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General Information about Renting a Home

Authored By: Carl Vinson Institute
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RENTING A HOME

This document tells you the following:

  • What is a lease?
  • Why is it a good practice to enter into a written lease?
  • What if the tenant wants to move before the end of the lease?
  • What is subletting?
  • What happens if the tenant fails to pay rent as agreed in the lease?
  • What happens during the eviction process?
  • What are the rental rights and responsibilities of tenants and landlords?
  • Does a landlord have the obligation to make repairs to the rental property?
  • What can the tenant do if the landlord fails to repair the premises when obligated to do so?
  • What are a tenant's rights with respect to a security deposit?
  • What if your income is so low you are unable to find a good place to rent?

RENTING REAL PROPERTY

Probably you will rent or lease an apartment or house before you think about buying one, and it is important to know your rights and responsibilities under a lease.

When you find a place to rent that meets your needs, you'll enter into an agreement or contract with the owner of the property.

This contract is called a lease. It establishes the relationship of landlord and tenant. The landlord is the person who is leasing the property to the renter. Usually, the landlord owns the property. The party who leases the property and agrees to pay the rent to the landlord is the tenant.

Note that the person who shows you the place you are going to rent may not be the landlord. He or she may be the manager of the rental property. A Georgia law requires that a tenant be given-in writing-the names and addresses of the landlord (or appointed agent) and the manager of the rental property in case the tenant needs to contact the landlord or manager regarding a problem with the property.

The Lease Agreement

It is a good practice to enter into a written lease because the rights and duties of the tenant and landlord are then clear in case of a dispute. Under the laws of most states, lease agreements for a term greater than one year must be in writing. Keep in mind, however, that a non-written lease for less than a year is still binding, so it is important to know its terms.

The lease generally states when the tenant is to assume possession of the premises (that is, the property). It may also state how long the tenant's possession will be. This time period is known as the term of the lease. Leases also state the amount of rent that the tenant must pay to the landlord for use of the property. They state when rent is due and sometimes allow for an extra charge for paying rent after it is due. Restrictions on use are also covered. Pets, for example, may not be allowed. The lease also covers responsibilities regarding maintenance, damages, and repairs.

Read a lease very carefully before signing it. You may ask the landlord to remove, add, or change terms in a lease. If you have found defects in the place you want to rent, be sure to discuss them. Know how they will be dealt with before signing the lease or putting down a security deposit. If you do not understand the provisions in the lease, ask someone you can rely on to explain them.

Checklist for Renters

Before entering into a landlord/tenant relationship, it is important to know the following

  • Is a lease required? If so, what are its terms? What type of tenancy is established?
  • What is the rent? When must it be paid? Does it cover any of the utilities?
  • Will any of the conditions of the lease affect the right to quiet enjoyment of the property?
  • What is the current condition of the place? Does everything work as it should? Check the lights, windows, plumbing, kitchen fixtures, and doors. Is it in good repair? Does it need painting? Are there signs of roof leaks, cracks in the walls, etc.? Is the property well maintained? Is it secure? Consider lighting of grounds, locks, and windows? Are there signs of rodents or insects?
  • Make notes of any defects. Some landlords have check sheets for that purpose.
  • What obligations are there for taking care of the property? What are the obligations of the landlord?
  • Is a security deposit required?

Types of Tenancies

All leases are not alike. Different types of leases create different types of tenancies, or terms of possession. Tenancies are generally classified by the term of the lease. The most common types of tenancies are periodic and at-will.

A periodic tenancy is for a definite term or length of time, usually one year or longer. This type of tenancy ends without notice on the last day of the term specified in the lease. However, many leases allow tenants to extend or renew these tenancies.

In Georgia, as in many other states, a landlord who leases residential property is generally required to try to rent to another tenant. (The same is not true for commercial property, however.) In the case of U.S. military employees, a 1990 Georgia law limits the rent liability of these tenants if they move before a lease ends because of military orders.

A tenancy-at-will is one in which a landlord leases property to a tenant for an indefinite term or time period. In such a lease, either the landlord or the tenant may end the tenancy at any time, with proper notice.

Georgia and other states require both landlord and tenant to give notice to the other a specified number of days before ending a tenancy-at-will. In Georgia, 60 days' notice from the landlord and 30 days' notice from the tenant are required. 

What happens if a tenant stays in possession after the lease expires? This situation is called a tenancy-at-sufferance. In this case, a tenant's right to occupy depends on the landlord. The landlord could start eviction proceedings against the tenant, agree to another tenancy under the exact terms and conditions as the lease that ended, or allow a tenancy on any other terms.

Paying the Rent

A lease usually specifies what the amount of rent will be. It also states when rent must be paid and what might happen if it is not paid. Once tenants start using their leased premises, they must pay rent to the landlord in accordance with the terms of the lease.
Consider the following situation:

The obligation to pay rent continues through the period of the lease. It does not end even if the premises are ruined. The obligation to pay rent in such a situation would end only if it were provided for in the lease. Make sure such an "escape" clause is in any lease you sign. However, if the lease has no escape clause, the tenant can also stop paying rent and vacate the premises after going through a process called "constructive eviction".

