What Every Tenant Should Know

Updated: Aug 27

Before You Rent


You can avoid trouble later on by being careful when you first rent a house or apartment.


You can avoid scams by making sure that the person renting to you actually has the right to do so. You can check ownership records by going to the office of the county clerk and searching to make sure that the person renting to you actually owns the property. You can call the Town and inquire as to who is listed on the tax bill to make sure that the person renting to you actually owns the property.

If you are confident that the person renting to you is legally authorized to do so, the first thing you will want to know, of course, is amount of the rent. Does the rent include heat and electricity? If you will be paying your own heat and electricity, request the name of the fuel oil or gas company that provides the fuel and check with LIPA to obtain copies of old utility bills for that house or apartment. Contact the fuel company to find out what the average bill has been. The old bills will give you a history of past costs and a good idea of how much you will be paying for utilities and/or fuel each month. If the utility meter is shared with others in the building, the law requires the landlord to have the meter in his name.

If the landlord requests an application fee or payment for a credit or background check, the landlord cannot get any more than $20 for the combined application and credit/background check and must give you a copy of that report and the bill for that report.


Discrimination

A landlord cannot refuse to rent to you because of your race, age, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, marital status, or because you have children. Often, it is hard to know when you’ve been discriminated against and it can be difficult to prove. If you think a landlord has discriminated against you, you can complain to Long Island Housing Services at (631) 567-5111. You can also file a fair housing complaint with HUD at (800) 669-9777.

Suffolk County landlords of buildings with three or more apartments also cannot refuse to rent to you because of the source of your income (for example, Section 8 Voucher, DSS’ Shelter Supplement Program, Public Assistance). If you believe that a landlord has discriminated against you for this or any other reason, you can complain and file a grievance with the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission at 631-853-5480.


Lease

A lease is a written agreement between a landlord and a tenant that contains the terms and conditions of the rental. A lease gives you and your landlord rights and responsibilities. The important thing to remember is that you have a legal contract with your landlord, even if it is not in writing. Special note: In Suffolk County, a landlord must offer a written lease of at least one year in buildings with 3 or more apartments.


Security Deposit

Before you agree to pay rent or a security deposit for a new place to live, inspect the apartment or house carefully. Take a friend with you and write down anything that needs to be fixed. If you can, take pictures of each room.

Talk to your future landlord and find out when he will fix any problems. It is a good idea to get this in writing. Also, check with the landlord about things like trash cans, stove and refrigerator, and storm doors.

You might want to talk to other tenants in the building to discover any problems they may have had with the landlord or the building.

Be sure to get your landlord’s address and phone number. Ask him what to do in case of an emergency.

Most landlords require tenants to pay a security deposit. The deposit cannot be greater than one months’ rent and is intended to cover damages beyond normal wear and tear. If you qualify, the Department of Social Services may assist you with your security deposit. Get a receipt for your security deposit and save it.

The deposit you give your landlord is still your money and cannot be spent by the landlord. The landlord must tell you how much was deposited and the name and address of the bank where he or she put the money.

Once you sign the lease, but before you move in, the landlord has a duty to offer you an opportunity to inspect the premises with him or his agent and enter into a written agreement listing the condition of the premises, specifically the existing defects or damages. When you move out, the landlord cannot deduct any of your security deposit based on these pre-existing conditions.

One to two weeks before you move out, the landlord must also give you an opportunity to inspect the premises with him or his agent. After the inspection, the law requires the landlord to give you an itemized list of all needed repairs and/or cleaning. You can make these repairs and clean before you move out to avoid having them deducted from your security deposit. Make sure you keep all invoices and take pictures.

When you move out you should give the landlord your forwarding address because 14 days after you move out, the landlord needs to send you an itemized statement of any amount of your security deposit that is kept for damages or back rent and the balance of the money you gave as security. If the landlord does not give you this statement and your money within 14 days, he cannot keep any of the security deposit.

When you move out, take pictures. If the landlord refuses to return your security deposit and you feel that you are entitled to it, you can take the landlord to small claims court if the amount is less than $5,000 ($3000 in the justice courts of the east end of Long Island). (Call the NY Public Interest Research Group NYPIRG for information on Small Claims at 516-222-0086).

If the landlord does not follow the law, he is liable for damages, up to twice the amount of your security deposit.



