Leases

SOUTHEAST TENNESSEE LEGAL SERVICES

 

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These matters are addressed below:

Rights and Duties of Tenants

Can I break a written lease before the term of the lease has expired?

Can I get all or part of my security deposit returned before my lease ends?

How do I get my security deposit returned to me?

How much of a security deposit can my landlord require?

May a landlord apply a security deposit to rent owed as well as to damages to the property?

I want to evict a tenant. How do I go about doing so?

I am a tenant in subsidized housing. Can I be charged more than 30% of my monthly adjusted income for rent?

Rights and Duties of Tenants

The Tennessee law governing landlords and tenants varies according to the county in which you live. This message applies specifically to metropolitan areas. If you live outside of a metropolitan area, a different law might apply.

Even if you live inside a metropolitan area, this law might not apply if you have a "lease-purchase" agreement for your house or if you are leasing commercial property.

If you do not have a written lease, you have the right to occupy the property from month to month. This means that you cannot be evicted without at least one month's notice. If you have a written lease, the lease might give you the right to stay longer.

If your landlord asks you to sign a written lease and you refuse, you will be considered a "trespasser," and can be immediately evicted. However, if your landlord accepts payment of rent and you have an oral agreement to occupy the property, you are not a trespasser. In that case, you could not be evicted until you receive notice to leave.

Your agreement with the landlord determines the amount of your rent. If you do not have a written lease agreement, and you discover that you and your landlord have a different understanding about how much rent you owe, you will have to pay the "reasonable" rental value of the property.

Rent is not charged by the day, unless you and your landlord agree to that system.

You cannot be charged a late fee until you are more than five days late in paying your rent; and the late fee cannot be more than 10% of your rent. (Different rules may apply to late fees if you are a tenant in a public housing project.)

If you give your landlord a security deposit, the landlord must identify the bank in which it will be held. If the landlord does not do this, the landlord may not keep your deposit (although the landlord could sue you for damage to the property).

After you move out, the landlord must return your security deposit unless the landlord gives you a written list of damages that will be charged against your deposit. If you sign the list, the landlord may assume that you consented to these charges. If you do not sign the list, you must give the landlord a written objection to the list. Unless you and your landlord can work out the problem, you might have to sue to get your deposit back.

If you leave owing rent and do not demand that your deposit be returned, the landlord may apply the deposit to your unpaid rent after 30 days.

If you are entitled to a refund of your security deposit, you should make a written demand for it after you move.

Your landlord must maintain the property according to any building and housing codes that materially affect health and safety. The landlord must also make any repairs necessary to keep the property in a fit and habitable condition. However, if you have a written lease, the lease might make you responsible for certain repairs.

If there are four or more rental units in your building, the landlord must provide garbage receptacles in a common area.

As a tenant, you are also obligated to obey all building and housing codes that materially affect health and safety. You also have a duty to keep the property as clean and safe as it was when you moved in. In addition, you must not act in any manner that would disturb your neighbors, and you cannot permit your guests to disturb the neighbors.

Your landlord may impose rules governing your use of the property, but the rules cannot be unreasonable; and they must apply to all tenants equally.

You must let your landlord come inside the property at reasonable times to inspect it, or to make repairs, or to show it to future tenants or purchasers. But the landlord must give you notice before coming, unless it is an emergency.

If you have created a condition that materially affects health and safety and you do not correct
it, the landlord may enter the property and repair the problem after 14 days' notice to you or without notice, in the case of an emergency. In either case, the landlord may bill you for repairs that you were supposed to make.

If you are gone for 30 days without paying rent and without notifying your landlord, the landlord may consider the property abandoned and remove your personal property. Your landlord does not have a right to take your personal property just because you owe the landlord money, unless you have signed a document under the Uniform Commercial Code or unless you gave the landlord the property to hold as collateral.

You should assume that your landlord has not provided insurance for your personal property. You may buy insurance to protect your property against theft or fire or other losses.

In addition, if you have a written lease, it could require you to tell your landlord if you are going to be gone more than seven days.

If your landlord fails to provide "essential services," you have several options. First, what is an "essential service"? "Essential services" means utility service (such as heat and electricity) and anything else that the landlord promised to provide--if it materially affects your health and safety.

If your landlord fails to provide essential services, you must tell the landlord about the problem in writing. Then, if your landlord does not solve the problem, you may obtain the service at your own expense and deduct the cost from your rent; or you may sue the landlord for the difference between the rent you paid and the fair rent due under the circumstances; or you may obtain substitute housing until the landlord complies, in which case you do not owe rent until the landlord corrects the problem; and you may recover the cost of the substitute housing.

Of course, you cannot rely on these remedies if you or your guests caused the problem; and you must behave reasonably in such matters as hiring someone else to fix the problem.

Your landlord may not evict you or interrupt essential services just because you are having a dispute with the landlord. As long as you are defined as a "tenant" under the law, your landlord has to get a court order before you can be forcibly evicted.

If your landlord evicts you or cuts off services without a court order, you can sue the landlord for damages--and the landlord might have to pay your lawyer.

If you violate your lease, the landlord must send you notice of the problem and give you 30 days to correct the problem. If you do not correct the problem, you will have to leave at the time set in the notice. However, if the landlord knows about the problem and accepts rent from you without complaining, the landlord cannot later evict you for violating the lease for that reason--at least until the landlord tells you that you must start following the rules again.

If you correct the problem, but it happens again within six months, the landlord may cancel your lease after 14 days' notice.

