Know your rights: Renting an apartment in Greater Boston

Triple and double decker apartment houses in McCormack Square in East Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Triple and double decker apartment houses in McCormack Square in East Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The first of September is Boston's biggest moving day, and ahead of that date, thousands of residents will sign new leases and pay a lot of money in rent and fees to secure a roof over their heads.

While negotiating with a landlord or property management company can be tricky, advocates say the first step to success is knowing what your rights are as a renter.

“Very often, when you're able to articulate clearly what your expectations are on the basis of legal rights, landlords will back down or at least pause before they make demands of you, some of which may be illegal," said Rashmi Dyal-Chand, a property law professor at Northeastern University. "That's not always going to be the case, but at least some of the time that should be the case.”

Whether you're apartment hunting, preparing to move or renewing your lease, here's what you should know about your tenant rights.

Looking for the right space

If possible, shop around

Sometimes, you're renting in a crunch, and there may not be time to check out a number of places, but whenever possible, Dyal-Chand recommends having "as much market power as you can."

"The first thing to do is to really be a smart consumer," she said. "And at least looking at your range of choices — if you can, if you have the ability and the budget to be able to do that — that would be my first step.”

This may mean weighing different factors, such as a responsive landlord versus space.

As Dyal-Chand puts it, you want to be "in a position where you can evaluate the relative value" of a smaller space with a responsive landlord versus a larger space owned by a landlord who already seems difficult or relies on a management company with a rough reputation to maintain the property.

Make sure it's up to code

Finding a place that feels right is important since you'll be spending a lot of time there. We've all seen how a global health crisis can mean staying in much more — and home may have to serve more purposes than it used to. But be aware that there are baseline requirements for what classifies as a proper living space.

“This is their home, they're looking to live in a place for a period of time and put their personal possessions there, but also use it as a space in which they do all the things that are the most important to them," Dyal-Chand said. "So they want to look at the physical space for sure and see how well maintained it is, how safe it is, whether there are any issues.”

Under the state sanitary code, every unit must include at least 150 square feet of space for its first tenant, plus 100 feet for every additional tenant.

There are also requirements for windows, floor space, bathrooms, lights, stairways, trash, septic systems and more.

For example, every unit must have at least one electrical fixture, two outlets and a bathroom complete with a toilet, bathtub or shower, and sink. If a building has more than three units, trash barrels must be provided to you. You can review more requirements for habitable rooms here. You should not sign a lease for an apartment that is not up to code.

Research your landlord or property management company

Dyal-Chand suggests researching your landlord or property management company's reputation as much as you can before renting by checking websites.

"I'm suggesting some serious looking up front, which is not easy to do in a market where apartments are hard to come by," she said. "But ultimately, again, it's a place you're going to live for at least months and maybe years. So to me, it seems important to do that kind of work on the front end.”

There are a number of independent sites where people can post reviews of landlords and property management companies. First, you may just try Googling the name of the person or company.

Dyal-Chand also noted that it's important to know whether your landlord plans to maintain the apartment or hire maintenance contractors. That way, you'll know who to contact when you need repairs or should any issues arise, and how to best reach them.

You could also ask to speak with current tenants. There's no better way to get an honest review than from firsthand experience.

What to know about move-in fees

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the fair market rent in Boston for the fiscal year 2023 was $2,198 for a one-bedroom and $2,635 for a two-bedroom.

Most landlords in Greater Boston require new tenants to pay first and last month's rent, along with a security deposit. That can add up to a large sum.

You should know what fees are standard before you agree to pay anything:

Broker's fee

Some landlords also ask tenants to pay a broker's fee, which only can be charged by a licensed real estate broker or salesperson.

Adam Hoole, a paralegal in Greater Boston Legal Services' housing unit, recommends tenants attempt to negotiate with their landlords to pay some or all of this fee.

"I don't think it could hurt to try to negotiate with the broker and the landlord to see if the landlord could pay half, because really this is a service that the landlord is opting into using and so it's common sense to say they should pay some portion of," Hoole said.

