Know Your Rights as a Tenant, Part 1: Before You Move In
According to the United States Census Bureau (USCB), as of 2014, more than 37 percent of Massachusetts homes were occupied by renters.
Searching for a rental home, signing a lease, and meeting new neighbors can be exciting, but it’s important to know your rights as a tenant, too. The Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation (OCABR) and the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) provide information on what you should expect from your landlord before renting a home in Massachusetts.
Starting Your Rental Search
As you begin your housing search, there are a few things you should know about:
- Discrimination — It’s illegal for landlords to discriminate against tenants based on race, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, or disability status under the Fair Housing Act. State laws prohibit discrimination based on age, marital status, sexual preference, veteran status, gender identity, and whether or not you’re receiving housing subsidies.
- Screening — Although landlords can’t discriminate based on housing subsidies, they do have the right to screen applicants to make sure that they’ll be able to make rent payments. They may run a credit check, review your rental history, or ask about your employment and salary.
Signing a Lease
Once you have found the right home, the next step is to understand the type of lease you are agreeing to. You can negotiate the terms of a rental agreement, but once you sign it, you and your landlord both have to follow it. Your rental may fall under two different types of tenancy:
- Tenancy Based on a Lease — A tenancy based on a lease is when you and your landlord agree on a set amount of time that you will occupy the rental for (usually a year). During that time, your landlord can’t change the cost of rent, and you are responsible for paying rent for the full term of the lease.
- Tenancy-at-Will — A tenancy-at-will is a written or unwritten lease agreement that lasts for as long as you and your landlord agree to it. In this type of lease, you can move out whenever you choose and your landlord can change the price of rent, as long you both give at least 30 days or a month’s notice — whichever is longer.
If you are signing a written lease, your landlord must provide you with a rental agreement to sign and give you a copy within 30 days of signing.
Before you move in, your landlord should have checked the rental for any major damage. In the rare case when there were previous health violations, the landlord must have a signature from the inspector approving the rental.
Paying Your Landlord
Your landlord has the right to ask for certain payments before you move in. These payments can only include:
- First month’s rent
- Last month’s rent
- A security deposit (to cover the costs of any damage caused by the tenant beyond normal “wear and tear” to the apartment)
- The cost of a new lock and key
If you are asked to put down a security deposit, your landlord must provide you with a Statement of Condition describing the condition of the apartment. You can amend that document within 15 days of receiving the statement or moving in — whichever is later. You should keep a copy of the final statement, because if you and your landlord disagree on damages at the end of your lease, you can use it to prove that damages existed when you moved in, which could help you get your full deposit back.
Once you’ve got all your paperwork, the next step is to move into your new home. Check out “Know Your Rights as a Tenant, Part 2: After You Move In,” which has information on your rights while you’re living in a rental and when you decide to move out.
If you have any questions about your rights while searching for a home to rent or signing a lease, comment below or tweet @MassGov.