Unless you have a written lease that says otherwise, your landlord cannot evict you for non-payment of rent unless the landlord gives you written notice that you failed to pay the rent.

If you cancel your lease before it is over, you will owe the landlord the balance due under the lease. However, the landlord must try to rent the property to someone else to offset the landlord's damages.

If you are renting on a month-to-month basis, the landlord may cancel the lease by giving you 30 days' notice. The 30 days begins to run after the rent is due for the next month after you get the notice. For instance, suppose that your rent is due on the first of the month, and the landlord gives you notice to leave on March 10. Your next rent payment is due on April 1, so the 30 days' notice begins to run on April 1; and you do not have to leave until May 1.

If you are renting on a week-to-week basis, the landlord may cancel the lease by giving you ten days' notice.

If you do not leave at the time required, the landlord may sue you for possession of the property. You could have to pay the landlord damages plus attorney fees.

The landlord only has to give you three days' notice to leave if you (or your guests) commit an act that is violent or dangerous to others; but even in this situation, the landlord may not evict you by force without a court order and may not cut off essential services to force you to leave.

If your landlord sues to evict you, if will probably be in General Sessions Court. If you do not have a lawyer, the court clerk can give you information about the procedure. You have ten days to appeal the eviction after the judge issues the order.

In general, the law requires both landlords and tenants to behave reasonably with each other and in good faith. Your landlord cannot force you to give up your rights under the law, even if you have a written lease that claims to waive your rights.

If either you or your landlord behaves unreasonably, a court can enforce the other party's rights and could even require the offending party to pay the innocent party's lawyer.

Can I break a written lease before the term of the lease has expired?

When a written lease is present, the tenantís rights are governed by the terms of the lease. (Note, a lease does not have to be in writing unless it is for a period of more than one year.) If a lease is in writing, however, it is the writing that determines the tenantís rights. If the tenantís lease makes no special provision for termination before the end of the term, it is up to the landlord to decide whether or not to release the tenant from the tenantís obligations.

The tenant will be responsible for the remaining rent through the end of the term unless the landlord releases the tenant from this responsibility. The landlord has an obligation to mitigate or reduce his or her damages. Therefore, a tenant can reduce his or her liability by finding a responsible replacement tenant. The landlord is obliged to accept a responsible replacement tenant and, by doing so, the landlord relieves the tenant of the tenantís obligation to pay rent under the lease. In other words, the landlord cannot collect rent twice for the same premises. If no replacement tenant is found, and if the landlord does not agree to let the tenant out of the lease, the tenant is responsible for the rent until the end of the lease term.

Can I get all or part of my security deposit returned before my lease ends?

A tenantís security deposit is returned to the tenant after he or she has vacated the premises and after the tenant has given notice of the tenantís new address, in writing, to the landlord.

How do I get my security deposit returned to me?

Once a tenant vacates the premises at the end of the lease, the tenant should write to his or her landlord and request the return of his or her security deposit. The tenant must be sure to give the landlord his or her new address in writing. It is a good idea for the tenant to send this notice to the landlord by certified mail, return receipt requested, so that the tenant has proof that the notice was actually received.

If the tenant has given proper notice to the landlord, the landlord must either return the entire deposit plus any interest due or, must send the tenant an itemized list of the cost of damages deducted from the deposit and return any balance left after deductions. If the landlord does not do one or the other of these two things within the proper time periods (30 days to send the itemized statement, 45 days to return the deposit), the tenant has the right to sue the landlord in circuit court for double the amount of the deposit less actual damages to the property, plus costs. If the landlord does provide the tenant with a list of damages and the tenant believes these damages are not properly attributed to him or her, the tenant may still sue the landlord for the original amount of the deposit.

How much of a security deposit can my landlord require?

A landlord can require a tenant to give a security deposit. Tennessee law does not limit the amount of the security deposit. Typically, it is equal to one monthís rent, but that is not always the case.

May a landlord apply a security deposit to rent owed as well as to damages to the property?

The landlord may use a security deposit as a set-off of the rent due if the landlord has furnished the tenant with a statement of the rent due. Leases often contain a provision addressing the landlordís right to do this.

I want to evict a tenant. How do I go about doing so?

The first thing a landlord must do in order to evict a tenant is to give him or her proper written notice of the termination of the lease. How much notice is required depends on the grounds for termination.

If the lease is monthly, the landlord must give notice of a month and a day. If the landlord accepts partial payment of the rent, the landlord cannot proceed with the eviction unless there is a provision in the lease providing that acceptance of partial payment does not waive the right of termination.

The notice can be hand-delivered to the tenant, left with anyone 18 years or older residing in or in possession of the apartment, or if no one is in possession, posted on the rented premises.

I am a tenant in subsidized housing. Can I be charged more than 30% of my monthly adjusted income for rent?

It is possible for a landlord of subsidized housing to charge more than 30% of monthly adjusted income for rent. However, the landlord's ability to charge more than 30% depends on the type of subsidized housing involved. There are three major types of subsidized housing available (excluding housing owned and operated by the government as public housing programs). Section 8 is the most common type of subsidized housing available. It is based on a typical landlord-tenant situation. However, the landlord has agreed with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to participate in the Section 8 program to make housing available to the poor. HUD inspects and certifies the property as eligible for Section 8. Under this program, the rent paid by the tenant is limited to

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10% of the family's monthly income;

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30% of the family's monthly adjusted income; or

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for a family receiving welfare payments, the part of the payment specifically designated to meet housing needs.

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