With commencement complete (or just around the corner for some), we know there are swarms of new grads getting ready move into their own places for the first time. Before you sign those leases, take a look at this breakdown of your rights as a tenant (and what your landlord can and cannot do).
Deciphering landlord-tenant lease agreements can be overwhelming. Take it from me — with eight years of rental history under my belt, I’ve signed on the dotted line many times. Investigate the reputation of real estate agencies from whom you’re thinking about renting, and more importantly, do your homework on landlord-tenant laws. Before signing what could arguably be a life-changing document, taking a little extra time can pay off big.
Martin Wegbreit, senior managing attorney at Central Virginia Legal Aid Society in Richmond, said there are several ways prospective tenants can protect themselves. First and foremost, Wegbreit said tenants should read and understand their lease. While this might sound like a no-brainer, going through the lease with the landlord ensures there will be no surprises in the future.
“Under Virginia law, if you sign something it means three things: you read it, you understand it, and you agree with it.”
In addition to understanding the lease, tenants should know what is in writing always trumps verbal agreements. If you sign a lease that restricts pets and later your landlord says it’s fine to get a puppy, get it in writing. Any amendments to the lease should be initialed and dated by the tenant and landlord. Also, keep in mind that if certain promises are made to you about extras not outlined in the lease, the landlord is not obligated to fulfill them.
“If there is any difference between what is in writing and what is spoken, what’s in writing controls,” Webreit said.
It’s also helpful to acquaint yourself with state laws and regulations regarding the renter/tenant relationship. The Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act Handbook, a section of the Code of Virginia, covers rental agreements involving:
- Apartments/Multi-family dwellings
- Hotels/Motels/Manufactured homes
- Public Housing and Housing Choice Vouchers (also known as Section 8)
- Single-family dwellings (as long as the landlord owns and rents more than four dwellings)
The Virginia Landlord Tenant Act also acts as a standard, making all leases subordinate to its regulations, no matter what.
“When entering into rental agreements, landlords and tenants may be unaware of important rights and obligations, such as a landlord’s right to charge an application fee and the requirements for its return; interest earned on security deposits; and the rights and responsibilities involved in rental agreements,” states the handbook. “The VRLTA provides Virginia’s legal requirements and limitations on these and other rental issues.”
Once a lease has been signed, Wegbreit says the tenant should complete a move-in checklist within five days of moving into the rental. Similarly, a move-out inspection must be completed by the landlord. Taking photographs of each room will aid in recording the conditions of the unit during the terms of the lease. Doing so will make security deposit and damage issues easier to deal with, especially if there is a resulting court case.
“The landlord can delegate completion of the move-in checklist to the tenant but then the landlord can’t quibble later on and say ‘this wasn’t in this condition,’” Wegbreit said. “The landlord delegated that burden to the tenant – the tenants word is basically taken for what it is.”
Wegbreit said the most frequent housing cases he sees involve eviction, nonpayment of rent and repairs.
The eviction process takes anywhere from a month and a half to two months if the landlord follows proper protocol. Removal of a tenant from a rental unit requires the strict adherence to five steps by the landlord:
- Written notice from the landlord to the tenant: a five day pay-or-quit notice if the issue is non-payment of rent, or a 30 day notice to vacate if it’s any other issue.
- The landlord must wait the proper notice period.
- The landlord goes to court and files for an unlawful detainer or judgment of possession.
- The landlord receives a Writ of Possession, a court order requiring tenant to vacate premises.
- A sheriff must serve, or deliver, the tenant with the Writ of Possession and wait a minimum of 72 hours before evicting.
“The tenant doesn’t have to move just because the landlord says so, whether it’s orally or in writing,” Wegbreit said. “A lot of tenants don’t understand that.”
Only a sheriff or deputy sheriff can physically evict tenants. It is illegal for landlords to do self-help evictions, changing the locks or turning off the utilities, and Wegbreit says there is no exception.
Nonpayment of rent
Tenants have three opportunities to pay rent late and stay in their rental. First, most leases include a grace period in which rent can be paid until a certain time after the first of the month. If the tenant does not pay within that grace period, the landlord can issue a five day pay-or-quit notice.
“If the tenant doesn’t pay within the five day period then the landlord can file the summons for unlawful detainer, an eviction case in general district court,” Wegbreit said. “That gives the tenant a third and final opportunity to pay late and stay.”
The tenant can pay late and stay if the tenant pays everything owed; the rent, any late fees called for in a written lease, any attorneys fees called for in a written lease (if there is an attorney involved) and court costs. This payment must be made no later than by the first court date. This is called using your “right of redemption,” which can only be done once in a 12 month period.
If there is a prior judgment of possession, the landlord is allowed to accept that money and still evict the tenant as long as the landlord accepts each payment with a written notice accepting that payment “with reservation.”
Wegbreit says there are three necessary steps a tenant must take when seeking repairs in their rental unit:
- Be current on their rent and stay current.
- Give written notice to the landlord or make sure someone else has, i.e. building inspector. An oral or verbal notice is not acceptable.
- Wait a “reasonable” period of time for the landlord to make the repairs.
“The law does not define what a reasonable period of time is,” Wegbreit said. “Typically it’s 21 to 30 days but if it’s an emergency type situation, it would be much faster.”
If no action has been taken by the landlord to make necessary repairs, the tenant can take legal action. The written notice as well as their next month’s rent can be taken to the general district court and a tenants assertion, or rent escrow court case, can be filed.
“This is the only way tenants can get repairs in Virginia,” Wegbreit said. “There is no rent withholding; there is no repair and deduct where you make the repair and send a partial payment along with the receipt for the repair you did.”
A tenant can’t unreasonably withhold access to the rental unit, just as a landlord may not abuse the right to access. Unless it is an emergency, the landlord must have consent to enter. This means that sporadic “pet checks” and the like, are a violation of landlord-tenant law in Virginia.
“Unless impractical to do so, the landlord shall give the tenant at least 24 hours notice of routine maintenance to be performed that has not been requested by the tenant,” states the VRLTA handbook. “If the tenant makes a request for maintenance, the landlord is not required to provide notice to the tenant.”
Early termination of a lease
While some leases include an early termination provision, tenants are not guaranteed that right unless they are active-duty military.
Issues with your landlord should be addressed in writing. If a situation comes up, write a polite, detailed letter to your landlord and keep one copy for your records. Documenting any problems can come in handy should you need to seek legal advice.
For more information about landlord-tenant law in Virginia visit the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development website or download a PDF version of the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act Handbook.
Ok, Richmonders, we’ve know you’ve got renting/renter experiences to share. Bestow your wisdom on these young folk…