cause problems at the rental property, such as disturbing or harassing other tenants, conducting illegal activities out of their apartment, or breaking other clauses of the lease. Again, you must evict through the legal system. You can't take unauthorized action on your own.

Tenant Complaints

A landlord might try to retaliate against tenants who have made complaints about the rental property. The tenant might have made these complaints to the landlord or might have filed a formal complaint with the municipality or state. In either case, you can't react by hiking the rent or filing an eviction action. You can't harass the tenant or make the living conditions so uncomfortable that the tenant leaves the property, such as by refusing to make necessary repairs.

You Want to Charge More Rent

Sometimes a landlord wants a tenant out of the rental property so he can charge more rent to a new tenant than he's currently getting for the unit. This commonly happens with rent-stabilized apartments or apartments where protected tenants reside.

The rent can only be increased by a certain percentage each year in rent-stabilized apartments, so a tenant who has been there for 15 years might be paying far below market price for the unit. Protected tenants are similar in that you can only increase the rent by a certain percentage each year. These tenants cannot be evicted except for very specific reasons.

You Don't Want to Rent to Certain Tenants

You can't try to prevent certain tenants from renting your property—this potentially falls into the area of discrimination. A landlord might prefer to keep her property adults-only, or she might not want individuals of a certain race or religion living there. She might want to avoid making reasonable accommodations to the property for a tenant with a disability.

Refusing to rent for any of these reasons is illegal and can open you up to a serious lawsuit. A landlord is legally responsible for following fair housing laws. There's a federal Fair Housing Law and most states have additional fair housing rules that landlords must follow.

It's illegal for a landlord to refuse to rent to a tenant because of the color of her skin, the religious group she's affiliated with, or because she has a disability.

Two of the most common times a landlord violates these fair housing laws is when he's posting ads to fill a vacancy or actually screening and interviewing tenants. Be careful and choose your words wisely.

An Increase in Property Expenses

A landlord might perform illegal actions to make up for an increase in costs such as property taxes, insurance, utilities, or maintenance. This could include trying to get tenants to move who are paying lower rents, hiring unskilled workers to perform repairs, or refusing to schedule required property inspections.

Refusing to Make Repairs

A landlord is required to keep the rental property in a habitable condition, so it's illegal to refuse to make repairs that can affect a tenant’s health or safety. A landlord might also make the repairs but illegally hire unlicensed contractors to do work, such as electrical or plumbing that the town requires licensed professionals to perform.

A landlord might be aware of a health or safety issue at the property and try to cover it up instead of fixing it. For example, there could be a known lead paint hazard. The landlord could try to avoid costly lead paint remediation by installing decorative molding over the hazard. This is breaking the law.

Entering the Property Without Proper Notice

Another prohibited act is not respecting a tenant’s legal right to privacy. You have a right to enter a tenant’s apartment in an emergency, but you must give the tenant proper notice in almost all other situations. The amount of notice is usually spelled out in your state’s landlord/tenant laws and, if not, it should be clearly stated in advance in your lease agreement.

In addition to proper notice, the landlord can only enter the apartment for legal reasons, such as to show the unit to prospective tenants or to make repairs. Some landlords will place cameras or recording equipment inside a tenant’s apartment. This is completely illegal no matter what the reasoning behind it.

Increasing Rent

There are specific rules for how often a landlord can increase a tenant’s rent and how much she can increase it. A landlord must give proper notice, such as 30 to 60 days before a lease renewal. She can't increase the rent by more than is legally allowed in her state, such as by demanding a 10 percent increase when the maximum allowed by the state is 5 percent.

Not Getting Required Inspections

Some landlords rent out apartments without getting the required inspections done first. Some states require a new certificate of occupancy or a habitability inspection each time the unit is rented to someone new, or sometimes every few years. Some states or towns require fire inspections prior to renting, confirming that the unit has the proper number of carbon monoxide or smoke detectors and that they're in working order.

Municipalities will often charge fees for these inspections which can range from tens of dollars to hundreds of dollars. Landlords might want to put off these inspections so they don't have to pay these fees. Don't fall into this illegal trap.

Making Illegal Deductions From the Security Deposit

A landlord might try to keep a tenant’s security deposit for bogus repairs, such damage to the property that actually occurred prior to the tenant moving in, or for other fake breaches in the lease agreement. Legitimate reasons to keep a security deposit include unpaid rent and damage to the unit, not including ordinary wear and tear.

Article Sources

  1. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "Housing Discrimination Under the Fair Housing Act." Accessed March 2, 2021.