By far the most common questions that I am asked when I tell people that I am a lawyer are questions pertaining to residential landlord-tenant disputes. It seems almost inevitable that at some point during a tenant’s lease there will be some sort of disagreement over rental payments, property damage, timely repairs, etc. This article is aimed at answering most of the basic questions that people have concerning their rights as a tenant and exactly what their landlord can and cannot do. The issues that will be addressed include a landlord’s duty to maintain the rental property, when a landlord can legally remove a tenant, the level of privacy that a tenant is entitled to in their rental home, and finally the duty of a landlord to return a tenant’s security deposit after the rental period has ended. While some of your rights as a tenant are governed by the lease agreement signed at the start of the rental period, the fundamental rights discussed below are guaranteed by law under Title 47a of the Connecticut General Statute, and cannot be taken away even if the landlord attempts to have you sign them away in the lease agreement.
- Repair Responsibilities –
A landlord has the responsibility to keep your apartment or home in a fit and livable condition. When there is a physical problem with the apartment such as a non-functioning appliance, broken window, or faulty water heater, it is generally the responsibility of the landlord to repair it, unless otherwise specified in the lease agreement. This also applies to common areas, such as halls, laundry rooms, and yards, which must be kept in safe and clean condition. When something is broken you should first contact your landlord in writing and request that repairs be made. If the landlord does not respond to your request, your next step should not be to withhold rent because this action could potentially lead to your eviction. Instead, you should contact your local code enforcement office and file a complaint. The code enforcement office will respond to the complaint by sending an inspector to document the needed repairs, which is a necessary step toward filing a lawsuit against your landlord for breach of their obligations. If the repairs have still not been made within 21 days of the inspection, then you are permitted to file suit against your landlord by filing the necessary complaint through your local Small Claims or Housing Court with the assistance of your attorney.
- Changing of Locks and Removal of Tenant Property –
If you elect to withhold your rental payment due to a dispute with your landlord, that does not automatically give the landlord the right to remove you from the premises. It is against the law for a landlord to remove your belongings and furniture or change the locks on your doors and bar you from entering your rental home in any way. The only time that this can be done legally is when the eviction is carried out by a Marshall after the landlord has successfully brought an eviction judgment against you in court, or if you have already intentionally abandoned the property. It is illegal for the landlord to attempt to remove you from the property before an eviction is obtained. So if any of these measures are employed by your landlord, you should call the police.
- Landlord’s Access to Property –
Another common issue that tenants run into is when their landlord is disrespectful of their privacy and repeatedly enters the rental property without their permission. Under Connecticut law a landlord never has the right to enter your rental property without your permission, unless it is an emergency or he has court permission to enter. That being said, it is expected that you grant your landlord access to the property when his request is reasonable – for instance when you are given advance notice and the entry it is to make repairs, show the home to a prospective future renter, or inspect the premises. If your landlord has made it a habit of coming into your home, you should first try to talk to them and explain that you do not find their actions acceptable. If a conversation alone does not work then you can contact the police and elect to file a complaint against them.
- Return of Security Deposit –
The final problem that tenants often encounter involves the return of their security deposit after the lease period has ended and the tenant has moved out. A security deposit can be required by a landlord at the start of the lease, however it cannot be more than 2 months worth of rent. This deposit must be kept in a separate escrow account where it will collect interest over the time period involved in the lease. When the lease period ends the landlord must return your security deposit, plus interest, within 30 days. If there is damage to the property, the landlord may withhold part or all of the security deposit in order to cover the cost of repairs, however they must send you a written itemized list detailing exactly what your money was spent on. In case the landlord attempts to unjustly withhold part of your security deposit, before moving out you should document the condition of the apartment or home by taking pictures of each room and any damage that may have occurred while you lived there. It is also wise to take a walk through of the property prior to signing the lease in order to document any damage found before you have moved in, so that you can compare the before and after damage to the property. That way if you are forced to bring a claim against the landlord in Small Claims Court to recover the deposit you will have evidence showing that the damage and repairs claimed are exaggerated.
Hopefully this article has succeeded in providing tenants with a basic understanding of their rights and some guidance on what to do if their landlord is behaving in a manner contrary to their legal obligations. In order to ensure that you have evidence of all your dealings with your landlord, any correspondence should be in writing. If you discuss something of importance with them on the phone or in person, you should send a confirmation email or letter documenting everything that was discussed verbally. If you have a serious dispute with your landlord that requires an attorney or if you wish to discuss this article, please feel free to contact Jay Stevenson, Esq. at (203) 878-1254 or JStevenson@pennerlawfirm.com. Also remember Penner Law Firm, LLC for all your real estate and legal needs!