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Information for Tenants

Authored By: Elder Law Committee of State Bar of Georgia
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INFORMATION FOR TENANTS

Elder Law Committee of the State Bar of Georgia
Young Lawyers Division of the State Bar of Georgia
From the Georgia Handbook for Seniors
Last Revised: July 2004

INTRODUCTION

Many people who rent a place to live do not have a basic knowledge of the duties and rights involved. If there is a written lease, it will describe some of the duties of the tenant. A written lease will also explain some of the duties of the landlord. Even if there is not a written lease, tenants and landlords have the legal duties described below.

SOME DUTIES OF TENANTS

1. Pay rent on time.

2. Keep the house or apartment clean. Dispose of garbage, rubbish, etc.

3. Do not destroy or damage the house or apartment. Exercise ordinary care. Be careful and prevent damage.

4. Do not take in additional people or sublease the property without the permission of the landlord.

5. Do not make unreasonable use of plumbing and electrical fixtures.

6. Give thirty (30) days' notice before moving if there is not a written lease that has a specific ending date.

7. Respect any neighbor's right to a quiet and peaceful environment.

8. When you vacate the premises, turn over all keys to the landlord. If you do not turn in the keys, you will continue to owe rent because you have not "delivered possession" to the landlord.

SOME DUTIES OF LANDLORDS

1. Landlords cannot turn off the water, electricity, or gas. Landlords cannot otherwise force the tenant to leave without a court order. The court can fine a landlord for taking such actions.

2. Landlords cannot lock the tenant out. Landlords cannot prevent the tenant from entering or leaving the house or apartment without a court order.

3. Landlords cannot raise the rent during the term of a written lease that has a specific ending date. If there is no specific ending date in the lease, the landlord cannot raise the rent without giving sixty (60) days' advance notice. The landlord also cannot end the tenancy without giving sixty (60) days' advance notice to the tenant if there is no lease.

4. The landlord must keep the property in good repair. The landlord must make repairs after the tenant requests the repairs. If a tenant damages the house or apartment, the landlord may charge the tenant for the repairs. However, the landlord may not charge the tenant for normal wear and tear. The landlord may not charge the tenant for repairs due to damage that was not caused by the tenant, household members, or guests.

EVICTION

If a tenant has not paid the rent on time, the landlord may take legal action. The landlord may also take legal action if the tenant has violated the terms of a written lease. The landlord may try to sue for the rent, to take possession of the property or both. The landlord may also sue for any damages the tenant has caused to the property beyond normal wear and tear.

"Eviction" is the landlord's method for getting possession of the property. Before evicting a tenant, the landlord must file a suit for eviction in the local court. The tenant will receive notice of this suit. The sheriff or another law enforcement official will serve the tenant with a copy of the suit if the tenant is at home. If the tenant is not at home, the notice of the suit will be tacked to the tenant's door and mailed to the tenant.

If you receive notice of an eviction proceeding, you should contact a lawyer immediately. You will have only 7 days to file a response to the suit (an "answer") with the court. Your answer should address each of the landlord's claims. You may also raise any counterclaims (such as the landlord's failure to repair the property) you have against the landlord at the time that you respond.

If you or your lawyer do not file an answer, you may be evicted against your will. The sheriff or another law enforcement officer will force you to move from the property on the 8th day after you received the "eviction." You will also have to remove all of your possessions.

If you or your lawyer do file an answer, a hearing will be held. The court will determine whether there are legal grounds to evict you. You may stay in the house or apartment until the court reaches a decision is reached. However, you will owe rent up to the date you leave the premises.

If the court agrees with the landlord, the court will order you to move within seven (7) days from the date of the decision. If either side disagrees with the court's decision, they have seven (7) days to file an appeal. If the tenant appeals, the tenant must pay the rent into the court in order to stay in the house or apartment.

If the court decides for the landlord, the only way that you could stay is if the landlord agrees. Any such agreement needs to be in writing. Both the landlord and the tenant must sign the written agreement. If the sheriff or another law enforcement official comes to evict you, you can show the official the signed agreement.

If the court decides that you owe the landlord money, the landlord may try to get the money in one of three ways. First, the landlord may "garnish" your wages (meaning that all or part of your paycheck would be paid to the landlord and not to you). Second, the landlord may "attach" your bank accounts (meaning that money would be taken from your accounts and paid to the landlord). Third, the landlord may get an order to sell your possessions to pay the landlord his or her money.

Certain types of property are exempt from being garnished or attached. For example, Social Security benefits, SSI benefits and most military pensions may not be garnished. If all of the money in your bank accounts comes from property that cannot be garnished (such as Social Security or SSI benefits), then your bank accounts may not be attached. In addition, to protect some of your possessions, you may file a homestead exemption petition with the Probate Court.

HELPFUL HINTS

Following are some helpful hints for protecting your rights as a tenant.

1. Keep receipts of rent payments, especially cash payments. Keep copies of other written documents such as leases, records of damages, and letters or notices between you and your landlord.

2. Inspect the place you are renting with the landlord at the beginning and the end of your lease. Make written notes about the condition of the property on the lease that you and the landlord sign.

3. At the end of your tenancy, your landlord may keep your security deposit only in two cases. First, the landlord may keep your security deposit if you move out owing rent. Second, the landlord may keep your security deposit if the house or apartment needs to be repaired or cleaned after you move out. Your landlord may not charge you for normal wear and tear. The landlord may not keep more of your deposit than you owe.

The landlord must do certain things to keep your deposit legally. You should check with a lawyer or a legal services program if you think that your landlord has kept some of your deposit unfairly.

4. If something in your house or apartment needs to be fixed, send a letter to your landlord about the repairs you need. You should keep a copy of the letter.

If your landlord does not make the repairs you need, you have three choices. First, you may sue him or her. Second, you may pay someone else to make the repairs. Third, you may make the repairs yourself. Before hiring someone to do the repairs, you must give the landlord written notice that you are having the repairs done yourself.

You should get three (3) cost estimates to be sure that you pay a reasonable amount. If you or someone else makes any repairs, you may give the receipt for the repairs to the landlord and deduct the amount that you spent from your next rent payment(s).

If you choose to have repairs made on your own and deduct the cost from your rent, your landlord may file an eviction. You should respond to the eviction within the allowed seven (7) days and explain why you deducted the cost of the repairs from your rent. The judge will decide whether you may remain in the property.

If the repairs are not made yet, you must use ordinary care to take care of your own safety and the safety of your guests.

Under the law, a tenant CANNOT withhold rent from a landlord to try to force the landlord to make repairs.

YOU SHOULD CONTACT A LAWYER OR A LEGAL SERVICES PROGRAM FOR ADVICE WHEN A LANDLORD FAILS OR REFUSES TO MAKE NEEDED REPAIRS.

REMEMBER: YOU MUST NOTIFY THE LANDLORD OF THE PROBLEM FIRST.


Elder Law Committee of the State Bar of Georgia
Young Lawyers Division of the State Bar of Georgia
From the Georgia Handbook for Seniors
Last Revised: July 2004


Last Review and Update: Aug 26, 2004