What is a landlord and what is a tenant?

A landlord is the owner of a house or apartment building that is rented to others to use or live in. Some buildings have managers and caretakers who are not actually the landlord. You become a tenant if you agree to rent a house or an apartment from a landlord. The landlord agrees to let you use the property, and in turn you agree to pay rent.

What should I do before renting an apartment?

Never rent an apartment without first looking at it. Be sure to see the place at least once in the evening. You can see the parking situation and get a sense for the neighbors. Do not settle for looking at an apartment that someone says is “just like” the apartment being offered to you. If possible, have a private talk with the previous tenant and the people living in neighboring apartments. Try to find out from them if the landlord is fair and concerned about keeping the apartment in good repair. You may also want to have someone experienced in renting apartments visit the premises with you. If your community has a housing inspector, call and find out if the apartment is in good condition and whether the landlord has a bad reputation. If there will be a written lease, read it carefully. Make sure that you understand it and that you can live with it. Also, if you decide to rent the apartment, tell the landlord in writing and as soon as possible about any existing damage so that you will not be charged for it when you move out.

Does a landlord have to rent to me?

No. A landlord is free to refuse to rent to anyone as long as the landlord does not illegally discriminate. In Minnesota, it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, color, gender, religion, familial status (families with minor children), national origin, disability, receipt of public assistance, or marital status. Minnesota law also prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in most rental situations. If you are illegally discriminated against, seek legal advice or contact the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

What is a lease?

A lease is an agreement to rent property. It sets out the rules that bind the landlord and the tenant. It can be in writing, signed by both the landlord and the tenant, or it can be an oral agreement. While an oral lease is binding, having the lease in writing is extremely helpful, as it is easier to prove what was agreed upon.

A written lease can run month-to-month or for a set term (like six months or one year). An oral lease is almost always month-to-month. During the term of the lease (whether one month, six months, a year or some other period), the landlord and tenant cannot change the rules.

Buildings with 12 or more units must use a written lease. If you sign a lease, even if your building has fewer than 12 units, your landlord must give you a copy.

What are the advantages of having a written lease?

If you have a written lease, your landlord cannot give you a notice to move and cannot raise your rent until the term of the lease ends. Written leases also tell you in advance all the landlord’s rules, and the landlord generally can’t change those rules until the lease term is up.

 Can my landlord increase my rent at any time?

No. The landlord can increase your rent only at the end of the term of your lease. Otherwise, the landlord is bound by the lease, as is the renter. If you are renting from month to month or you do not have a written lease agreement, the landlord must give you the same notice of a rent increase as if he or she were giving you notice to move out.

Are electricity and other utilities included in my rent?

The lease determines which utilities are included in the rent and which must be paid by the tenant directly to the utility companies. Utilities, which include heat, can be very expensive. Make sure you understand the terms of your lease with regard to these expenses.

What is a security deposit?

A security deposit is a payment to the landlord that must be returned to the tenant when the tenant moves out, so long as the tenant has paid all the rent and other amounts due under the lease and has not damaged the apartment beyond ordinary wear and tear. Many landlords require a deposit equal to one month’s rent. But, for housing that is not subsidized by the government, a landlord and tenant may agree on a deposit of any amount, just as they can agree on any amount for rent. Under Minnesota law, the landlord is required to return your security deposit, if one is owed to you, within three weeks of your vacating the property and telling your landlord where to send the deposit.

What can I do to make sure I get my security deposit returned to me?

Take pictures the day you move in, especially of any pre-existing damage. You should pay your rent on time, pay any other amounts due under the lease, timely report any pre-existing damage to the apartment, and pay to repair any damage you cause. When you move out, try to do a final walk-through of your unit with your landlord and

ask for a copy of any final inspection report that your landlord prepares. If you are worried that your landlord may not return your deposit, take photographs of the apartment to show the condition you left it in. Be sure to give the landlord your new address where the deposit can be sent to you. If the landlord does not return the deposit, you can sue to get the deposit back. The landlord may be subject to penalties for failing to return the deposit on time. You may wish to seek legal advice if such a situation arises. Many tenants bring security deposit lawsuits in conciliation court (also known as small claims court).

When can a landlord enter my apartment?

Your landlord can enter your unit for “reasonable business purposes.” Examples of this include fixing something in your unit, showing your unit to a prospective tenant, and letting inspectors in. Your landlord must give you “reasonable” advance notice that he or she will be entering your unit, unless there’s an emergency.

Can I be charged a late fee if I pay my rent late?

You can be charged a reasonable late fee if the lease allows it. Late fees are capped at 8% of the past-due rent, and late fee provisions must

be in writing. (Subsidized housing may have different late-fee rules.) More important than late fees, though, you can be evicted if you do not pay your rent on time. It is a good idea to let your landlord know if you will be late with your payment. A landlord may be willing to wait a reasonable time and delay taking steps to evict you.

If I sign a lease with three friends and they move out, do I have to pay the full rent or only my quarter share?

You are liable for the full rent, unless your landlord rented to each of you separately. Most leases these days say that each tenant is “jointly and severally liable” for the rent. This means that you have to pay the entire amount if your friends move out or if they don’t pay their portion of the rent. Also, remember that you will need the landlord’s permission to get new roommates.

