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What Every Md. Renter Should Know

You've decided to go northeast of the District. Perhaps it's the suburban atmosphere, the New England sensibilities -- or maybe you just want to be closer to the shore. Either way, you're moving to a rental in the Old Line State, and you should know the laws that are on your side.

  1. How can I learn about Maryland rental laws?
  2. Is there any basic information I need to know about renting?
  3. Is an oral lease OK, or should I get it in writing?
  4. What should I look out for when reading over my lease?
  5. When is a landlord permitted to raise the rent?
  6. If I consider an apartment, but don't take it, is the application fee refundable?
  7. What's standard for security deposits?
  8. Does my security deposit earn interest?
  9. What happens to my security deposit when I move out?
  10. Can I request an official inspection of the apartment when I move in?
  11. What happens if I break my lease?
  12. When I plan to move out, how soon do I need to notify my landlord?
  13. What should I do with documents and letters I have from my landlord?
  14. What is rent escrow and what triggers it?
  15. Can I set up a rent escrow account myself in a time of dispute, or can I just withhold my rent?
  16. Are there other local laws I need to know about?
  17. Whom can I consult about a landlord/tenant issue?
  18. How do I contact the Consumer Protection office?
  19. In addition to hearing my complaints and giving me the booklet, what else does the Consumer Protection office do?
  20. Related Web sites
1. How can I learn about Maryland rental laws?

The Consumer Protection Division of the Maryland Attorney General's Office publishes a free consumer guide to state rental laws: "Landlords and Tenants: Tips on Avoiding Disputes." To request a free copy of the guide, you may call the Consumer Protection Division at (410) 576-6500, or address your request to: Publication, Consumer Protection, 200 St. Paul Place, 16th Floor, Baltimore, Md. 21202. The guide is also available on the Divisions's web site, www.oag.state.md.us/publications.htm.

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2. Any basic information I need to know about renting?

Maryland Assistant Attorney General Becky Bowman offers this basic advice: "The more homework you can do before you make a decision to rent, the better. You should see the apartment you're going to live in and talk to other people in the complex. Find out what their experiences are with things like repairs and noise. Don't feel pressured: the more checking you do beforehand, the better off you'll be."

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3. Is an oral lease OK, or should I get it in writing?

If the landlord rents at least 5 dwelling units in the state, the lease must be written. If no written lease is given, the lease term is presumed to be 1 year, but the tenant can terminate the tenancy at any time during that year with one month's written notice. By law, the lease must spell out both yours and the landlord's responsibilities regarding heat, utilities, and repairs if the until is one of at least four in a property. Prior to signing the lease, your landlord must provide a copy of its written lease for you to review if you ask.

Though oral leases are common and in no way diminish your rights as a tenant, "they make it hard to prove what the agreement was," cautions Bowman. Like any other consumer transaction, Bowman recommends that "if there are any aspects of the transaction that are important to you, you want to get those in writing."

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4.What should I look out for when reading over my lease?

A lease may not include terms that ask you, as a tenant, to waive or diminish your rights under the law, nor may it include a late rent penalty that exceeds 5 percent of your rent (or $3.00 a week if you're renting week-to-week). In addition, a lease cannot terminate your tenancy without at least 30 days' notice.

While the law provides for these basic rights, you are allowed to negotiate your own additional terms in a lease, or the modification of other current terms, beyond those covered by the law.

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5. When is a landlord permitted to raise the rent?

There is no rent control in Maryland, so a landlord is not legally limited in how much rent can be charged on an apartment or house. The landlord, however, cannot raise a tenant's rent in the middle of the lease term (even if the agreement will be renewed), and he must give 30 days' notice of his intent. When a lease agreement is set to expire, the tenant and landlord can negotiate the new rent when discussing renewal of the lease.

Bowman cautions residents to know whether their rental agreement includes an automatic renewal clause. Such clauses require residents to give landlords specific notice if they do not plan to renew the lease. If the required notice is not given, the agreement is automatically renewed under the same terms as the original lease.

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6. If I consider an apartment, but don't take it, is the application fee refundable?

A landlord may charge an application fee to cover its cost in handling your application (e.g. the cost of checking on your credit history with a credit reporting bureau). However, if the application fee is greater than $25, the amount in excess of $25 must be returned to you within 15 days of the day you move in, decide not to move in, or are turned down by the landlord, unless the landlord can document that it's actual cost is greater than $25. If the landlord keeps more than $25, the landlord must provide you with an itemized list of the costs it actually incurred.

Some words of advice from Bowman: "It's best not to pay any money until you know for sure that's the apartment you want to rent. And if you're told that your entire application fee will be returned to you if you decide not to rent, make sure you get that in writing."

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7. What's standard for security deposits?

By law, your security deposit cannot be more than the equivalent of two months' rent or $50, whichever is more. You must be given a receipt for the deposit (it can be included in the lease), and your landlord can be fined for not providing one. You should also be informed, in writing, of your right to be present at the inspection of the apartment when the time comes for you to move out.