Security Deposits

Under Massachusetts law, landlords cannot require a security deposit that exceeds one month's rent.

By law, landlords must keep your security deposit in a separate, interest-bearing account in a Massachusetts bank. Information about where the deposit is being kept and how much interest it accrues should be shared with the tenant.

If you aren't given notice of where the money is deposited within 30 days, the landlord loses the right to keep it. You can request it back, and it must immediately be returned to you.

"The landlord can really only withhold the security deposit for very specific reasons at the end of the tenancy. And so a lot of landlords, I think, often try to disguise security deposits as something else within the lease," Hoole said, adding that he saw it appeared to be called a "maintenance fee" in one lease.

After your tenancy ends, the landlord has 30 days to either return your deposit in full or give you a detailed list of damages. Reasonable wear and tear, like routine cleaning, painting or replacing the locks, are not reasons to withhold a security deposit. Neither is damage caused by previous tenants that already existed.

What you can't be charged for

If a landlord or broker attempts to tack on additional fees, know that they may not be legal.

According to the City of Boston, it is illegal for landlords to charge fees for an application, for holding the apartment or for running a credit check. Again, unless the owner is a licensed broker, they cannot charge a broker's fee.

Read your lease carefully

Although it may seem tedious, read your lease all the way through before signing it. A lease is a legal contract, and it is in your best interest to understand the terms you're agreeing to so that you can address problems early or have the knowledge needed to settle disputes down the line.

Look for clauses that may be illegal

Hoole said the biggest thing to look out for are any clauses that ask tenants to waive their rights.

"I saw leases that had clauses in them where the landlord would say you have to essentially waive your right to eviction proceedings in court," Hoole said, "and that if you were to not pay your rent, they could just move you out themselves without any notice and without involving the courts."

In Massachusetts, you can only be evicted by a court after legal proceedings, making a clause like that blatantly illegal.

Dyal-Chand also noted tenants should look out for these, also called arbitration clauses.

"I'm hearing more and more about lease clauses that have arbitration requirements where a tenant gives up their right to go to housing court and really take a legal claim against the landlord [before] a judge — or even possibly a jury," she said. "And those kinds of arbitration clauses absolutely worry me. I would look for opportunities to sign leases that didn't have those kinds of clauses.”

Upkeep and repairs

Landlords are required by law to make necessary repairs in a reasonable amount of time, and maintain a safe and healthy living environment for tenants. Do not sign a lease that states tenants are responsible for repairs, aside from damage explicitly caused by a tenant.

In the city of Boston, it is also a property owner's responsibility to clear snow and ice in the winter from the front of the building. However, this responsibility can be passed on to a tenant in a lease. If your lease includes a clause like this, Hoole said, you can attempt to negotiate it out.

Utility costs

Be sure you know which utility costs you will be responsible for paying. Hoole noted that if a tenant is billed for water or electricity, each apartment unit must be submetered — meaning that tenants pay for their individual usage, not the whole building.

Additionally, in order for a landlord to charge a tenant for water, they must have low-flow water conservation devices installed and proper documentation of the corresponding certification.

Notice of entry

Under state law, landlords can enter your apartment for certain purposes, such as to make repairs — but proper notice should be given. The law does not outline a set time frame, but says "reasonable notice" is required.

Your lease will usually include a clause about just how much notice is required, but you can try to negotiate this time period as well. A full 24 hours is considered fairly standard.

Inspecting conditions or showing the apartment to prospective tenants are also valid reasons for entry.

There are exceptions in an emergency situation, such as a water leak, for which landlords could enter without notice.

Document conditions upon move-in

Landlords don't always clean or make repairs in between tenants. This makes it extra prudent that tenants document conditions of the apartment as soon as they move in.

Landlords will often provide tenants with a conditions form upon move-in. If your landlord does not, you can print your own here and return it to your landlord.

Hoole recommends tenants also take photos of any damages and email them to the landlord so they can be resolved quickly. This also ensures you'll have records to check and show in case you're charged for damage you didn't cause.