Written Lease

A written lease is a written agreement signed by both you and your landlord. Your landlord may ask you to sign a written lease before moving in. The lease cannot be changed while it is in effect unless both you and your landlord agree, in writing. Always read a written lease very carefully BEFORE you sign it! Ask questions if you do not understand something in the lease. By law, the lease must be written in clear, plain English. Also, you are entitled to receive a signed copy of the lease. Whether your lease is written or verbal, it must be consistent with New York State law. If a part of your lease violates the law, that part of the lease is invalid and cannot be enforced, but that does not mean the entire agreement is invalid.

  • Keep a copy of your lease in a safe place. Some things the lease should include:

  • the address of the place you are renting

  • the landlord’s name and address

  • amount of rent and when it is due

  • amount of time that you will be renting (for example, one year)

  • Both the landlord’s and tenant’s responsibilities (such as, what utilities are included in the rent)

The main advantage of a written lease is that your landlord cannot make you move or raise the rent until the lease ends (as long as you pay your rent and follow the rules in the lease, of course) unless you violate something in the lease. Most written leases are good for a year but can be longer or shorter. The lease gives you the right to “quiet enjoyment” of the property until the lease end date.

If late fees are included in your lease, the landlord cannot charge late fees that are greater than either 5% of the month’s rent or $50, whichever is less.

As of October 12, 2019, if the landlord wishes to raise your rent by 5% or more, or if he does not want to renew the lease, he must give you a 30, 60 or 90 days’ notice depending upon how long you have lived there:

  • If you have lived there for less than 1 year and do not have a lease with a term of at least 1year, your landlord must provide you with 30 days’ notice;

  • If you have lived there for more than one year, but less than 2, or have a lease term of at least one year, but less than 2, your landlord must provide you with 60 days’ notice;

  • If you have lived there for more than 2 years or have a lease term of at least 2 years , your landlord must provide you with 90 days’ notice

Notice does not automatically let the landlord evict you. If you do not move out on the day that the tenancy ends, the landlord must bring you to court. If you receive court papers for an eviction, immediately contact an attorney to understand your rights.

One disadvantage of a written lease would occur if you want to move out before the lease ends. You may need to find a new tenant to take your place. If you do not find a new tenant for the rest of the lease, or if your landlord does not consent to the new tenant, you might be charged with the remaining rent, even after you move! Fortunately, the landlord must try to rent it as soon as possible to lessen what you will not need to pay. Another possible downside to a written lease is it may include the promise to pay attorney’s fees in case of an eviction (this is the only way a landlord can charge you attorney’s fees).


Month-to-Month Tenancy

If you do not have a written lease, the length of your contract depends on how often you pay your rent. Most people pay their rent once a month. This is called a month-to-month tenancy. (Also, tenants who stay past the end of a lease are treated as month-to-month tenants if the landlord accepts their rent). In a month-to-month tenancy, you or the landlord can give either verbal or written notice when you want to change the agreement.

A landlord can propose to raise the rent of a month-to-month tenant. If you do not agree to pay the new amount, the landlord cannot evict you for nonpayment, but can end your tenancy by giving you appropriate notice and then bringing a holdover eviction proceeding. (It may be worthwhile to negotiate a rent increase you can afford with the landlord.)

If the tenant wishes to terminate a month to month tenancy, the tenant should give the landlord notice a full month before they intend to vacate the premises. The notice must be given prior to the beginning of the next term. Therefore, if your rent is due on October 1, a proper notice to terminate must be given BEFORE October 1, effective October 31.

Notice does not automatically let the landlord evict you. If you do not move out on the day that the tenancy ends, the landlord must bring you to court. If you receive court papers for an eviction, immediately contact an attorney to understand your rights.

As with a written lease, as of October 12, 2019, should the landlord want to raise the rent by 5%, or more, or terminate the tenancy, depending on how long you have lived there, he must give you a 30, 60 or 90 day notice before your tenancy expires, as set forth above.

The important thing to remember is that you have a legal contract with your landlord, even if it is not in writing. Both you and your landlord must live up to that contract.


Record Keeping

Keep copies of ALL paperwork relating to your tenancy and keep them in a safe place. This should include:

  • a copy of the lease (if you have a written one)

  • a receipt or canceled check for your security payment

  • rent receipts

  • receipts for any repairs that you have made to the rental property

  • copies of all correspondence with the landlord.

  • any photographs you’ve taken of the premises

If there is damage to the premises before you move in, and you did not request a pre-occupancy inspection, remember to take pictures of it or make a detailed list of the damage and ask the landlord to sign it. This is important, in case you have a problem getting your security deposit back.

