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What Every Va. Renter Should Know

When it comes to picking a place to live, you prefer the quiet streets and open spaces in the Virginia suburbs. Before you sign a lease on an apartment or house in the Old Dominion state, you should be familiar with your rights and obligations as a renter there

  1. How can I learn more about Virginia rental law?
  2. If I pay an application fee but don't take the apartment, is it refundable?
  3. When is a lease required?
  4. What kinds of things should I look for when reading over the lease?
  5. When is a landlord permitted to raise the rent?
  6. When applying for an apartment, a landlord has access to financial information about me. How can that information be used?
  7. What should I know about security deposits?
  8. When is a landlord entitled to make deductions from my security deposit?
  9. Does my deposit earn interest?
  10. How important is the 'move-in inspection'?
  11. Can I make repairs to the apartment by myself?
  12. Does Virginia rental law cover locks?
  13. What if I'm late with the rent, or my rent check bounces?
  14. As a last resort in a major dispute, can I withhold my rent?
  15. Can I, as a tenant, be cited for violating housing codes?
  16. Can my landlord create rules in the building - particularly after I move in?
  17. Can my landlord enter my apartment -- or let others in -- when I'm not there?
  18. What else is in the 'Virginia Landlord/Tenant Handbook'?
  19. Whom should I call if I still have a problem?
  20. Are there any local consumer offices?
  21. Related Web sites
1. How can I learn more about Virginia rental law?

Most apartments are covered by rental law in the Commonwealth, which is governed by the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (VRLTA), sections 55-248.2 to 55-248.40 of Virginia state law. The state's Department of Housing in Richmond, Va., publishes the "Virginia Landlord/Tenant Handbook" to help you understand the codes. You can get a copy of the book by calling the Virginia Fair Housing Office at 804-367-8530.

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

When looking for an apartment or house rental, you may have to put down an application fee or deposit to be considered. The law says that a landlord can retain up to $20 dollars of that fee. If you decide not to take the apartment, or your application is rejected, the landlord must refund anything above that $20 within 20 days -- after subtracting any costs incurred in processing your application. If the landlord turns you down and you paid the fee by cash, certified check, cashier's check or money order, the landlord must return the fee within 10 days. In either case, the landlord is required to give you an itemized list of any application expenses for which he has subtracted money.

If you pay an application fee and are set to take an apartment but change your mind at the last minute, the landlord can keep a part of the application fee to cover any damages that he can show were suffered by waiting for you to take the apartment. "Be sure you want it before you put down any money," says Marion Horsley, spokeswoman for the Office of Consumer Affairs at Virginia's Division of Consumer Protection.

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3. When is a lease required?

The landlord has one month from the start of the lease to get you a copy of the written agreement -- signed by both the landlord and you. The rental agreement may take effect without a written lease. For example, a landlord may receive a rent payment before the tenant receives a copy of the signed agreement.

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4. What kinds of things should I look for when reading over the lease?

The VRLTA forbids landlords from adding provisions to rental agreements that ask the tenant to waive his rights under the rental law. Asking tenants to sign rental agreements that require the tenant to pay the landlord's attorney fees should litigation arise is also barred, as is asking the tenant to waive the landlord's liabilities under the law.

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

There is no rent control in Virginia, so a landlord is not legally limited in how much rent can be raised on an apartment or house. However, rent may be raised only after a rental agreement expires and then is renewed. In this case, the resident must be given written notice before an increase.

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6. When applying for an apartment, a landlord has access to financial information about me. How can that information be used?

The only financial information that landlords are allowed to give out about you, either before or during your tenancy, is the amount of your rent and your payment record, unless you agree in writing. This rule does not apply, however, if you fall behind in your rent.

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7.What should I know about security deposits?

The deposit you put down when you first move into an apartment is subject to some very specific laws. A security deposit cannot be larger than two months' rent. When you move out, your landlord must return the deposit to you within 45 days of the end of your tenancy. The landlord also must provide a written, itemized list of the interest accrued and any charges or deductions taken from it.

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8. When is a landlord entitled to make deductions from my security deposit?

Your landlord is not allowed to make deductions from the security deposit for anything other than collecting back rent or fees that you may owe, repairing damages to the apartment beyond normal wear and tear, or covering damages for any breach of your obligations under either the VRLTA or your rental agreement.

When you decide to move out of an apartment, you have the right to be present when the landlord makes his inspection of the apartment, but you must let him know in writing. The landlord is obligated to inspect the apartment during normal business hours, must do it within 72 hours of the end of your tenancy, and must notify you when it is to happen.

If, during your tenancy or after you move out, your landlord decides to make deductions from the deposit, he must notify you in writing within 30 days of that decision and give you an itemized list detailing why such action is being taken.