Check to see if the landlord can raise the rent during the lease term. The lease may provide for raising rent to cover increases in utility costs (such as heating, water, or electricity) when such costs are included in the rent. Be sure also to find out which utilities the rent covers-if any.

If a tenant fails to pay rent as agreed in the lease, the landlord may have the right to dispossess (that is, move out or evict) the tenant. Many leases allow a grace period of a few days from the day rent is due. During this time, the tenant may pay the rent and not be evicted. In situation 5, if the couple's lease contained such a grace period clause, they would have the time specified in the lease to pay their rent without being subject to eviction.

A landlord can dispossess a tenant the very first time the rent is not paid on time, but some landlords are willing to give people a second and even a third chance. A landlord who repeatedly accepts late rent may give up the right to evict tenants who do not pay rent on time because continually accepting late payments in effect alters the terms of the contract.

Although a landlord has the right to dispossess someone for not paying the rent, he or she cannot just throw a tenant off the premises. Nor can a landlord try to force tenants out by shutting off heat in winter. A landlord must follow the legal procedure for eviction.

The Eviction Process

The process of dispossessing a tenant is carefully controlled by law. In Georgia, a landlord can begin the process in a superior, state, or magistrate court. Landlords usually prefer magistrate courts because costs are lower and attorneys are not needed.
After the landlord files the eviction claim with the court, the court issues a summons. The tenant must respond within seven days. If the tenant fails to respond, the judge usually decides in favor of the landlord. The judge then issues an order allowing the marshal or sheriff to evict the tenant.

If the tenant responds to the summons within the time allowed, the court schedules a hearing. The hearing gives the tenant a chance to present arguments or defenses against the accusations of the landlord. Suppose the tenant has not paid the rent. First the landlord must prove that the rent was not paid on time. Then, the tenant may raise any defenses or claims. A successful defense might be that the landlord did not keep the premises in good repair or that the landlord failed to provide proper heating or cooling or adequate water. It is not required for the parties to have attorneys at eviction hearings, but having an attorney can be very useful if the issue is difficult to prove.

If, after the hearing, the judge decides that the landlord does have the right to dispossess the tenant, then the judge will order the tenant to leave the premises. The tenant may have to pay any rent due and court costs. If the tenant refuses to leave, the sheriff can physically remove the tenant and all of his or her possessions. If the judge rules for the tenant, the tenant may stay on the premises. The landlord may be liable for damages caused by wrongful conduct.

The legal procedure required to dispossess tenants was developed to protect the rights of tenants. Such protection was needed because of past abuses by landlords eager to replace low-paying or problem-causing tenants.

Under Georgia law, landlords can also try to collect rent payments through distress warrants. Under this procedure, if the judge's ruling is for the landlord, a tenant's possessions can be sold to cover the rent due.

Right to Quiet Enjoyment

Just as a tenant has an obligation to pay rent, the landlord also has legal duties.

Rental Rights and Responsibilities

Tenant Rights Landlord Rights
Use, possess and control premises Have rent paid on time
Have quiet enjoyment of premises Have premises returned in good condition at end of lease
Expect repairs within a reasonable time Keep a security deposit for unpaid rent or property damage
Be protected from eviction except by legal process

Legally evict a tenant who doesn't pay rent, respect lease terms, or vacate when lease is over

 

Tenant Responsibilities Landord Responsibilities
Pay rent on time Keep premises in good repair
Obey terms of lease Obey terms of lease
Take reasonable care of premises See that premises meet housing codes
Pay for damages beyond normal wear and tear

Ensure quiet enjoyment of premises

Leases frequently give landlords the right of access for repairs, inspections, and rent collections. The right to privacy, however, is another part of enjoyment.

A landlord's rules and regulations for use of the property may be written in the lease. Such rules can affect enjoyment of the property. They may determine where a tenant can keep a bicycle or when a laundry facility can be used. They may determine whether a tenant can nail or tape posters to walls. They may prohibit pets. Be sure to read these rules before signing a lease.

Repair and Care

Landlords have obligations to make repairs. They must maintain the safe conditions of the rental unit. Tenants also have responsibilities to care for the property they rent. Sometimes written leases clearly state the repair duties of the landlord and the tenant. Other times they do not.

As a general rule, a tenant does not have to repair or replace items broken by ordinary wear and tear. Nor is a tenant obliged to repair damages caused by fire or other casualties. However, repair of damage (beyond normal wear and tear) caused by the tenants, their families, or their guests is the responsibility of the tenant.
There may be defects in the premises known to the landlord but unknown to the tenant when he or she takes possession. The landlord must repair such defects. Sometimes the defects are obvious to both parties when they sign the lease. The landlord has a duty to repair any unsafe conditions that violate housing codes or other laws.

A landlord is not obliged to inspect leased property to discover defects that arise during a tenancy. The landlord's duty is to repair such defects during the tenancy only when told about them.