How much notice do I have to give if I want to move out?

The answer depends upon your lease. If you have a term lease, say six months or a year, the lease will tell you if it simply ends at the end of the term or if you have to give some kind of notice before the end of the term. In some written leases, the landlord and tenant agree that the lease will be automatically renewed if the tenant does not give notice that the tenant is moving. In “automatic renewal” situations, state law requires the landlord to remind the tenant that the tenant must give a notice to move out and end the lease. If the landlord does not give the tenant advance warning of the automatic renewal, the lease will not automatically renew.

In most but not all month-to-month leases, you must give a full month’s written notice to move out. Most month-to-month leases always end on the last day of the month, and the notice must be given before the beginning of the last month. For example, if you want to move on May 31, your landlord must receive your notice to move no later than April 30. Your landlord also must give you a month’s notice to make you move or to raise your rent.

Make sure to read your lease before giving a notice to move, as your lease will control the length of notice that you have to give.

Can I sublet my apartment and end my responsibility to pay rent?

No. You still owe rent until your lease ends. Subletting may be a good way to cover your rent if you have to move, but you are still liable for the rent if the person you sublet to fails to pay. Many leases forbid subletting unless the landlord agrees. It is usually safer to get the landlord to agree to end your lease and rent directly to the person you want to sublet to.

 What happens if I break a lease and move out early?

Be sure to talk to the landlord about breaking a lease up front. Sometimes, a tenant can buy their way out. Also, there are circumstances that end the lease whether the landlord allows it or not: domestic abuse, constructive eviction, military call-up or transfer, or death. If you move out before your lease term ends, your landlord may sue you in court for the amount of unpaid rent owed.

What happens if I violate the lease?

If you violate your lease, your landlord can file an eviction action against you. For example, if your written lease says “no pets,” and you get a dog, your landlord can file an eviction action. There are some things no tenant can do, regardless of whether there is a written lease. For example, any tenant in Minnesota can be evicted if he or she has drugs, including marijuana, in the apartment.

What is an eviction action?

An eviction action is a lawsuit where a landlord asks the court for an order telling the sheriff to physically remove the tenant from the unit. (This used to be called an unlawful detainer or “UD.”) Eviction actions can be filed against tenants who don’t pay their rent, violate their leases, or stay in an apartment after the lease ends.

If your landlord files an eviction action against you, you will be given a court date, which is the day you go to court and tell the judge your side of the story. It is a very good idea to get legal advice if your landlord files an eviction action against you. If you lose the eviction action or don’t show up in court, the judge will give the landlord a “writ of recovery,” which tells the sheriff to remove you from the unit. The sheriff must first serve or post a 24-hour notice before removing a tenant from the property.

Eviction actions are very bad for tenants’ rental records. It is a good idea to avoid them by paying rent on time and by obeying the terms of your lease.

Can a landlord ever lock me out of my apartment?

A landlord cannot physically remove you or lock you out of your apartment without first winning an eviction action and then having a law enforcement officer carry out a writ of recovery if you do not voluntarily move. If you are locked out of your apartment or if your landlord turns off your utilities or removes your door to make you move, you should seek legal help immediately.

What can I do if my landlord refuses to make repairs?

Your landlord has a duty to keep your apartment in good repair. If the apartment is not kept up, contact the housing inspector if your community has one. First, write a “request for repairs” letter to your landlord. If your landlord won’t fix your unit, you can sue him or her in a “rent escrow action” and ask the court to make the landlord fix the place.

Sometimes tenants withhold their rent if the landlord will not make repairs. This is only recommended in extreme situations. If you do this, do not spend the rent, as you will have to pay it into court if the landlord files an eviction action for nonpayment of rent. Remember, though, that eviction actions are bad for tenants’ records, so it is better to bring a rent escrow action rather than to withhold rent.

It is illegal for your landlord to evict you for trying to enforce your rights as a tenant. If you believe that your landlord has done something to you (for example, filed an eviction action) because you complained about repairs, you should seek legal advice.

Can I make my own repairs and then deduct the cost from my rent?

No. You may not legally do this unless your landlord agrees in writing and in advance or unless you are allowed to do so by a court order.

What is renter’s insurance?

Renter’s insurance is insurance on your possessions in the residence. The landlord probably carries insurance on the building itself, but in most cases, your landlord is not responsible for your property in the event of fire, accident, or theft. It is a good idea to get renter’s insurance, although it is not required by law. Some landlords may require that all tenants carry renter’s insurance.

Do these rules apply to mobile homes?

Many of the same rules discussed here apply to renting mobile homes. But, mobile home renters have some special rights. For example, your agreement with the park must be in writing. All park rules must be reasonable. State law limits the kinds of fees that can be charged to mobile home park renters, and it limits the reasons for which you can be asked to move. Mobile home park renters should get legal advice about these special rights.

Can my parents charge me for rent, food, and other expenses?

If you are over 18, you are no longer entitled to be furnished with food, clothing, or shelter by your parents. They are free to charge you for room and board, and they are free to enter into any other lawful agreement with you about the use of their home, meals, use of their car, and other such expenses.

Have more questions?  Contact the MNLRIS to speak with an attorney, or visit LawHelpMN to read articles drafted by some of our partnering agencies: LawHelpMN: Housing.