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10 tenant rights every Boston-area renter should know

From repairs to security deposits, here’s what you should understand if you lease a home in Greater Boston

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More than 60 percent of Bostonians rent, and the share is similar in surrounding cities and towns such as Cambridge and Somerville. What’s more, these residents pay some of the highest rents in the United States.

They should know their rights, then, right? Below are 10 basic prerogatives every tenant in the Boston area should be aware of.


1. Habitability

Massachusetts state law, which mandates most of the tenant rights for the Boston area, is pretty clear about this: “You are entitled to a safe and habitable living environment throughout your entire tenancy. The State Sanitary Code protects the health, safety, and well-being of tenants and the general public.” Local health boards enforce the code.

Under the code, tenants are entitled to things such as a home with working heat and hot water. In the case of the latter, tenants have to be able to heat it to between 110 and 130 degrees Fahrenheit; and, as for heat, every room has to reach at least 68 degrees from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. September 16 to June 14, and at least 64 degrees all other hours.

Homes are also supposed to be rodent- and cockroach-free if there are two or more apartments in a building. Landlords, too, are responsible for snow removal at multifamilies.

2. Putting a landlord on notice

Heat always on the fritz? Place chronically infested? Structural damage? Mold? If a tenant believes that a rental is not habitable under the State Sanitary Code—and they can document it—they have a right to contact the landlord immediately.

That contact should be in writing, complete with the date, and the tenant should retain a copy. It can be an email or it can be a letter—certified is best, to prove receipt. Follow up if you don’t hear back in a reasonable amount of time; and keep a record of that followup.

3. Withholding rent

Technically, the landlord is not suppose to collect rent while a place is uninhabitable. In fact, state law allows tenants to withhold all or some of the rent after such a written appeal for repairs and other fixes, such as sending the exterminator to take care of vermin. Some of the rent may also be withheld following documentation from the local health board that a home violates the Sanitary Code (and the landlord’s been apprised of these violations).

Tenants are allowed to withhold some rent if they’re current on the monthly payments beforehand and they’re not the cause of the problems needing repairs. It’s up to tenants to decide how much to withhold. “You need only pay the fair rent for your unit given its defective condition,” according to the state. But that withheld rent will have to be paid following repairs.

4. Emergency repairs—and deductions

Tenants have the right to make, or contract for, repairs themselves if the landlord doesn’t do them in a reasonable amount of time (things such as no heat or hot water, or a serious plumbing problem, have to be handled within 24 hours under state law).

Tenants who do make emergency repairs then have the right to deduct up to four months’ future rent to pay for them—but only under three conditions, per state law: The local health board or another enforcer of the Sanitary Code has certified that conditions are dangerous; the landlord has received a written notice about the violations (see above); and the landlord has been given five days from the date of the notice to start repairs or at least contract for them.

The landlord then has 14 days to “substantially complete all necessary repairs,” but the enforcement agency can shorten that time.

5. Moving out early

You can move out early if you qualify for the above emergency repairs-and-deductions move. There are caveats, however: Tenants are still responsible for the fair rental value for the time they occupied the apartment; and your early exit must be done in a reasonable amount of time—no lingering.

6. Freedom from retaliation

Tenants who do pursue repairs and other fixes have a right not to suffer retaliation. To enforce this, state law puts a time constraint on landlords. They cannot raise the rent or terminate or otherwise alter a tenancy within six months of a tenant contacting the local health board, joining a tenants’ organization, or exercising any other rights.

If they do, a tenant can regard that as retaliation for taking action on repairs, etc.—and then it’s up to the landlord to prove otherwise or back off.

7. Finding out about rent increases

Landlords must provide written notices of any rent increase ahead of a lease ending—and tenants must have time to consider and to sign onto any increase. The rent cannot go up during a lease either.

Incidentally, tenants do not have a right to a lease renewal or other extension. And landlords can raise the rent for pretty much any reason (except vengeance—see above) at the end of a lease. There is no rent control in Massachusetts (for now).

8. No increases on security deposits

The security deposit for an apartment can’t go up during a lease; and it can only ever be less than or equal to the first month’s rent under the lease. So, if your landlord does raise the rent at the end of a lease, they’ll usually ask for the difference between the last security deposit (under the old terms) and the new one (which will be calculated under the amount of the first month’s rent under the new lease).

And, also, the only upfront payments a landlord may request at the start of a lease are the first and last months’ rent, a security deposit, and costs associated with the purchase and installation of new locks and keys.

9. Landlord entry

A landlord or an agent of the landlord can enter an apartment for any number of reasons under state law: to show the place to a potential tenant; to make repairs; to inspect it; to enforce a court order; and more. Landlords are expected to be reasonable in all such instances. That includes letting you know in advance if possible.

10. Yes, you can sue your landlord

Massachusetts law requires security deposits to be returned to tenants within 30 days of a lease ending. That includes interest on the deposit. Landlords also have to provide an itemized rundown of what they spent the deposit on, if they spent it at all. If tenants return an apartment in good working order, there’s usually no landlord expenditures.

If worse comes to worse, tenants can sue landlords for up to $7,000 in small claims court for the return of their security deposit.

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