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Which States Have the Best and Worst Laws for Renters?

RentCafe Rental Laws by State

The air conditioning system in your rental apartment broke 3 days ago, it’s 100F degrees outside and more humid than the Amazonian rainforest. Your landlord has promised to repair it soon, but three days later he’s not even returning your phone calls. As much as you love the sauna, living in one day and night is not your idea of “home spa”. What can you do?

The answer depends on where you live. Your legal options can be very different from state to state. To find out exactly how different, we compared and contrasted landlord-tenant laws in 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. We focused on 10 common aspects of the landlord-tenant relationship, which include security deposits, rent increases, the warranty of habitability and eviction notices. We then created a ranking system based on the best and worst scenarios for renters and landlords (more on how we ranked the states in the Methodology section).

Which states have the best and worst laws for renters? Here they are on a map:


Vermont ranked first among the renter-friendly states, followed closely by Delaware and Hawaii who were tied for second place. Rhode Island, Arizona, D.C., Maine and Alaska Statutes also seem to take good care of their renters according to our analysis. On the other end of the spectrum, the laws in Arkansas and West Virginia were the least friendly to their renters, with Louisiana, Georgia, Wyoming, North Carolina, Idaho, Ohio, Mississippi and Colorado following in their footsteps. Arkansas and West Virginia registered the same score on our scale, but since Arkansas is the only state where tenants can face criminal charges for failure to vacate, it earned the last place on our renter-friendly scale.

How rental laws were shaped by regional culture

The U.S. is in some ways a nation of nations, with each state having the right to create their own constitution and government. In time, this facilitated the creation of very different laws and regulations with local culture and sensibilities playing a huge role in shaping the state’s legislation.

Southern states, which used to rely mostly on agriculture during the first days of our nation, valued land ownership above all else and subsequently shaped their laws to protect landlords and their properties. Northern states, on the other hand, focused more on manufacturing and trade, encouraging constant immigration from Europe.  Since most of the population worked in factories and lived in crowded cities, it only makes sense that eventually they developed more and more laws that regulated renting.

Legislation in Mountain states also seems to mostly favor landlords, but probably because renting was less common and there wasn’t much opposition from renters. Reversely, in areas where renters outnumber owners, the laws lean towards protecting renters.

How different can rental laws really be?

RentCafe Rental Laws by state

Let’s say Vinny lives in Vermont, Arnie lives in Arkansas and they’re both considering a new rental apartment. They each sign a one-year lease and look forward to a good relationship with their landlord. Just a few weeks into the lease, the apartment’s HVAC system breaks down. They send notices to their landlords regarding the issue, but neither landlord fixes the issue. Vinny may then proceed to withhold paying rent to coerce his landlord to fix the problem. Arnie, on the other hand, is forced to pay his rent even though the apartment has serious habitability issues. The only way Arnie can fight back is by suing his landlord and hoping for the best.

The HVAC system is finally repaired after the lawsuit. Further along the way, Vinny and Arnie encounter some financial problems which in turn cause them to be 5 days late on rent. Vinny receives a 14-day notice from his landlord to remedy or quit, allowing him enough time to come up with the money. Arnie’s landlord is still holding a grudge against him because of the lawsuit, so he decides to terminate the lease under the “failure to vacate method”. Arnie now has just 10 days to vacate the premises or he will face criminal charges. He manages to scrape the money needed for the past due rent, pays his landlord, and vacates the apartment in a hurry.

A few days later he discovers he accidentally left his heirloom watch at the apartment. Under Arkansas law, the watch is now the property of the landlord and there’s nothing he can do about it. If this would have happened to Vinny, he’d still have 60 days to recover his belongings and his landlord would be obligated to store it safely for that time period. Finally, Arnie asks his landlord to return his security deposit so he can afford to rent a new apartment. Unfortunately for him, the landlord can hold the money for another 60 days after the tenancy has ended. Vinny would have the money back in his pocket in just 14 days. Poor Arnie.

The best states for common renting issues

The relationship between landlords and tenants may sometimes prove tricky to manage and problems may emerge because of either side not holding up their end of the agreement. That’s why it is important for states to have concise and unbiased legislation in place so as to avoid any misunderstandings.

The security deposit is an issue that every renter faces at the beginning of a new lease. There are 10 states that limit the security deposit amount to the equivalent of one month’s rent (for unfurnished apartments on a one-year lease). Among them are Hawaii, District of Columbia, Rhode Island, Massachusets, and Kansas.

Not having to wait forever to get your security deposit back (after any applicable deductions) at the end of your lease can also be a blessing, especially when you need that money to put down a deposit on your next apartment. Renters in Montana are the luckiest in that regard, as they’ll get theirs back in no more than 10 days. In Hawaii, South Dakota, Nebraska, Arizona, and Vermont landlords are required to return security deposits within 14 days.

