If you are a tenant who does not have a written lease agreement, you may be feeling a little vulnerable and uncertain when it comes to your rights.
After all, you run the risk of your landlord saying anything and everything goes when it comes to your rental arrangement.
They may claim that they can terminate your tenancy whenever they want, they can assert that they are not responsible for handling basic repairs, and may even try to turn off utilities to try to get you to pay rent or even leave.
So it’s in your best interest to know your rights.
In this article, I am going to cover 9 key rights that tenants enjoy, even without a written lease in place. I will discuss each of them in detail, including what they cover and how you can protect yourself based on those rights.
Let’s get into it.
The information contained in this post is for informational purposes only. It is not legal advice. You should seek the advice of a qualified legal professional before making any decisions relating to the topics covered by this article.
We may earn commissions from products and services that are purchased or recommended through our website as part of our affiliate partnerships. As an Amazon affiliate, we may earn from qualifying purchases.
1. Right to a Habitable Premises
Tenants generally have the right to a habitable home. In layman’s terms, this means that your landlord must provide a safe and livable rental.
This right is laid out in a legal doctrine known as the implied warranty of habitability, which grants tenants this right, even if it is not explicitly stated in a written lease. Source.
What Exactly Does the Warranty of Habitability Cover?
It depends on your state because different states interpret and implement this warranty differently, but as a general matter, it can cover the following areas:
- Water that is drinkable
- Hot water
- Proper heating when cold seasons
- Properly functioning electrical systems
- Properly operating ventilation systems
- Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors (often varies by state)
- Properly working bathroom and toilet
- Sanitary dwelling (which may include removal of pests)
- Properly working locks
- Compliance with housing codes
As you can see, there are a variety of specific conditions that can result in a breach of the implied warranty of habitability. The following are some of the most common (in my experience). I’ve added links to articles that go into greater detail about each of them.
Bottom Line: If your landlord is not providing you with a habitable home, you may be able entitled to ask for them to fix the condition (and if they refuse, you can contact your local housing authority to compel the landlord to do so).
2. Right to Privacy and Quiet Enjoyment
Another key right is the right to privacy in your new home and a promise of “quiet enjoyment.”
Because these two rights are connected, I’m going to address them together.
What Does the Right to Privacy Cover?
The right to privacy is pretty easy to understand and is generally recognized so I won’t go deep into it.
Classic examples of this include a landlord entering into your home without notice or spying on your home without your consent.
What Does the Right to Quiet Enjoyment Cover?
The right to quiet enjoyment goes a step further, granting tenants the right to enjoy their house in peace and quiet without excessive intervention from their landlord. Source.
So what does the right to quiet enjoyment cover?
Here are some common examples:
- Construction activity by the landlord where the dust and noise unreasonably interfere with the tenant’s enjoyment of their rental home.
- Inspections of the property that are too frequent
- Excessive noise coming from neighbors.
Below are some frequently asked questions relating to privacy or the covenant of quiet enjoyment in specific contexts (including both the application process and during tenancy).
If your situation falls into any of these categories, you can learn more by simply clicking the corresponding link below.
- Can I Break My Lease Due to Noise?
- How Often Can My Landlord Do a Walkthrough or Inspection?
- Can a Landlord Take Photos During an Inspection?
- Can My Landlord Look In My Closet?
- Can My Landlord Go Into My Bedroom?
Obviously, if you believe your landlord is violating your right to privacy or quiet enjoyment, make it know to them that this type of behavior is unacceptable.
If the violation is serious enough, it could rise to the level of a crime (for example spying on you without consent or forcibly entering your home), which obviously should then be reported to law enforcement.
3. Right to Access Your Home
Some unscrupulous landlords will try to change the locks on a tenant if they are behind on their rent or otherwise creating issues.
However, in most jurisdictions, this type of self-help remedy is prohibited and can result in fines and other penalties for the landlord. Instead, they must follow proper eviction procedures (more on that below).
If you are faced with this issue, check out my full article on how to deal with a landlord who has locked you out.
4. Right Against Unlawful Eviction
Many tenants are fearful that a landlord may evict them on a moment’s notice if they do not have a written lease in place.
