Landlord-Tenant Law Part 2: Rights and Responsibilities of Tenants

In a college town like La Crosse, Wis., it’s no surprise that one of every two residents lives in a rental property. If you’re one of those renters or landlords—or you’re getting ready to help your own son or daughter find a place to rent this fall—it’s important to understand your basic rights and responsibilities.

In part 1 of this two-part series, we looked at what landlords need to know. Now in part 2, we look at what tenants need to know. Keep in mind that while the specifics will vary with individual leases, Wisconsin requires these basics.

For Tenants

• You cannot be unlawfully discriminated against on the basis of race, color, national origin, ancestry, age, religion, sex, familial status, marital status, handicap, sexual orientation, lawful source of income or status as a victim of domestic violence/sexual abuse/stalking.

• Your landlord cannot enter the property without notice, except in an emergency.

• You have the right to property that is not dangerous or lacking basic needs. That means you are entitled to heat in the winter, intact windows, deadbolt locks on doors, smoke alarms and other basics to keep you safe on the property.

• You have the right to know if there’s lead paint on the property.

• You can (and should) request a check-in/check-out sheet before moving in. That sheet can help pinpoint problems with the property and determine whether you can expect the landlord to fix it. If it’s a fundamental feature, you may request it be fixed. If it’s cosmetic, the landlord may choose whether to repair it, and you may likewise choose not to rent. In any event, going through the checklist before moving in will ensure the landlord can’t hold you responsible for broken fixtures or problems that existed before you moved in.

• Once you’ve rented, if you encounter problems and an unresponsive landlord, you have the right to complain to the city inspection department without retaliation by the landlord. Inspectors can order landlords to fix problems.

• If a problem exists that requires you to leave the property, you may be entitled to rent abatement, which is essentially a prorated return on the rent.

• If you pay a security deposit, you have the right to a 21-day notice of the landlord’s intention to charge against it. You may not be charged for normal wear and tear, including routine maintenance and cleaning.

• When tenancy ends, you have the right to a full refund of your security deposit balance within 21 days of vacating.

Generally speaking, reputable landlords will use written leases to spell out rules and general principles that will apply during the term of the lease. Leases work best when used in conjunction with a lead paint disclosure form, if appropriate, check-in/out lists and a security deposit sheet. Written records tend to be far more accurate than memory and are generally deemed more reliable by courts. Given the ease of use of digital cameras, often landlords and tenants both will take photos of the property before and after the tenancy.

Landlord-tenant law can be very complex. Should you, as a tenant or landlord, encounter a dispute regarding a rental property or lease, your best bet is to consult a real estate attorney experienced in rental property issues.

For both tenants and landlords, the city of La Crosse offers a Residential Rental Inspection Pamphlet that outlines rights and responsibilities for both parties. It can also provide basic guidelines for renting elsewhere in Wisconsin.

For more information on landlord-tenant law in Wisconsin, contact Joe Veenstra at 608-784-5678.


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