The conditions form and photos could protect you from losing your security deposit.

At the end of your tenancy, a landlord can only withhold your money for damage that goes beyond normal wear and tear — for instance, routine painting or carpet shampooing are to be expected.

Resolving disputes

Negotiating your lease

Negotiating with landlords can be difficult, especially when competition for apartments is high. Use discretion, but know that you are protected in standing up for your rights.

"I would say negotiation is tricky ... [Landlords are] not really, in most circumstances, obligated to rent to you," Hoole said. "It's sort of toeing the line between how much concessions can you get before you just actually lose the offer of the apartment."

If you do decide to negotiate, it is best to get everything you and your landlord agree upon in writing, with signatures.

For example, if you spot a clause in the lease that is unsound and you negotiate with your landlord to remove it, that can be done by merely striking it out and having both parties initial beside it.

If you've already signed a lease and spot an illegal clause after the fact, you could still attempt to resolve the issue, though Dyal-Chand agrees that it's a lot of work, and noted that landlords are generally in the stronger bargaining position, and could try to retaliate.

“If they've already included an illegal clause in their lease, one can expect that they might do other things, even if the law precludes them formally from doing those things," she said. "So I think it is a real question: whether — if the lease is being violated, and if there is an illegal clause in that lease — whether it is a good idea or necessary to pursue it, if, in fact that clause is not being violated."

Retaliation, such as raising rent or attempting to terminate your tenancy without just cause, is illegal.

But, Hoole notes, "there's a lot of work that could be done in terms of improving tenants' rights in the lease process on the legal level. I think that's an underserved legal need in the community, it really is just sort of feeling out how much you can get away with before the landlord is going to pull the offer."

When to call inspectional services

If your apartment poses a potential health or safety risk or simply isn't up to code, you should always try to resolve it with your landlord or property management company first. If they aren't being responsive, try notifying them in writing. Keep records of all correspondence made regarding the issue.

If it still hasn't been corrected, you may want to consider calling your town or city's inspectional services department to request an inspection.

An inspector can examine the property and determine whether it violates state code. Make sure you receive a copy of the report after an inspection.

If violations are still not corrected after the report is made, it could be grounds to take your landlord to court. Contact your local inspections department for more information. For Boston, the number is 617-635-5322.

When to withhold rent

If your landlord is not upholding their end of the deal, there are certain situations where you may consider withholding rent.

You may withhold rent if you have requested repairs and

  • you have appealed to your landlord in writing;
  • your local health board has found code violations and notified your landlord;
  • or you did not cause the problem and the conditions don't require you to vacate the apartment for repairs.

Once necessary repairs are made, you will be required to pay the rent you withheld. You can read more about the situations that would make this legal under state law here.

If you get an eviction notice

It's important to be aware that under state law, tenants can only be evicted when ordered by a judge.

A landlord may attempt to evict you for nonpayment of rent, causing damage that's considered excessive or violating the lease's terms. They must first send a Notice to Quit, which generally gives you 14 days to respond.

If you get such a notice, the first thing you should do refer back to your lease and see if it's in violation of the agreement.

But either way, Dyal-Chand recommends seeking legal help if at all possible — at least for an initial consultation.

That two-week window is also a good time to make counterclaims against the landlord. For instance, if your apartment is not up to code, or your landlord has attempted to retaliate against or harass you, or has violated security deposit law, you can note those violations. They're also required to follow the eviction process as outlined by the law.

If you can't afford to pay for legal services, there are some other resources available.

"If it's in violation of the lease, then you may clearly have a claim," Dyal-Chand. "You could take it to housing court and fight it if it doesn't violate the lease."

Additional resources

If you need more help, there are some resources available to tenants regarding housing issues:

This story was updated in March 2023. 

This article was originally published on August 17, 2021.


Headshot of Laney Ruckstuhl

Laney Ruckstuhl Field Producer
Laney Ruckstuhl is the field producer for Morning Edition. She was formerly a digital producer.



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