But the reality is that landlords must follow eviction rules in their jurisdiction and can’t simply kick out a tenant without following the formal legal eviction process.
In most cases, this includes providing notice of the eviction, the grounds for the eviction, and abiding by the decision of the court with respect to the eviction action.
They must also follow state and local laws around enforcing the eviction, which often means using local law enforcement agencies to remove the tenant from the home if they refuse to vacate.
5. Right to Basic Utilities
Some landlords will use self help remedies like turning off your water or electricity to pressure you to make rental payments or to make you leave the dwelling. However, in most states, this type of self-help is not permitted and landlords can get in trouble if they do this.
Instead, if you are violating your rental obligations (even if they are unwritten), the landlord should take proper legal steps to make you comply, such as a lawsuit or formal eviction proceeding.
Of course, as with most of these rights, state and local laws will vary, so if you are falling victim to something like this, make sure you find out what your applicable laws require.
To learn more about this type of situation, check out my article on the topic here.
6. Right to Needed Repairs
While it is true that leases sometimes govern who is responsible for repairs, you may still be entitled to ask a landlord for repairs if they are needed to maintain habitability.
In fact, even verbal leases may be enforceable if they are for less than year long in duration. So if you entered into verbal arrangement with your landlord where they agreed to make certain repairs, you may have a right to such repairs, even without a written lease.
How do you enforce such repairs?
It really depends on the applicable laws in your area, but you may have the right to pay for the repairs yourself and deduct the costs from your rent, you may be able to withhold rent until the repairs are made, and you may even be able to break the rental arrangement if the conditions are serious enough.
Again, you should be very careful before exercising some of these remedies because a failure to pay full rent in some states may be grounds for eviction, even if there are outstanding repairs that are needed.
7. Right to Equal Treatment
If you are a tenant, you have a right under federal law to not suffer illegal discrimination. This is embodied in the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits such discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or disability. Source.
Obviously, this right does not go away simply because you don’t have a written lease in place.
These rights include fair treatment during the application process and during the tenancy itself. Some examples of illegal rental discrimination include non-selection based on a prohibited basis, being offered less favorable rental terms, being steered to a particular area or building, etc.
8. Return of Security Deposit
If you gave your landlord a security deposit, that money can only be used for lawful purposes by your landlord.
It is not something they can simply pocket for their own profit. So even if you don’t have a written lease in place, the return of your security deposit will usually be protected under law.
Of course, your landlord is allowed to make valid deductions against your security deposit, typically for (i) damages that you cause that are not due to normal wear and tear, (ii) unpaid rent, and (iii) other permitted expenses.
Note that in some states, there may also be limitations on how much a landlord can require as a security deposit. For example, in my home state, there is a statutory maximum of two month’s rent as the cap on a security deposit.
9. Imputed Lease Terms Under State or Local Law
It is important to note that some states will impose terms on the rental arrangement if there is no written lease in place.
For example, in Virginia, they impose a 12 month term that is not subject to autorenewal (except in a month to month arrangement), they indicate that rent must be paid in 12 equal installments, rent is due on the first day on each month and will be late if not paid by the 5th, security deposits may not exceed 2 months rent, etc. Source.
Other states may have rent control or other protections that impute lease terms (like maximum rent) or at least restrict the terms that a landlord can impose.
For example, in California, landlords can only terminate a lease for a tenant who has been in the property for more than one year upon “just cause,” such as nonpayment of rent, criminal activity, etc.
That provides a massive right that tenants get if they meet the requirements.
Obviously, different states may have different regulations on all of this (if they even impute terms at all).
In fact, as you likely figured out, a lot of the material we covered above is highly dependent on state and local rules, so you will need to review your relevant statutes in detail to get a firm understanding of what applies in your situation (or have a lawyer help you navigate through it all).
If you prefer to have a lawyer assist you, I would try JustAnswer. They boast access to thousands of highly-rated, verified real estate lawyers whom you can connect with via their unlimited chat service.
By clicking the banner below, you can get a one week trial membership for only $5, which you can cancel at any time.
So there you have it – a detailed discussion of tenant rights without a lease and how you can protect yourself against landlord abuse. Hope this has been helpful and happy renting!