Tenant Rights and When to Hire a Real Estate Attorney
Practically speaking, not every problem in a rental requires hiring an attorney. In fact, many tenants will face minor issues that can be resolved using common sense and basic knowledge of landlord-tenant law. Still, some problems are serious enough to warrant the services of a lawyer to protect your rights. Renters will benefit from knowing when to hire a real estate attorney.
How to Resolve Smaller Issues
The more educated you become about your legal tenant rights and state laws, the better the outcome. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has a webpage that outlines Tenant Rights by state and includes resource links to:
- Rent control boards
- Fair housing groups
- Tenant unions
- Legal aid organizations
The information these organizations can provide helps tenants immensely. But not all issues are small or easily resolvable and require legal services for the best outcome.
If you receive a termination notice, your landlord is seeking to end your rental contract legally. In this instance, the landlord believes you’ve significantly violated the lease terms or the law. Violations that result in eviction may include activities like:
- Late rent payment
- Harboring pets against a lease no-pet clause
- Damaging the property
- Participating in illegal activities near or on the premises, like drug dealing
If you are being unjustly accused of the cited activity and want to fight the eviction, hiring a local real estate lawyer knowledgeable in landlord-tenant law with experience fighting evictions will increase your chance of successfully beating the eviction.
Your attorney will identify the most effective strategy or creative solution to combat the termination notice. They are most valuable in cases where the landlord doesn’t follow legal state or county eviction procedures or tries to take matters into their own hands. These landlord remedies are illegal and may include the following:
- Locking you out of your home
- Canceling your utilities
- Removing your possessions or even doors and windows
It doesn’t matter how strong a case the landlord has for ending a tenancy; they have no right to threaten or take these actions.
The federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) deems it illegal for landlords to discriminate against current and potential tenants. They may not deny housing or take actions toward tenants or housing applicants if the basis of denial relates to categories the FHA protects, including:
- Familial status
- National origin
If your landlord takes discriminatory actions against you, a real estate attorney can stop them and seek damages. Proving discrimination may be difficult as it is not always obvious and sometimes subjective. A lawyer with experience in discrimination cases can assess your landlord’s actions and determine if you have a credible case against them.
State and local housing laws also prohibit various types of discrimination against tenants and may often be more stringent than federal law. For example, discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is not yet protected by FHA, but your state or local law might apply.
Injury or Ill Health Due to Rental Property
Some injuries that occur on a rental property can be due to the inattention or negligence of a landlord. For example, you might fall down the stairs and break a bone after leaning on a broken stair railing in a common area. A personal injury lawyer can show that your injury directly results from your landlord’s action or inaction regarding property maintenance. Your landlord may be liable.
A different example that can affect a tenant’s health is mold a landlord doesn’t clean up. Continuous exposure to mold can lead to higher risks of respiratory diseases like asthma. Again, a personal injury or real estate attorney can determine if the existing rental’s mold condition is responsible for your ill health and warrants a lawsuit.
Success in personal injury lawsuits regarding tenants requires detailed medical evidence from medical experts. A lawyer is your best bet to navigate all the legal requirements, timelines for filings, and evidence needed in these cases to obtain a favorable judgment.
Landlords must maintain their rental properties under the implied warranty of habitability standards. This means they need to ensure their rental properties meet “basic livability standards.” Most states consider a rental property inhabitable if the landlord maintains the following:
- Structural soundness – The rental must be weatherproof, waterproof, and have unbroken doors and windows
- Water – A tenant must have hot and cold running water.
- Plumbing or gas facilities – These utilities must meet the legal requirements at the installation time. The rental must also have a legally approved sewage disposal system
- Heating – The heating system must function and conform to applicable laws
- Electricity – Rentals must have functioning electricity properly maintained and in good working order
- Cleanliness – Landlords must address issues making a home unsanitary such as exterminating pests, preventing the accumulation of garbage or debris, and providing waste disposal facilities
- Health and safety code compliance – Violations of state or local code constitute a dangerous situation to a tenant’s health or safety and most likely violate the implied warranty of habitability
Personal Property Damage
If your landlord neglects to make repairs or otherwise maintain the rental’s condition, there is a chance it may damage your personal property. For instance, if a leaky roof is not fixed before a rain storm, your furniture or other property may be water damaged. Often a tenant will carry renters’ insurance which may cover the damage in full. Some renters’ insurance policies will cover attorney costs, reserving the right to seek reimbursement from the landlord.
If not, the tenant can demand the landlord cover all damage and file a report with the landlord’s insurance company. A real estate attorney can write a demand letter, including necessary documentation (replacement value, etc.), and seek reimbursement from the landlord.
Involving a lawyer in a dispute with your landlord may strain an otherwise positive tenant-landlord relationship. However, hiring an attorney is usually your best option when protecting your tenant’s rights and ensuring your rental is safe and habitable. The cost associated with legal representation depends on the following:
- Geographic location
- Case complexity
- Your lawyers experience level
- The possibility for restitution of costs and fees from the other side if you win
Many real estate lawyers offer a low-cost or even free initial consultation. Read through your rental agreement for an attorneys’ fees clause that helps prevent frivolous lawsuits. If your rental agreement contains this clause, you may receive reimbursement for your reasonable attorneys’ fees and court costs if you win against your landlord. However, this clause usually applies only to disputes such as evictions, rents, or security deposits. It doesn’t cover judgments involving personal injury, discrimination, and other similar matters.
If you are experiencing a serious situation as a tenant, contact our Chicago area office at 630-568-6656 to discuss how we can help you. We look forward to the opportunity to work with you.