My first solo case was representing a tenant who didn’t have a front door on her house. I had only been licensed to practice law for a few months and I was working at the Litzler Law Offices assisting my father, James, on several of his cases. We received a call from a legal aid organization asking if anyone in our office would be willing to represent the tenant pro bono. I was eager to represent her. Most landlords are good and honest people who do what is right by their tenants. But as I got out of my car and walked up to the home to meet with my new client, I realized why the Texas Property Code contains so many laws protecting the rights of tenants. Without a door on the front of the house the woman couldn’t keep out the cold and just as importantly she couldn’t protect herself or her belongings from intruders. Here are a few reminders about the rights on tenants in Texas.
- Tenants should read the lease carefully and should not be afraid to negotiate a modification to the terms. Landlords must provide tenants a copy of the lease within three days after it is signed. Tenants should keep the copy somewhere it can easily reviewed, when necessary.
- Victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, and other similar acts may terminate the lease without penalty. (In some circumstances the tenant may be required to show a valid protection order before terminating the lease)
- A landlord can only charge a fee for late rent payments if the fee was agreed to in the lease. Landlords are required to give a one day grace period after the rent payment due date. Tenants can negotiate a longer grace period. The property code finically penalized Landlords who charge late fees in violation of the law.
- A landlord has an obligation to return a security deposit to a tenant not more than 30 days after the lease terminates and the tenant provides a forwarding address. If a landlord is keeping all or a portion of the tenant’s security deposit, the landlord must provide the tenant the balance of the security deposit, if any, and an itemized list of any deductions (if the tenant doesn’t owe rent). Tenants should provide (and document) the landlord a forwarding address where the landlord can send the security deposit and/or the itemized list of deductions. A landlord that fails to return a security deposit as required by law may be liable to the tenant for $100, three times the amount of the deposit that was wrongfully withheld and the tenant’s attorney’s fees.
- Most importantly: If a tenant believes his/her rights as a tenant have been infringed, the tenant should not hesitate to contact an attorney. Under the property code, the court can often award a tenant reduced rent, actual damages, additional amounts (often $100 or $500), AND attorney’s fees. In other words, if the tenant wins, the landlord is often required to pay for the tenant’s attorney.
*Disclaimer* If you plan to terminate your lease, withhold rent, repair and deduct, use your deposit for rent, sue your landlord, or take other serious action based on what you have read in the Property Code or this article, please consult an attorney or tenant association to ensure all the legal requirements have been met. This article does not cover all of the laws affecting the landlord/tenant relationship and is not intended to be applicable to every situation. The statutes affecting tenant rights change as do the judicial interpretations of the statutes. Although this article addresses some of a tenant’s legal rights, it is not a substitute for legal counsel which depends on the exact circumstances of each individual case.
John Litzler directs the Church Law division of Christian Unity Ministries in San Antonio. He is a graduate of the University of Texas and Baylor Law school. He is a member of the SSHS class of 2004.