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8. Does my security deposit earn interest?

Your deposit will earn interest in escrow at 4 percent.

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9. What happens to my security deposit when I move out?

After the day your tenancy ends, your landlord has 45 days to return your deposit (plus interest), minus any costs incurred to repair damages. If your landlord decides to keep some of the money to cover expenses, he has 30 days to send you -- by mail, to your last known address -- an itemized list of the damages he repaired and what it cost to repair them. If he doesn't do this, you can demand your entire deposit back.

When you move out, it's important to remember the need to have a walk-through inspection of the apartment with both you and your landlord present. Your landlord must tell you, by certified mail, of the time and date of the inspection.

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10. Can I request an official inspection of the apartment when I move in?

Maryland law permits you, within 15 days of moving in, to request a list of all existing problems in the apartment or home and your lease should spell this out explicitly. If you make the request within the proscribed 15 days and your landlord won't comply, he can be fined for up to three times the amount of your security deposit.

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11. What happens if I break my lease?

Maybe you got transferred. Maybe you got married. Whatever the circumstances, if you move out of an apartment in the middle of a lease, your security deposit cannot be automatically retained as penalty. The landlord must make a good faith effort to re-rent your apartment (or other apartments in the building in the order they've been vacated). The landlord is allowed to keep only enough money from the deposit to cover any damages and any expenses incurred if the unit remains vacant while he's making that good faith effort to fill it.

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12. When I plan to move out, how soon do I need to notify my landlord?

If you plan to move out of your apartment when your lease expires, you must let your landlord know of your decision not to renew by certified mail no less than 15 days before you move. You must let him know the date you intend to move out and your new address. This process should have been made clear by your landlord.

If you've been evicted, however, or you plan to break your lease before it expires, you must send your landlord -- by first class mail -- your written intent to move and a request for your security deposit within 45 days of your leaving for being evicted. You must also ask for the itemized list of damages, if any, and the costs to repair them. Once you do that, the landlord has 30 days to get you the list and 45 days to return your deposit.

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13. What should I do with documents and letters I have from my landlord?

The Consumer Protection office strongly suggests you keep copies of all communications, letters and documents pertaining to you and your landlord. They could be important.

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14. What is rent escrow and what triggers it?

It's a dramatic way to get a landlord's attention in a time of dispute: instead of paying your rent to your landlord, you can request that the district court set up a rent escrow account into which you'll deposit the rent instead of paying it to the landlord. Rent escrow is only available if your landlord fails to make repairs or improvements to serious and dangerous deficiencies in your home. In addition to serious health or fire hazards, problems worthy of rent escrow can also include:

  • Lack of heat, light or utilities
  • Lack of proper sewage disposal
  • Rodents
  • Lead paint
  • Structural defects

A rent escrow will not be created to force landlords to make what are essentially cosmetic repairs.

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15. Can I set up a rent escrow account myself in a time of dispute, or can I just withhold my rent?

Rent escrow is not something you can do by yourself. Only the courts, after hearing your complaints can set up a rent escrow account, and only after you or local housing authorities have notified the landlord of his violations. You don't need to hire a lawyer when you go to rent escrow court, counsels Bowman, but "dealing with the court system may be more intimidating to some people than others."

It is possible for you to simply withhold your rent to force action by a landlord if you think your apartment is unlivable, but you must notify the landlord by certified mail. And, counsels Bowman, "withholding your rent can get you in a worse situation than you're already in," because your landlord can try to evict you. If you prevail in court, a rent escrow account will be set up anyway.

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16. Are there other local laws I need to know about?

While some local counties and cities might already have their own housing laws, a 1986 Maryland law requires all state counties to adopt a basic set of housing codes that meet state-wide minimums. If you have a problem with your landlord, you can check with your local government for help in resolving the matter.

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17. Whom can I consult about a landlord/tenant issue?

If you're living in Montgomery County, the county's Division of Consumer Affairs has its own landlord/tenant office and publishes its own landlord/tenant handbook. The office is located at 100 Maryland Road in Rockville, and can be reached at (301) 217-7373.

In addition, the Community Development Office in the City of Rockville has a staffer who can answer landlord/tenant questions, but for city residents only. The office can be reached at (301) 309-3240.

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18. How do I contact the Consumer Protection office?

The Maryland Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division complaint line is (410) 528-8662; the D.C.-area number is (310) 470-7534.

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19. In addition to hearing my complaints and giving me the booklet, what else does the Consumer Protection office do?

The Consumer Protection office mediates disputes between landlords and tenants. If the dispute cannot be resolved through mediation, you may need to pursue the dispute in district court. The Consumer Protection office can also give you the names of tenants' rights organizations and/or direct you to a local office of the Legal Aid Bureau, a non-profit legal service for people with limited incomes.



20. Related Web sites

The Consumer Protection Division
Office of the Maryland Attorney General
Free consumer guide to state rental laws

Montgomery County Division of Consumer Affairs

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