If you pay your rent with cash or a money order, the landlord must give you a written receipt under the law. If you pay by check, the cancelled check should be saved as your receipt. However, you can request a written receipt for your personal check. You only need to do it once and then the landlord must give you a receipt for your personal check each and every time you pay rent. It is a good idea to write the period that the payment covers on the check or money order (i.e. “December 2019 rent”). Be sure to get and save rent receipts from your landlord for all payments you have made. New York State law requires that the rent receipts include: the date you paid the rent, the amount that you paid, the amount of time that the money is paying for, the place being rented (i.e. the address and whether it’s a house, apartment, etc.) and the signature and title (i.e. landlord, building manager, etc.) of the person who received the rent.


Unwritten Responsibilities

New York State law says that some responsibilities are part of your agreement with your landlord even if they are not spelled out. In other words, these things are included in your agreement whether your landlord tells you about them or not.

It is important to know what these responsibilities are, and to take steps to protect them:

  • You are responsible for paying the rent on time. The best way to pay your rent is with a check or money order so that you have a record of your payment. Try not to pay your rent with cash. Always get a signed receipt for your rent. Save all your rent receipts.

  • You must let your landlord know when a repair is needed. You must also allow the landlord to come in to make the needed repair.

  • You are responsible for any damage to the apartment that you cause aside from normal wear and tear. Your landlord can keep all or part of your security deposit to pay for any damages that you cause.

  • You must let the landlord have access to the apartment to make repairs and collect the rent.

  • Other tenants in your building also have rights, and you must respect them. You should not disturb them by being too noisy or cluttering up common areas such as hallways.

Your landlord also has responsibilities when he rents you a place to live. Whether your lease says so or not, your landlord must make sure that your rental space is safe and livable:

  • Heat must be supplied to your apartment from October 1st through May 31st the following year, anytime the outside temperature drops below 55 F. The required minimum temperature is 65 F between 10 PM and 6 AM (overnight) and 68 F between 6 AM and 10 PM (during the day).

  • The landlord’s right to enter the premises requires your permission. Without your permission, the landlord is trespassing unless there is an emergency he needs to address inside, such as a fire, gas leak or flood.

  • The landlord is responsible for putting a smoke detector in any area where someone sleeps.

If you live in an apartment building with three or more apartments your landlord has special responsibilities in making your apartment a safe and comfortable place for you to live:

  • If there is an elevator, your landlord must put a mirror inside so you can see if anyone is already in it. In Suffolk County, the landlord must offer a lease in buildings with 3 or more apartments.

  • In most buildings, unless there is a doorman, all doors to enter the building must close and lock automatically.

Default on Rent Payments

You are responsible for paying your rent on time. Your landlord can evict you for not paying the rent. If you are short of money and cannot pay your rent, there are a few things that you can do.

First, talk to your landlord. Let him know when you will have the rent money. Try to work out an agreement with your landlord and get it in writing. The landlord is not required to use the security that you paid to cover the rent. Security deposits protect the landlord in case there is damage to the property. If the landlord agrees to let you use the security to cover a month’s rent, make sure this agreement is in writing and signed by the landlord.

If you cannot pay the rent, you may qualify for emergency help from the Department of Social Services (DSS). You must prove to the agency that you will be able to pay the ongoing rent after DSS pay the back rent. If you are denied help from DSS, save the papers that say so and request a fair hearing (1-800-342-3334).

You may be able to get one month’s rent from other agencies or even agencies that get federal money (called FEMA) that is put aside to help people in your situation. Call Law Services for advice and information.

If the landlord has not received your rent within 5 days of the day it is due, he must send you a notice stating he has not received the rent. If you have not paid the rent and the landlord decides to evict you, he must then give you a written 14 day notice demanding the rent and serve it in the same way he needs to serve court papers. If the landlord does not follow the law, you cannot be evicted. If you pay the rent any time up to and including the day you need to appear in court, and sometimes until the eviction date, you will not be evicted.


Repair and Deduct

It is your right as a tenant to have a livable, safe and sanitary apartment. If you need repairs tell your landlord and ask when the repairs will be done (if it’s an emergency, notify your landlord immediately!). If the landlord doesn’t keep his word or doesn’t take care of the repairs quickly, send the landlord a letter, asking him to make the repairs. It is a good idea to mail this request as return receipt requested and, of course, keep a copy of the request for your records. If your landlord still refuses to fix the problem, you must decide if it is serious enough to fight. If it is, you should try and talk to a lawyer before you take any of the next steps. Otherwise, you may pay to repair something and not be entitled to have the money returned. One action you can take is to pay for the repair yourself and take the amount you spend out of the next month’s rent. This is called repair and deduct. It is important to get written estimates before making repairs and to write the landlord that you plan to make the repairs if he doesn’t.

