Knowing your rights as a renter (often referred to as tenant rights) helps protect you from housing discrimination or unfair practices like rent or fee gouging. It also helps ensure you always have a clean, safe place to live and that there's no confusion about which responsibilities are yours and which are your landlord's.
Every state's laws are a little different; read on for details about Massachusetts's.
While lease agreements tend to be pretty lengthy, we strongly recommend you get yourself a tasty beverage, find a comfortable chair, and read the lease—at least three times. If this is your first time renting or the lease feels especially overwhelming, fear not. We’ll walk you through a couple of things to look out for.
As a renter, you have essentially agreed to pay a monthly rent to the owner of the house or apartment serving as your home. First and foremost, pay this rent! By signing a lease, you’re contractually obligated to submit this payment each and every month that you live at this home.
While rent is your number one responsibility, there may be other things that you need to take care of, depending on what you agree to in your rental agreement/lease. For example:
- Yardwork (Cutting the grass, trimming the trees, etc.)
- Renter insurance
- Cable & Internet
- Snow removal (if applicable)
You may also not disturb the peace, which would include loud music complaints or loud noise in general. You are also responsible for keeping in line with the leasing agreement that you signed with your landlord.
Depending on how your lease reads, you may be expected to pay for or perform the work yourself. If you’re not comfortable doing so, try to negotiate in advance of signing a lease. (Some cities also required landlords to cover the cost of certain utilities so check your city or state website to confirm.) It’s okay if you are not comfortable paying for or performing these responsibilities—try and negotiate with the landlord if possible. If you cannot come to an agreement on the terms of the lease agreement, shop around for a home and landlord that is willing to work with you.
Your landlord's responsibilities
Your landlord’s responsibilities begin when the lease is signed and continue until shortly after you move out. At a minimum, the landlord is responsible for providing you with an acceptable place to live. This means the rental unit must be, by legal standards, relatively clean and safe.
The landlord must also take care of things like trash and utilities (basically, everything mentioned above under “Renter Responsibilities”) unless they’ve been specifically outlined as your responsibility in the lease. If there’s no language in the rental agreement that specifically requires you, as the renter, to mow the grass outside your rental unit, it is safe to assume that your landlord will take care of it. If there is any confusion about who is responsible for what, it’s a good idea to talk with your landlord before signing the lease.
Your landlord is also responsible for providing clear context and updated information in case of any issues that may arise. This includes written notice of any problems with the property, such as the house needing to be sprayed for pests. They must also update you on any issues that may be caused through natural disasters, and give you ample time to remedy issues that may be forthcoming. (MA Gen. Laws 186-15, 186-19, 186-5. 186-14)
Rental repairs and maintenance
In general, most landlords want to keep their rental units in decent shape. The longer they delay repairs, the more it costs them in the future. Here's Roost's guide on how to request repairs from your landlord, and here’s what you need to know specifically about Massachusetts:
- Landlords are generally allowed to enter your rental unit to make repairs, but they must give you notice ahead of time - at least 24 hours is generally accepted but not required by state law.
- In the case of emergencies, the responsibility to repair may fall to separate parties depending on the circumstances. If an agreement cannot be met between you and the landlord in this instance, a court is happy to help. (MA Gen. Laws 186-19, 186-15B)
Who’s usually responsible?
A leak in the roof or ceiling
Paint mistakenly splashed on the walls
Broken steps to the front door
Light bulbs burned out in your unit
Broken water heater or dishwasher
Power Outage due to loose wiring
Rental security deposits
In Massachusetts, there is no requirement for a security deposit, but the limit on the amount of security deposit cannot exceed an amount equal to one month’s rent. (For alternatives to paying a full upfront security deposit, check out companies like Rhino and The Guarantors.)
When do you get your security deposit back after you move out? Assuming you leave your unit in good shape and have not missed any rent payments, your landlord must return your security deposit (minus any deductions) within 30 days after you have moved out of the rental unit (MA Gen. Laws 186-15B). Read Roost's How to get your security deposit back for a few additional tips.
Rental agreements: rent increases, payment, and fees
If you are entering into a new rental situation, it’s very important to understand the financial side of your new living arrangement. While most people tend to base their decision on the rent amount, don’t be surprised if your landlord requires you to pay other fees. These include:
- Security deposit - state law does not require this, but landlords can charge equal to one month’s rent if they choose.
- Screening fee - state law is silent on this, so it is permitted but generally must be in writing.
- Late rent fees - state law does not allow these to be charged until 30 days after rent payment is missed.
- Cleaning fee - state law is silent on this, so it is permitted but generally must be in writing.
- Application/reservation fee - state law is silent on this, so it is permitted but generally must be in writing.
- Rent increases - Massachusetts does allow landlords to increase the rent after a lease has expired and before a renewal has been made. However, the rent increase cannot go higher than the national average, and the landlord must provide written notice of the change to the tenant.
- Pets - Check your lease before you get a pet. Massachusetts law doesn’t require landlords to accept pets, and if you don’t get permission in advance, it can be considered a violation of your lease and be cause for eviction. Additional pet rent or pet security deposit is not uncommon.
- Emotional support and service animals - If you have a mental or emotional disability, federal laws state landlords must make “reasonable accommodations”, which can include an emotional support or service animal. There are a few exceptions and this tends to be a pretty tricky area for both renters and landlords to navigate together, so be upfront about what you need and follow all required steps. Landlords cannot charge you extra for an emotional support or service animal.
Read Roost's What to know before signing that rental lease for additional tips.