What Can the Tenant Do?

What can a tenant do if a landlord fails to repair the premises when obligated to do so? Some communities have associations that help settle landlord-tenant disputes. Private tenant organizations also can be helpful. These organizations may represent an apartment complex or group of homes. What if no such organizations exist?

a. Report the landlord for violating the housing code.
b. Make the repairs and ask the landlord for reimbursement.
c. Withhold rent until the repairs are made.
d. Sue the landlord.
e. Break the lease and move.

Legally, Ted could pursue some of these options. However, he should consult an attorney before proceeding with any action, except for the first option. Ted has every right to report the landlord to the government office in charge of housing code violations. Many Georgia cities and counties have enacted housing codes that regulate the condition of houses and apartments after they are built. These codes help to ensure that people's homes and neighborhoods are safe to live in. They spell out the requirements for rental property.

The appropriate authority can require and force a landlord to comply with the housing code. It can also impose a fine or other sanctions on a landlord. However, in order for the housing authority to correct the problem, the tenant must first notify it of the problem. Tenants are often reluctant to do so.

How Housing Codes are Enforced

1. Complaint

2. Housing Inspection

3. Violation of Housing Code Found

4. Violation Notice Mailed (30 Days)

5. Reinspection - if, after three notices and inspections within a 120 day period the violation has not been corrected, then there is an informal hearing

6. Informal Hearing - the owner, housing inspector, head of city inspaction depatrment, and city attorney meet to work out the problem

7. Correction or Legal Action - either the violation is corrected by the landlord or the City Attorney takes legal action at the city court to achieve compliance with the housing code.

Landlords may also be held liable for any injuries sustained by tenants as a result of housing code violations.

Generally, a landlord's failure to fulfill his or her duty to repair the premises does not necessarily mean a tenant can terminate the lease. But what if the defect is so severe that the premises cannot be lived in safely?

Unless the property can be restored to a fit condition by ordinary repairs, the tenant may legally break the lease. This process is known as constructive eviction.

To use it, Ted should declare the apartment unsuitable to live in; he should have evidence to prove in court why it is unsuitable; and, if the apartment is truly unsuitable, Ted should vacate the premises. If he continued to live there, it could be argued that the apartment is suitable for human habitation.

Security Deposits

In Georgia as in other states, a landlord may require that a tenant pay a security deposit before the tenant takes possession of the leased property. The security deposit can be used to compensate the landlord for damages beyond normal wear and tear caused by tenants or their guests. The landlord may also keep the deposit if the tenant fails to pay rent or moves out before the lease ends.
The law pertaining to security deposits is very strict. Landlords who fail to meet the requirements can forfeit any right to keep the deposit and/or to sue the tenant for property damages.

Special provisions of Georgia law apply to landlords who own more than 10 rental units or who employ a rental management company. They must inspect their property before and after each tenant occupies it. After each inspection, they must present the tenant with a list of damages to the premises. The tenant has the right to inspect the premises and to agree or disagree with the landlord's list.

Within a month of the time a tenant leaves the property (or at the end of a lease), a landlord holding a security deposit must do one of two things. He must return the security deposit or explain in writing why any of it has been kept. None of the security deposit may be kept to cover normal wear and tear. If any of the security deposit is withheld improperly, the landlord may be liable to the tenant for an amount three times that withheld, as well as attorney's fees.

The question of what is normal wear and tear is not always clear.

Worn places on floors, nail holes for pictures, and occasional stains could all be considered normal wear and tear. However, tenants do not have the right to remove permanent fixtures, and landlords can expect premises to be left relatively clean. Depending on the terms of the lease, redecorating and putting nails in walls to hang pictures may be prohibited.

Public Housing

Various governmental programs exist to help people with low incomes obtain adequate housing. One major program established by federal law uses tax monies to build low-income housing that is owned and managed by a city or county housing authority.
Public housing is not available to everyone. Generally, participants must be families or elderly, handicapped, or disabled persons. They must not receive more than the maximum income set by law.

In public housing, the government often pays part or all of the monthly rent. Typically, tenants pay 30 percent of their monthly net income toward rent, and the federal government pays the rest. Local housing authorities regularly examine the incomes of all tenants and adjust the rents as tenants' incomes change. They may also evict families whose incomes have risen above the limit allowed, if alternative private housing is available.

Eligible tenants cannot be evicted from public housing except for good cause. Good cause includes a serious or repeated violation of the lease. Examples would be using illegal drugs in or near a public housing project or not paying rent.

* Excerpted from An Introduction to Law in Georgia, Fourth Edition, published by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, 1998 (updated 2004). The Vinson Institute is not responsible for errors in the online text. Content is for information only; in no way should the information in the book be considered legal advice to anyone on any matter for which there are legal implications. Any such matter should be specifically addressed with an attorney. The book is available for purchase ator by contacting the Publications Program, Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia, 201 M. Milledge Avenue, Athens, GA 30602; telephone 706-542-6377; fax 706-542-6239.

Last Review and Update: Jun 15, 2005