When your landlord sees that you spent part of your rent on repairs, he may try to evict you. The judge will decide in court whether it was okay for you to repair and deduct.

In emergencies, you may make necessary repairs and deduct the repair costs from the rent. For example, if your landlord has been notified that your door lock is broken and doesn’t repair it, you may hire a locksmith and deduct the cost from the rent. It is very important to save all receipts for the repair.

Another way to get your landlord to make repairs is not to pay the rent until he fixes the problem. This is called rent withholding.

Rent withholding is a very serious step to take. You should only withhold the rent if there are bad health or safety problems in your home. Talk to a lawyer before you withhold your rent. Your landlord may try to evict you for not paying your rent if you take this action. Therefore, it is extremely important to hold onto whatever money you are withholding. In the event that your landlord sues you for nonpayment of rent, and the judge determines that the withholding of the rent was not reasonable, you will have to pay that money at that time in order to avoid being evicted.

Before you withhold rent, or repair and deduct, make sure that you have written your landlord about the problem and given him a chance to fix it. Contact the Town’s Building Inspector (also called a Code Enforcement Inspector), the Fire Marshall or the County’s Department of Health (for things like no heat, cesspool backup, and lead paint issues) to look at the problem. Remember, your landlord may try to evict you if you withhold your rent. You must be prepared to go to court and prove that your home has serious problems and that your landlord will not fix them. You must take the right steps to protect yourself. Follow these steps carefully:

  1. Talk to a lawyer to see if the problem is serious enough to withhold rent. Find out if you have done everything you need to, such as writing letters to the landlord telling him about the problem.

  2. Write a letter to the landlord saying that you are going to withhold the rent and why. Keep a copy of the letter.

  3. Do not spend the rent money! A lawyer (if you have one) can put the money in a special bank account called an escrow account. If you do not have a lawyer, get a money order or bank check for the amount of the rent. Send a copy of it to the landlord to show that you have the rent but are not going to give it to him until the repairs are made. But, DO NOT SPEND THE RENT MONEY. Take photographs of the problems that can be photographed.

  4. Your landlord may make the repairs if you withhold the rent. Or he may take you to court to try to evict you for not paying the rent.

  5. If your landlord takes you to court be ready to show the judge that:

  6. There is a serious health or safety problem in your home

  7. You let the landlord know about it, but he did not make the repairs.

  8. You have the rent money

  9. Bring copies of the letters to your landlord, inspector’s reports, pictures, witnesses and the rent money to court to prove your side of the story.

The judge will decide if the problem was serious enough to withhold the rent. The judge may say that you do not owe all the rent money because your home had serious problems.


Illegal Evictions

Your landlord must follow certain steps if he wants you to move. He cannot just throw you out anytime he wants. The steps your landlord needs to take if he wants you to move depend on two things:

(1) whether or not you have a written lease and

(2) whether or not you have paid your rent. You cannot be evicted unless the landlord takes you to court and wins. A letter from a landlord or landlord’s attorney is NOT enough to evict you.

Some ways of making you move are never legal. It is illegal for your landlord to lock you out, shut off your heat/water, take the doors off your apartment or remove your possessions without a court order. Call the police and your local Law Services office as soon as you can if any of these things happen. If the police say they can’t do anything, and you live in Suffolk County, mention the #92-1. Only the sheriff can move your things out if he has a court order and has served you with a 72-hour notice.

If your landlord turns off your utilities, you can also call the Suffolk County Department of Health Services at 631-852-5900 or in Nassau, 516-227-9715 to ask for them to step in.

If your landlord evicts you illegally, you can sue for three times the damages you suffer. This can be done in Small Claims Court if the amount is less than $5,000 (or $3000 on the east end of Long Island) and you do not want to move back. (Call NYPIRG for more information see p. 5). Even though you may be in the middle of a crisis situation, it is very important to keep proof of your damages; such as pictures of damaged property, receipts for additional expenses incurred, witnesses, police or health department reports, etc. If you’ve been illegally evicted and you need help relocating, you should call DSS to arrange for emergency housing and storage. Sometimes, you won’t be able to find any available housing and want to move back into your home. If you want to move back, it is important to contact a lawyer or us at Nassau Suffolk Law Services to see if we can help you.


