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 Wisconsin'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)
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 (WC 704.05). 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.
Under Wisconsin law, landlords are also required to share specific information with tenants, like which deposits or fees are non-refundable and who is allowed to perform work on your unit on behalf of the landlord. Landlords will generally satisfy this legal requirement by noting it somewhere in the lease agreement.
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 Wisconsin:
- Landlords are generally allowed to enter your rental unit to make repairs, but they must give you notice ahead of time - no specific timeline, but reasonable notice is standard (WC 704.07). You should never feel like you have to let them in if they show up announced.
- If you find that your landlord has placed clauses in your rental agreement that make you responsible for something they should be doing themselves, this is not acceptable under Wisconsin State law.
- If a landlord does not fix a much-needed repair, you do have some options as a renter. These options include termination of the lease or other legal remedies.
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 Wisconsin, there is no limit on the amount of security deposit a landlord can require. The amount they set is likely influenced by what other units are available to rent but overall, they can set whatever number they feel most comfortable with as the deposit on a unit. (For alternatives to paying a full upfront security deposit, check out companies like Rhino and The Guarantors.) It’s up to you as the tenant to accept this number or move on to other rental units instead.
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 21 days after you have moved out of the rental unit. (Wisconsin Legislature 704.28) Read Roost's How to get your security deposit back for 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 - No state limit on security deposits - simply must be returned within 21 days of move out;
- Screening fee - These fees are permitted in Wisconsin under the statute for “Nonstandard Rental Provisions”. Must be provided to renter in a separate written document;
- Late rent fees - No statute directly addresses late fees, but the courts will generally find that landlords can only charge a late fee as previously written in the lease agreement and the amount is reasonable in nature.
- Cleaning fee - These fees are permitted in Wisconsin under the statute for “Nonstandard Rental Provisions”. Must be provided to renter in a separate written document and can be deducted from the deposit;
- Application/reservation fee - These fees are permitted in Wisconsin under the statute for “Nonstandard Rental Provisions”. Must be provided to renter in a separate written document;
- Rent increases - No statute directly addresses late fees, but the courts will generally find that landlords can only do a rent increase between rental terms and upon 28 days advance notice.
- Pets - Check your lease before you get a pet. Wisconsin 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. The state holds that non-refundable pet deposits are illegal.
- 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.
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:
- Giving you a notice of nonconformance of lease that must be remedied within 5 days for non-payment of rent or 14 days for other lease violations,
- The landlord filing a suit for removal of the renter,
- A legal motion for monies owed and attorney fees,
- And, if your landlord has legal grounds to evict you, they have to provide proper notice and give you sufficient time (10 days) to move your stuff out. If you haven’t moved your stuff out after 30 days, they can dispose of anything you’ve left in the unit.
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 arise 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.
Rental housing discrimination
Thanks to Fair Housing laws in Wisconsin, you’re protected from discrimination when applying for rental (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.
The United States Supreme Court inactivated the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) eviction moratorium on August 26, 2021. However, tenants who live in multifamily properties with government-backed mortgages through Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae may continue to receive modest protection from evictions and certain types of late fees.
Visit the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to learn more.
Some states, counties, and cities continue to offer eviction bans and rent and utility assistance. Visit our Covid-19 Renters rights page to find out what programs might be available where you live.
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:
- Tenant Resource Center
- Wisconsin State Law Library
- Milwaukee Justice Center
- Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee
State rules and regulations
Wisconsin Code Chapter 704 – Landlord and Tenant
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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.