When bad luck strikes and you run out of money right before your rent is due, it’s nice to have a few extra days to come up with the cash before you get kicked to the curb. If you live in the District of Columbia, you get the longest termination notice for nonpayment of rent: 30 days. In the following 5 states, renters receive a 14-day notice: Vermont, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Tennessee.

Rent increases can feel like a shockwave on your wallet, so an advance notice can be useful to brace for impact. Renters in Georgia, Vermont, and Delaware receive a generous 60-day notice of rent increase for month-to-month contracts, while those in Maine, Hawaii, and Nevada, 30 days.

The worst states for common renting issues

Vermont might have the best laws for renters, but it’s also one of the 24 states that don’t set a limit for security deposits, so nobody is perfect. Other examples are Georgia, Washington, Texas, Illinois, and New York.

Being able to withhold rent for failure to provide essential services (heat, hot water, electricity) is another law which many would consider common sense, yet there are 11 states which don’t specifically allow this. In other words, if you live in Alabama, Georgia, Texas, North Carolina, Louisiana or 6 other states, and your A/C happens to break on a hot and sticky day, good luck to you!

Furthermore, 14 states empower landlords to use harsh measures like serving an Unconditional Quit Notice against renters who violate their lease. Arizona, Hawaii, Virginia, Rhode Island, and South Carolina are some of them. To be fair, the situations in which this practice is allowed usually relate to serious breaches of the rental agreement such as illegal drug possession, prostitution or other criminal activities. But there are also states where this type of notice can be used for simply being late on rent (Georgia, South Carolina, and West Virginia).

Also, in 8 states, including Maryland, Georgia, New Jersey, South Dakota, and Missouri, landlords have the option to immediately terminate a lease and file for eviction when the tenant is just a few days late on rent.

Here are a few other interesting laws we’ve run across during our study:

  • In Wisconsin, if the landlord auctions or sells abandoned tenant property, the proceeds must be given to the Wisconsin Department of Administration, which uses the money to help feed the homeless
  • In Illinois the law on abandoned tenant property only covers crops
  • Lockouts and utility shut-offs are never allowed in any state

Highlights of some of your home state’s landlord-tenant laws: 

Methodology

This analysis was performed by RENTCafé, a nationwide apartment search website that enables renters to easily find apartments and houses for rent throughout the United States. To compile this report, RENTCafé’s research team analyzed Landlord – Tenant laws across the 50 states and the District of Columbia. This analysis does not discuss rent prices and does not include legislation that specifically regulates rent prices. 

In order to rank the states, we used the following 10 common aspects of the landlord-tenant relationship:

  • Security deposit maximums
  • Deadlines for returning security deposits
  • Rent increase notices
  • Repair and deduct policies
  • Withholding rent policies
  • Landlord’s access to the property
  • Termination notices for nonpayment
  • Regular termination notices for tenancies at will
  • Termination notices for lease violations
  • Abandoned tenant property

For each of the enumerated aspects, the states could earn a maximum of 10 points and a minimum of 0 points. The maximum total score for all 10 aspects analyzed is 100. The states that scored the highest had the best laws for renters and the states with the lowest scores had the best laws for landlords.

For example: In the category “security deposit maximums” states that had a 1-month rent maximum received 10 points; states that had a 2-month rent maximum got 5 points, and states with no limit on security deposits got 0 points. States with no statute, policy or provision on the issues in question were considered to favor landlords, thus they were awarded 0 points.

Sources: 

Justia, Vermont General Assembly, Hawaii State Legislature, The Delaware Code Online, State of Rhode Island General Assembly, Arizona State Legislature, Code of the District of Columbia, Nebraska Legislature, South Dakota Legislative Research Center, Maine State Legislature, The Alaska State Legislature, Nevada Legislature, Kansas Legislature, State of Oregon, Washington State Legislature, The Minnesota Office of the Revisor of Statutes, The New Hampshire General Court, The Official Website for the State of New Jersey, FindLaw, Pennsylvania General Assembly, The Landlord Protection Agency, California Legislative Information, The Montana Legislature, Wisconsin State Legislature, The 190th General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Kentucky Legislature, Oklahoma State Courts Network, Lexis Nexis, State of Tennessee, North Dakota Legislative Branch, The Iowa Legislature, Utah State Legislature, Michigan Legislature, South Carolina Legislature, Virginia Law Library, Missouri Legislature, General Assembly of Maryland, Texas Constitution and Statutes, Illinois General Assembly, The Alabama Legislature, New York State Legislature, Florida Legislature, Indiana General Assembly, Colorado General Assembly, LAWriter, Idaho Legislature, Georgia Legal Aid, Louisiana State Legislature, Equal Justice Wyoming, North Carolina General Assembly and West Virginia State Legislature.

