Understanding your rights as a renter

Protect yourself as a tenant

Author profile picture

Susan Meyer

Senior Editorial Manager

  • Licensed Insurance Agent — Property and Casualty

Susan is a licensed insurance agent and has worked as a writer and editor for over 10 years across a number of industries. She has worked at The Zebr…

Author profile picture

Ross Martin

Insurance Writer

  • 4+ years in the Insurance Industry

Ross joined The Zebra as a writer and researcher in 2019. He specializes in writing insurance content to help shoppers make informed decisions.

Ross h…

Know your rights

Around 44 million Americans or roughly 35% of the U.S. population are renters. For many, home ownership isn’t an option right now, or they prefer the flexibility of renting. Whether you're a first-time renter or a seasoned tenant, understanding your rights is crucial to ensuring a fair and legal rental experience.

Renters' rights in the United States are protected by a combination of federal, state and local laws, which can vary significantly depending on where you live. Here’s a comprehensive overview of these rights, the variations you might encounter by state and essential steps you should take to protect yourself as a renter.

Federal protections for renters

At the federal level, several laws provide the foundation for renters' rights. These mostly keep landlords from discriminating against renters, and make it possible for renters of all types to access housing. 

  • Fair Housing Act (FHA): This law prohibits discrimination in the rental, sale or financing of dwellings based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or disability. The Fair Housing Act covers most housing, however, some are exempted including owner-occupied buildings with no more than four units, single-family houses sold or rented by the owner without the use of an agent and housing operated by religious organizations.[1]
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): The ADA mandates reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including housing. The landlord is required to provide reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities (such as allowing service animals or putting up grab bars in bathrooms). While they are required to allow reasonable modifications to be made, they are not required to pay for them.[2]
  • Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA): This act allows for lease termination without penalty for active-duty military personnel under certain conditions, such as deployment.[3]

These federal protections apply uniformly across all states, providing a baseline level of rights for all renters. If you suspect your landlord is in violation of federal law, you can file a report through the U.S. Department of Housing and Development.[4]

State-specific renters’ rights

But what about all the other stuff? What protections do you have if the house is unlivable or constantly loud or unsafe? 

Beyond federal laws, states often have their own sets of rules that can offer additional protections to tenants. These can vary widely based on where you live and may cover:

    • Rights around security deposits: Limits on the amount landlords can charge and stipulations on the return process after you leave.
    • Right to adequate notice for rent increases and lease terminations: Some states require landlords to give more notice than others before increasing rent or terminating a lease without cause.
    • Right to a safe, habitable home: In many cases, there are requirements for landlords to maintain properties in a habitable condition and have reasonable timelines for repairs. Failure to do so may mean you can stop paying rent until the repairs are made or can pay to have the repairs made yourself and deduct the amount from the rent you pay.
    • Right to withhold rent: As mentioned above, in some states, renters are allowed to withhold rent if essential repairs are not made.
    • Right to peace and quiet: Some states include a “quiet environment” as a legal term that renters are entitled to. Renters can complain to landlords if other tenants are creating disturbances. This usually precludes noises or disruptions from necessary repairs.
    • Right to security: Some states have certain requirements for security devices to be installed in homes such as window latches, deadbolts on exterior doors, sliding door security bars, etc.
    • Right to not be evicted without cause: Many states have strict processes around how a tenant can be evicted, while others are more lenient.

Different states have different laws, and some states have much stricter regulations regarding eviction procedures and tenant privacy, while others might offer more leniency to landlords under similar circumstances. You can learn about your specific rights in your state through your state’s Attorney General’s office.

Learn more about renters resources in your state.

City and local ordinances

In addition to state laws, local ordinances can further define and protect renters' rights. Large cities like New York, San Francisco and Chicago, often have very specific regulations that can include rent control or stabilization laws and higher standards for building safety and eviction processes.

You can find information about the local laws by searching your city or municipality and “renter’s rights.”

Steps renters should take to protect themselves

There are a number of things you can do to protect yourself and your things when you’re renting. To ensure that you are fully protected as a renter:

  1. Understand your lease: Before signing, thoroughly read and understand your lease agreement. Look for any unusual clauses or restrictions. It’s often helpful to have a legal professional review your lease before signing.
  2. Know your local laws: Familiarize yourself with the tenant laws in your state and city. Many areas have tenant unions or advocacy groups that offer resources you can take advantage of.
  3. Document everything: Keep records of all payments, correspondence with your landlord and any issues related to the rental. Take photos and keep notes of the condition of the property at move-in and move-out to avoid disputes over security deposits.
  4. Report and request repairs promptly: Always report any necessary repairs in writing and keep a copy for your records. Follow up regularly if action isn’t taken.
  5. Purchase renters insurance: Your landlord’s insurance will not protect your things. The only way you can protect your personal property in case of damage or theft is by purchasing renters insurance. These policies also often provide liability coverage, in case someone is injured in your home.

State housing organizations

The following is a list of housing organizations that may be able to offer you resources or answer questions if you believe your rights as a renter have been violated. 

State Resource Link
Alabama Alabama Housing Finance Authority
Alaska Alaska Housing Finance Corporation
Arizona Arizona Department of Housing
Arkansas Arkansas Attorney General - Consumer Protection
California California Department of Consumer Affairs
Colorado Colorado Housing Connects
Connecticut Connecticut Fair Housing Center
Delaware Delaware State Housing Authority
Florida Florida Housing Coalition
Georgia Georgia Department of Community Affairs
Hawaii Hawaii Public Housing Authority
Idaho Idaho Housing and Finance Association
Illinois Illinois Housing Development Authority
Indiana Indiana Housing & Community Development Authority
Iowa Iowa Finance Authority
Kansas Kansas Housing Resources Corporation
Kentucky Kentucky Housing Corporation
Louisiana Louisiana Housing Corporation
Maine Maine Housing
Maryland Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development
Massachusetts Mass.gov - Housing and Property
Michigan Michigan State Housing Development Authority
Minnesota Minnesota Housing
Mississippi Mississippi Home Corporation
Missouri Missouri Housing Development Commission
Montana Montana Housing
Nebraska Nebraska Investment Finance Authority
Nevada Nevada Housing Division
New Hampshire New Hampshire Housing
New Jersey New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency
New Mexico New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority
New York New York State Homes and Community Renewal
North Carolina North Carolina Housing Finance Agency
North Dakota North Dakota Housing Finance Agency
Ohio Ohio Housing Finance Agency
Oklahoma Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency
Oregon Oregon Housing and Community Services
Pennsylvania Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency
Rhode Island Rhode Island Housing
South Carolina South Carolina State Housing Finance and Development Authority
South Dakota South Dakota Housing Development Authority
Tennessee Tennessee Housing Development Agency
Texas Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs
Utah Utah Housing Corporation
Vermont Vermont Housing Finance Agency
Virginia Virginia Housing
Washington Washington State Housing Finance Commission
West Virginia West Virginia Housing Development Fund
Wisconsin Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority
Wyoming Wyoming Community Development Authority

Wrapping up

It’s so important to know and understand your rights as a renter. By knowing the applicable laws and taking proactive steps to protect your interests, you can ensure a more positive rental experience. For specific advice and guidance, consulting with a tenant advocacy group or legal expert in your area can be invaluable.

  1. Housing discrimination and the Fair Housing Act. [Hud.gov]

  2. Renting with disabilities. [Tenant Resource Center]

  3. The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). [CFPB]

  4. Report housing discrimination. [Hud.gov]