Tenants’ Rights: Rent, Security Deposits, and Property Damage
While both payments represent security for the landlord, what protections are there for tenants? Because these funds are often the most contested part of a leasing arrangement, tenants are afforded a number of protections by law. So what exactly are the rights of new tenants, or just as importantly what must your former landlord do after you leave?
How Much Can a Landlord Request?
Under Massachusetts law, a landlord is only allowed to request to certain funds. Before moving in, a landlord may only legally request:
First month’s rent;
Last month’s rent;
A security deposit, not greater then a month’s rent; and
The cost of a new lock and key.
These are the only funds a land can charge, so be sure that they are not requesting anything else in excess of these. These amounts are governed under General Laws chapter 186, section 15B(1)(b).
Be sure to remain vigilant that the landlord is not trying to escape security deposit law by calling it something else, such as a cleaning fee or holding deposit. These additional fees are not permitted and you may want to consider disputing them prior to agreeing to your new lease.
Steps to Protect Your Deposit
If your landlord requires a security deposit, you can take a number of steps to prevent problems between you and your landlord later on. If a landlord takes a security deposit the law imposes certain requirements on them. This includes providing you with a written receipt, a statement of condition, holding your funds in a separate bank account, paying you interest every year, and keeping records of deposits and repairs.
Always Request Written Receipts
Be sure to keep any receipts given to you by your landlord regarding a security deposit or last month’s rent. Whether it’s a security or last month’s rent, the receipts should include, the amount received, the date received, intended use of the money, the name of the person receiving, and a statement that you are owed interest. These requirements are set forth under General Laws chapter 186, section 15B(2)(a) and (b).
At the end of each year, your landlord must also provide a statement of the amount of interest accrued on both your security deposit and last month’s rent. These funds must be provided to you, or, alternatively can deducted from your rent if you are renewing the lease.
Many of your rights will be based on your being to prove that funds were paid and received, so be sure to always request a receipt.
A Statement of Condition Must be Provided
Within 10 days of providing your landlord a security deposit, they must give you an important document known as the statement of condition.
The purpose is to prevent future disputes regarding what damage was present when you moved in or what may have been caused during your tenancy. The statement should be signed by your landlord and list any existing damages in the apartment.
Within 15 days of receiving the statement, you are required to inspect the property and list any other damage you find, and return it to your landlord. Be sure to list any defects, even if they appear minor. If you add any damages, your landlord is required to return the statement to you within another 15 days, either agreeing or disagreeing with your changes. Be sure to keep an eye out for any problems that might not be obvious and develop after you move in. You may not realize something like the heating system does not work properly in August, but as soon as you are made aware send your landlord written notice.
If your landlord does not provide a statement of condition, it may be in your best interest to prepare one and send it to your landlord. This will provide notice of any known problems, and can be relied on if there is a dispute when you move out. It is also not a bad idea to take a picture of any defects that you find.
A Landlord Must Keep Your Funds Separated
If a landlord chooses to keep a security deposit or last month’s rent, these funds must be kept in a separate bank account. Remember that the deposit is still your money unless the landlord has a right to use it. Thus, within 30 days a landlord must provide you a receipt stating the name, location, amount, and account number where the funds are being held. This is not optional, and a landlord’s failure to do so may entitle you to a refund of your deposit.
This account must also bear interest and be in Massachusetts. While it is likely the interest will only be only a small amount, if the funds are deposited in a non-interest account or not deposited at all, you are entitled to receive 5% per year.
Returning Your Security Deposit
Once you move out, your landlord must return your security deposit within 30 days. If the landlord deducts any funds for repairs or unpaid rent, they must provide these deduction in writing, itemizing what was taken and why.
This is an area where a number of disputes arise, as a landlord cannot deduct for “reasonable wear and tear.” Things such as painting or minor cleaning are generally considered reasonable wear and tear. This is also why it is important to fill out the statement of condition, as if the problem existed when you moved in, the landlord cannot deduct from your deposit to repair the problem.
Prior to leaving it is a good idea to compete a walk through of the apartment. Look for any problems, take pictures, and create a list of any damage found. You may also want to request that your landlord take part in this walk through so you can discuss any damage or repairs that will need to be made.
During your tenancy a landlord may also be required to return your deposit immediately if they failed to deposit it in a separate bank account or if the landlord fails to allow you inspect the records regarding your deposit. At any point you may request an accounting of your funds under General Laws chapter 186, section 15B(2)(d). If the landlord fails or refuses to provide the required account information, the deposit must be returned. The landlord must also keep this information available for two years after you move out.
What if the Landlord Does not Return My Deposit?
Even if you comply with and take steps to prevent disputes, you may find that your landlord refuses to return your deposit. While this may be something that can be resolved amicably, you may also want to contact a consumer protection attorney regarding your rights. Violations regarding your deposit may entitle you to not only a full return of your funds, but the court may award triple damages and attorney’s fees if you are successful.