Retaliatory Eviction

Landlords cannot harass tenants who exercise their rights. Sometimes, landlords will try to evict you because you have complained about conditions in your home to either the landlord or his agent or government agencies or because you joined a tenant’s association. This is called retaliatory eviction and it is against the law. Retaliatory eviction can be hard to prove. Be sure to get legal help if you think your landlord is evicting you because you’ve complained or joined a tenants’ association. Be sure to keep a copy of all communications (letters, emails, text messages) with your landlord or reports from government agencies where you filed a complaint. However retaliatory eviction is generally not a defense if the landlord is taking you to court for not paying your rent.


When the Landlord Takes You to Court

Your landlord must let you know he is taking you to court by sending you legal papers. The legal papers you will get are called a Notice of Petition and a Petition. Your name and the landlord’s name will be at the top of the page in a box.

The Notice of Petition will tell you what court to go to and when to go. The Petition will say why your landlord is telling the judge to make you move. It is important to talk to a lawyer when you get these legal papers.


If You Can Not Get a Lawyer

A lawyer will be very helpful in court. Call Law Services as soon as you received court papers and we will try to help if you’re eligible and we have an available attorney.

But you may not be able to get a lawyer to represent you. Go to court on the day stated in the Notice of Petition, even if you don’t have a lawyer. Never ignore court papers. If you do, the judge will likely decide against you and grant the landlord a court order to evict you.

Get to court on time and dress neatly. Ask the Court Clerk any questions you have about what to do. When it’s your turn, tell your side of the story clearly and calmly. Take your time and think before you speak.

Be prepared. Be ready to tell the judge why you shouldn’t have to move. Bring cancelled checks or rent receipts to show that you paid the rent. Bring witnesses to prove that you didn’t break a rule in your lease. Bring pictures that show any serious problems with the premises. If your apartment had serious problems, you may be able to get the judge to decide that you should have money taken off the rent. Bring copies of any letters you may have written to the landlord asking him to make repairs.

Even if you agree that you didn’t pay the rent or that what the landlord says is right, you should still go to court. You can seek an adjournment (a delay in the proceeding) and the judge must grant at least a 14 day delay. Or, tell the judge how long you will need to move and ask for more time (if you need it). Judges will often give you extra time to move, especially if you have kids.

At the end of the court case, the judge will tell you when and if you have to move and how much rent you owe.

If you must move, the landlord will ask the judge to sign a paper called a Warrant of Eviction. The landlord then gives the warrant to the Sheriff who will eventually give you a 14 day notice and warrant of eviction. This may be served personally, but if you are not home, the sheriff will leave it with another responsible person who lives in your household, OR will leave it on your door, window, or in your mailbox and mail it as well. The sheriff will return at some point after the end of the 14th day to remove you and your belongings from the premises. Keep in mind that the day you were served doesn’t count toward the 14 days. The sheriff cannot evict you on a weekend or state holiday.

If you have not been able to find other housing by the time you receive the 14 day notice, you may be eligible for emergency housing and storage assistance from DSS.

This entire legal process will take several weeks before the sheriff is actually knocking at the door. This doesn’t mean, however, that you shouldn’t immediately start searching for other housing once an eviction seems likely.


Tenants’ Associations

Where there are several apartments in your building, sometimes the best way to solve problems is to form a tenant association. There is strength in numbers. Often, landlords will listen more to a group of people than to just one person. It also gives neighbors a chance to get to know one another! A tenant’s association meets regularly to solve problems and improve conditions in their building.

Tenants’ associations are easy to start. Just get your neighbors together for a meeting and decide what problems you want to work on. Then, prioritize the problems and get started!

The information contained in this material is not legal advice. Legal advice depends upon the specific facts of each situation. Also, the law may vary from state to state, so that some information from our website may not be correct for your jurisdiction. Finally, this information is not guaranteed to be up to date. The material contained on this site cannot replace the advice of competent legal counsel licensed in your state.



The information contained in this material is not legal advice. Legal advice depends upon the specific facts of each situation. Also, the law may vary from state to state, so that some information from our website may not be correct for your jurisdiction. Finally, this information is not guaranteed to be up to date. The material contained on this site cannot replace the advice of competent legal counsel licensed in your state.

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