Disclaimer

This article is for general informational and entertainment purposes only.  It does not constitute and should not be relied upon as legal advice. This article and the information presented are subject to change without notice, may or may not apply depending on the circumstances, and other laws not discussed may apply to a particular situation. Always contact a qualified legal professional if you need advice regarding a specific landlord-tenant issue. 

Fair use and redistribution

We encourage you and freely grant you permission to reuse, host, or repost the images in this article. When doing so, we only ask that you kindly attribute the authors by linking to RENTCafe.com or this page, so that your readers can learn more about this project, the research behind it and its methodology.

About the author

Nadia Balint

Nadia Balint is a senior marketing writer for RENTCafé. She writes about trends in U.S. real estate and their impact on our everyday life. You can get in touch with Nadia via email: nadia.balint@yardi.com.

5 Comments

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  • Happy to clarify that Oregon now requires 90 days notice of rent increase for month to month tenants. Also the no cause termination timings are a bit different if the person is in the City of Portland where there are stricter laws.

  • Good morning Nadia,
    I’m Lee Tabor, in California; and I read your article this morning which I found intriguing in several ways.
    I’ll explain: I’m a landlord/property owner and real estate broker here. That said, I’d like to offer my take on your article.
    Briefly, in my view the landlord/tenant relationship works best when it is a co-dependent and symbiotic one. In other words, I depend on my tenants to provide me with money for rent, and they depend on me to provide them with a nice, clean, and comfortable home to live in. This relationship does not work when the tenant considers me to be their enemy who preys on them. (By the way, I don’t like to consider myself to be a “lord” over anyone. In fact, I think of myself as a servant, who provides a product and service which meets people’s needs. I believe as a consequence, I have become wealthier than I ever imagined I could be, and most of my renters have become if not friends, then cordial aquaintances.)
    As a property manager, I explain to my tenants and owners they each have a shared responsibility, as do I. We are like a three legged stool. When we each fulfill our responsibility, we each have success and harmony. If any one doesn’t, the relationship breaks, and the owner doesn’t make money, nor do I, and the tenant doesn’t have a nice home (or any home) in which to live. By the way, if I have an owner, or tenant that is irresponsible, I get rid of them as quickly as possible. I just “fired” an owner of 13 apartments because he would not maintain his apartments, and was happy to allow humans to live in conditions not fit for animals. Although his apartments represented and income of $750 per month to me (enough to lease a very nice vehicle), I won’t associate me or my company with anyone like this. It’s not that I’m so highly moral, necessarily. It’s that I find that I’m able to be far more successful by being responsible, and holding owners accountable for their properties, and for treating people in a humane fashion. Those 13 tenants are a pool of future renters for me, and when I find homes for them, they will faithfully pay their rent, and care for the homes I have entrusted to them. And each of those tenants have multiple friends and family who hear the story of how I treated them. That money I would have collected in commission will be returned to me tenfold in the future as a result this choice by me.
    Which brings me to your article. I find it interesting that your choice of colors for tenant friendly laws is nearly blue, while those that are landlord friendly are red. Is this a coincidence? I don’t think so. I think you have written an article that provokes tenants to see property owners as perhaps evil, and unscrupulous. This is similar to a lot of the so-called reporting I see on television “news” stories and in “news” articles in print.
    An example of another way to think of this situation is to consider Avis, Hertz, or Budget Rent a Car. Does anyone consider a car rental company to have immoral values, singly because they rent cars? Yet, it’s very common to think of landlords as immoral users of renters for financial gain.
    Just as I ask myself, and my owners, and my tenants to take responsibility for their words and actions, I ask the same of you. Try to think of this in another light. There is nothing immoral with a person wanting to make a profit from their investment. It is not immoral to become, or to be wealthy. Furthermore, I’ve found that many poor people have much dignity, not in their poverty, but in their humanity.
    You are welcome to engage me in a conversation by email, or on the phone (760-964-6253), or in person at my office:
    Lone Star Real Estate, Inc.
    10918 Hesperia Rd. #A1 Hesperia CA 92345

    • Excellent response. I also read the article as Landlords are mean and vicious creatures that prey upon poor helpless tenants. If my tenant chooses to spend their rent money on other items, I can not make my mortgage payments, insurance, and other expenses. I give them a beautiful place to live in exchange for their timely monthly payments.

      When I first started as a landlord, I had some seminars where I got bad tenants. I had one who knew the system better than me – it took me 6 months and a lot of money to get her out of my house and I had to continue making repairs on things she broke and keep lawn mowed (her responsibility) to keep from getting citations from code enforcement. She drove a Jaguar and I drove a Honda. When I paid to have her stuff put out on the street while the sheriff’s department was there, she had tons of brand new designer clothes with the labels on them. I never recovered any of my money from her.

      Now I screen HARD and I required at least 2 times the monthly rent as a security deposit.