Rent termination and eviction
Once you’ve moved into your rental unit, the place is yours until your lease is up, your landlord terminates the rental agreement early, or you’re evicted. Eviction is an unpleasant process for everyone, so it’s best for you and your landlord to do everything you can to avoid it. Being evicted makes it hard to find housing, can affect your credit, and does not relieve you from paying rent unless the landlord finds someone new to move in.
There are cases where termination of the lease comes about due to one of the tenants having a complication with domestic abuse or sexual assault. This falls under the Termination of Rental Agreement by Certain Crime Victims within Massachusetts' Landlord-Tenant Law. In these instances, Massachusetts does implement a minor clause in this special circumstance. If written notice is given, a tenant may break the lease prior to the official end of the lease as long as they pay for the remaining 30 days of the lease. (MA Gen. Laws 186-24)
Your landlord can only evict you under certain circumstances. The most common reasons for eviction are missing rent or violating the lease (unauthorized pets or occupants—things like that). However, they can’t simply change the locks, dump your stuff on the front yard and kick you out. In order to legally evict you, a landlord must follow proper procedures and serve you an eviction notice before you are required to move out of your rental unit. The process includes:
- the landlord reserves the right to send a written notice that the contract has been violated, and the infraction must be remedied. (MA Gen. Laws 186-17A),
- If it is not remedied to the standards of the landlord, an eviction notice may be served.
- Once served, you have up to 45 days to completely vacate the property or face legal action.
- And, if your landlord has legal grounds to evict you, they have to provide proper notice and give you sufficient time to move your stuff out.
On the flip side, a renter may be able to terminate the lease if the landlord violates their part of the agreement to keep the unit “liveable”. For example, if your landlord fails to fix a much-needed repair—exposed wiring, a hole in the floor--then you may be able to terminate the lease and move out.
Renting with roommates
Sometimes your roommate situation just doesn’t work out. Unfortunately, you’re both responsible for the lease, and in many ways, you’re both responsible for each other’s actions. Depending on how your rental agreement is written, if your roommate bails, you could be stuck having to pay the full rent on your own. While you can use legal action to go after your former roommate, you may still have to pay full rent when it’s due.
One of the most common questions that come up when there’s a problem with a roommate is whether you can evict them. In short: no. If your roommate’s name is on the lease as a tenant, you cannot kick them out, so sending an eviction notice would be pointless. If they are not on the lease, they may not be considered a tenant, which technically means they don’t have any legal obligations to fulfill in regards to your lease anyway. If one of your roommates wants to break the lease, and you cannot come to an agreement with the landlord about a swap out of roommates, you may be forced to vacate due to the termination of the rental contract. (MA Gen. Laws 186-11A)
Rental housing discrimination
Thanks to Fair Housing laws in Massachusetts, you’re protected from discrimination when applying for a rental (M.G.L. c. 151B, 42 U.S.C. 3601). This means that the landlord or property manager can’t base their decision any of the following:
- National Origin
- Gender Identity
- Marital Status
- Sexual Orientation
- Presence of Children
- Military/Veteran Status
Despite these protections, some people find a way to use a negative background check or a credit report as cover for discrimination. If you feel like any of the above factors were actually the reason why you were denied a place, you may want to talk with an attorney.
A number of states have stepped up to make sure renters can stay in their homes even if they’re struggling to make rent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Governor Charlie Baker issued an executive order temporarily banning almost all eviction and foreclosure proceedings for residential renters and homeowners and small businesses. The order will remain in effect for no more than 120 days, or 45 days from the date the Governor lifts the state of emergency in Massachusetts, whichever comes first. In addition, Massachusetts passed a house bill to protect renters for 90 days or the termination of the state of emergency, whichever is sooner:
The bill serves two purposes:
- Landlords in the state are barred from sending notices to tenants to terminate their lease;
- Protects tenants from landlords that seek alternative actions in the form of late fees and negative credit rating impacts.
In addition, your utilities may not be shut off.
More information can be found here.
The Trump administration recently announced a new executive order for a rent moratorium through the end of the 2020 year. The order was put forward by the Centers for Disease Control to help prevent Covid-19 spread. Under the updated directive, families must prove they tried to pay their rent and that eviction would force them into a shelter or close quarters with others. If this covers you, then you’ll need to attest to your situation and a substantial loss of income on a form. Forms are to come available via the CDC website.
The order does not waive any rent debt — it just defers it — still leaving many renters vulnerable. And, it still allows landlords to charge fees, penalties, and interest, according to the draft document posted on September 1st.
The executive order covers more renters than the former CARES Act moratorium which only protected those living in housing with a federally backed mortgage loan, public housing, Section 202 housing for the elderly, Section 811 housing for people with disabilities, rural rental housing, Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher, USDA housing voucher, or VA voucher. That Act protection expired on July 25, 2020.
The executive order covers more renters than the former CARES Act federal moratorium on evictions which only protected those living in housing with a federally backed mortgage loans, public housing, Section 202 housing for the elderly, Section 811 housing for people with disabilities, rural rental housing, Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher, USDA housing voucher, or VA voucher. That Act protection expired on July 25, 2020.
Stay tuned... Congress is currently working on a bill called the CARES Act 2, which could afford more protection for renters if passed.
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If you need some more information, check out some of the resources listed below:
State rules and regulations
Your renters rights, in your state.
Explore what you need to know.
- Alabama Renters Rights
- Alaska Renters Rights
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- Arkansas Renters Rights
- California Renters Rights
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- West Virginia Renters Rights
- Wisconsin Renters Rights
- Wyoming Renters Rights
- Washington, D.C. Renters Rights
You probably already know that we’re not a law firm, but just to make sure we get this out of the way: We can’t provide any advice or opinions about possible legal rights, remedies, defenses, options, selection of forms, or strategies. And by hanging out with us here at Roost, you agree to our Legal disclaimer.