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9. Does my deposit earn interest?

Security deposits held for more than 13 months earn interest. For all rental agreements signed or renewed after January 1, 1995, interest accrues in six month periods at a rate equal to the Federal Reserve Board's discount rate as of January 1 of each year. Leases signed before 1995 are subject to older interest laws.

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10. How important is the 'move-in inspection'?

Unless you come to some other agreement, a landlord has five days after a tenant arrives to deliver a written report itemizing any property damages. A tenant then has five days to object to the report or request that additions be made. A tenant also may participate in a joint inspection that ends in signing an agreement, or may submit a report that the landlord has five days to reject.

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11. Can I make repairs to the apartment by myself?

The VRLTA allows for you and your landlord to agree that you take care of some repairs and cleaning and maintenance of facilities, so long as it's a good faith agreement and not intended to skirt the landlord's legal obligations. You and your landlord can also agree that you prepare the move-in inspection report, or that you do it together.

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12. Does Virginia rental law cover locks?

The VRLTA allows local town and county governments to pass laws requiring landlords to provide dead-bolt locks and other kinds of door and window locks, so long as the locks meet current building code and the building has five or more rental units.

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13. What if I'm late with the rent, or my rent check bounces?

The date, place and method by which you pay your rent will probably be detailed in your lease. If you don't pay your rent, are habitually late with your rent, or are withholding it for some reason, the VRLTA gives the landlord the right to issue a "Five-Day Pay or Quit" notice, which gives you the option of paying up within five days or moving out. At the same time, the landlord can begin eviction proceedings against you.

If your rent check bounces, the law allows the landlord to give you written notice that you have five days to pay up with cash, a cashier's check or a certified check. If you don't, eviction proceedings can be started against you.

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14. As a last resort in a major dispute, can I withhold my rent?

In major disputes, you can withhold your rent as a means of forcing action from a landlord, but it's not something you can do on your own. A tenant must go to court to establish a rent escrow account.

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15. Can I, as a tenant, be cited for violating housing codes?

The VRLTA regulates obligations for tenants as well as landlords. A tenant is required to obey all current building and safety codes, keep the apartment clean and safe, dispose of trash properly, and not disturb the peace.

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16. Can my landlord create rules in the building -- particularly after I move in?

A landlord is legally allowed to establish rules and regulations for the property. The rules must be explicitly clear, must be applied to all tenants in the same fair manner, and cannot be meant to circumvent the landlord's legal obligations. In addition, a tenant, must be made aware of the rules upon arrival, or as soon as they are created. Any landlord rule that significantly changes something listed in a rental agreement is not enforceable unless a tenant agrees in writing.

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17. Can my landlord enter my apartment -- or let others in -- when I'm not there?

The law says a landlord who plans to enter an apartment to inspect the premises, make agreed-upon repairs or show the apartment to prospective tenants or buyers, must give reasonable notice before entering and do it at reasonable times. A landlord may enter an apartment without warning if it is impractical to notify the tenant or if it's an emergency. Tenants need to notify a landlord if they plan to be gone for a while, to arrange for routine maintenance and apartment upkeep. Tenants can be liable for damage to the property if they don't give such warning.

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18. What else is in the "Virginia Landlord/Tenant Handbook"?

The state's "Virginia Landlord/Tenant Handbook" also contains information detailing the eviction process, the remedy process if you file a complaint and the actual text of the VRLTA. It also has names and phone numbers of numerous local consumer protection departments, legal referrals, and legal aid societies.

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19. Whom should I call if I still have a problem?

If you have specific questions about the law or need advice about a dispute, you can call the Virginia Division of Consumer Protection at (804) 786-2042, or 1-800-552-9963.

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20. Are there any local consumer offices?

There are also local consumer protection offices for these jurisdictions:
  • Arlington County Office of Citizen and Consumer Affairs: (703) 358-3260.
  • Fairfax County Department of Consumer Affairs: (703) 222-8435.
  • Alexandria Office of Consumer Affairs: (703) 838-4350 or -4800.

In addition, several local city and county governments in the area have their own housing enforcement and/or information agencies:
  • The City of Alexandria Office of Landlord Tenants Relations, (703) 838-4545, publishes the "Alexandria Guide to Landlord-Tenant Laws and Policies."
  • The City of Falls Church Housing and Human Services Division can be reached at (703) 248-5005.
  • Arlington County's Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development publishes a "Tenant Landlord Handbook" and can be reached at (703) 228-3760.
  • Fairfax County's Landlord Tenant Commission, part of the Department of Consumer Affairs, can be reached at (703) 222-8435.

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21. Related Web sites

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