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Know your housing rights? Here are some quick tips

Members of the Massachusetts Bar Association's Consumer Advocacy Task Force provide video tips about housing.


Here are some tips and information, which address some of the most frequently asked questions regarding renters' and landlords' rights:

Useful Resources

The Massachusetts Bar Association's Consumer Advocacy Task Force recommends that consumers visit the following websites containing supplemental information concerning renters' and landlords' rights:

Helpful Tips

What can a landlord collect before a tenant moves in?
First, before moving into a rental property, a landlord only can collect the first and last month's rent, one month's security deposit and costs associated with locks and keys. Make sure to pay close attention to your lease to see if there are any other pre-rental charges, such as cleaning or painting charges, which could violate state laws concerning the pre-rental payments that landlords can collect.

When must a landlord return all or part of the security deposit?
A landlord is obligated to account for the security deposit within 30 days after a renter terminates occupancy under a tenancy-at-will agreement or the tenancy as specified in a rental agreement. If the landlord claims that the tenant has damaged the rented property, then landlord must produce an itemized list of damage and written evidence indicating the actual or estimated cost of repairs to correct the damage. The deposit or the balance after the deduction for damages, must be paid to the tenant within the 30-day period. If the landlord fails to provide such a list of damages and estimated costs or to return the tenant's security deposit within 30 days, the tenant is entitled to treble (triple) damages and attorney's fees (if the tenant has to institute a legal action to enforce the tenant's rights).

How much can a landlord charge as a security deposit?
A landlord cannot charge more than one month's rent as a security deposit. The landlord must provide a written receipt for the security deposit to the tenant within 30 days, hold the security deposit in a separate interest-bearing account and provide the tenant with the bank name and account number.

Should I inspect the property before I move in?
Before you move into your home, jointly inspect the property with your landlord to identify whether there are any pre-existing damages or other issues with the rental unit.  This will protect both you and your landlord, and also likely satisfy certain conditions concerning security deposits and damage notifications that you both must follow.  As a rule of thumb, it is better to over-document any damages or issues that you come across during the joint inspection.

Are there minimum living standards the property must meet?
Your landlord is required to make sure your home meets certain minimum habitability conditions.  What does this mean?  Among other things, it means that your heat should reach certain temperature levels, your water pressure should be sufficient for home usage, and your home should be free of structural defects and should be reasonably clean.  For example, your landlord should ensure that your rental home is free from rodents or other infestations.  Additionally, your landlord is required to furnish minimum appliances, including a stove and sink, and sufficient space for a refrigerator.  Make sure you understand these required, minimum living conditions before signing any lease.

Can a landlord enter my apartment without notifying me when I am not home?
Under Massachusetts law, the only instances when a landlord may enter into a rented residential property are as follows:

  • To inspect the premises;
  • To make repairs to the premises;
  • To show the same to a prospective tenant, purchaser, mortgagee or its agents;
  • Pursuant to a court order;
  • If the premises appear to have been abandoned by the tenant; or
  • Within the last 30 days of the tenancy or after either party has given notice of termination of the tenancy, to inspect the premises to determine if there is any damage that needs to be repaired, and if so, to estimate its cost.

With the exceptions of items five and six above, it's important that you be given reasonable notice and a mutually arranged time for the landlord to enter. A landlord could have breached the tenant's rights if the other entries are made without notice, at inconvenient or unreasonable times or jeopardize the tenant's safety.

Can a landlord just throw me out on the street for no reason?
Your landlord cannot simply throw you and/or your belongings out on the street.  Even if the landlord potentially has grounds to evict you, any evictions must go through a notice period and summary process in the housing court system.  A landlord, on his or her own (without the Court's permission), cannot unilaterally remove you from your apartment.

Can I stop an eviction notice once I have been served?
That depends on the reason for the eviction.

If the eviction is for nonpayment of rent and you have a lease, you may stop the eviction by paying the full amount owed. If you have already received a summons and complaint, you must pay the rent owed, any accrued interest and your landlord's court costs by the answer date in order to stop the eviction.

If the eviction is for nonpayment of rent and you do not have a lease, you may stop the eviction by paying the full amount owed within 10 days of receiving the eviction notice. You do not have a right to stop the eviction, however, if you received a previous eviction notice for not paying rent within the past 12 months.

You can also defend against or postpone the eviction by filing in court your defense or counterclaim, which could include violation of the sanitary code, breach of the rental agreement, unlawful discrimination, eviction is based on your status as a victim of domestic violence, among other reasons. Under certain circumstances you may also ask the court to postpone the eviction for up to six months; or 12 months if a resident of the premises is disabled.

What can I do if I disagree with the security deposit amount that was kept or refunded?
You may send your landlord a security deposit demand letter that explains why you believe you are entitled to the return of any additional amount of your security deposit. You should mail this letter by both certified and first class mail. Your landlord must respond within 30 days with a reasonable offer of settlement. If you don't believe the offer is reasonable, or if the landlord does not respond, you may bring a court action. If the court determines that the landlord withheld more of the security deposit than he or she was entitled to, or that the landlord did not respond to your demand letter with a reasonable offer of settlement, you may be entitled to treble (triple) damages, costs and reasonable attorney's fees.

Can I withhold rent?
If your landlord is not living up to the requirements mentioned above, or not satisfying other conditions as required by law, you might be entitled to withhold some of your rental payments. There are, however, very specific state laws concerning the handling of withheld rental payments including written notices that you must provide to your landlord and what situations actually permit you to withhold rental payments from your landlord.

*These answers do not constitute legal advice and are written for general information purposes only. Individuals should consult with a lawyer for specific legal advice.

If you are a tenant or landlord and have any questions concerning these topics or other consumer protection issues, we highly suggest that you contact the Massachusetts Bar Association's Lawyer Referral Service by filling-out an online request form or by calling (617) 654-0400. Thank you.

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