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Know your rights when you rent in Boston

Last updated: 12/13/17

Know your rights when you rent in Boston

Property owners and tenants, including students who rent in Boston, have to follow certain rental rules in the City.

Anyone who rents out their property must register with the City each year. The City inspects rental housing at least once every five years, but there are some exceptions. Learn more about the rules of rental registrations and inspections.

Still have questions? Contact:
Neighborhood Development
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Boston, MA 02108-2501
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Security deposits and other fees

What you can be charged

Property owners can ask for deposits and fees before a tenant moves in. By law, they can charge you:

  • the first month’s rent
  • the last month’s rent
  • a security deposit equal to one month’s rent
  • a fee to buy and install new locks
What you can't be charged

Property owners and brokers CANNOT charge the following:

  • a fee to hold the apartment
  • an application fee
  • a credit check fee, or
  • a finder’s fee for renting their own apartment, unless the property owner is a Realtor.
Broker fees

Brokers can charge fees on top of property owner fees. Brokers have to give you a written notice that states how much the fee will cost. It also must tell you how you need to pay the fee, and if the fee usually only applies if you enter into a rental agreement.

You both have to sign off on the notice, and the broker has to keep it on file for three years.

SECURITY DEPOSITS

Property owners must keep your security deposit in its own separate, interest-bearing account in a Massachusetts bank. They also have to give you receipts showing the amount of the deposit, contact information for you and the property owner, and a description of your apartment. The same receipt of in a second one given to you within 30 days must include the name of the bank in MA where it is being held, and the account number.

The property owner who collects a security deposit must give you a “statement of present condition” notice within 30 days. This is a list of any defects or damage already in the apartment. If you disagree with it, you need to dispute the notice in writing within 15 days of receiving it.

You will be entitled to interest only if your tenancy lasts for a year or more.

LOSING YOUR SECURITY DEPOSIT

A property owner can only keep your security deposit for three reasons:

  • to cover unpaid rent
  • to repair damage that you caused (aside from normal wear and tear), or
  • to pay your percentage of a property tax increase. This would only happen if there was a clause in your lease about it.

You can sue the property owner if they don't return your security deposit within 30 days of the lease ending, or if you disagree with any deductions.

LAST MONTH'S RENT

The property owner has to give you a receipt for your last month's rent. The receipt must show:

  • how much you paid and the date you paid
  • how the property owner will use your last month's rent
  • who took the payment
  • a description of your apartment
  • how much interest will be paid each year on the amount, and
  • a forwarding address where the property owner can send the interest.

The property owner has to pay interest on your last month's rent even if you move out before the year is up. The interest each year is either 5 percent or the amount of interest the bank pays, whichever is lower. If you stay in the apartment for more than one year, you can get the interest when you move out, or ask the property owner to apply it to your next rent payment.

If your rent is increased, the property owner may require you to pay the difference if he or she is holding your security deposit and/or last month’s rent.

Leases vs. tenancies-at-will

If a property owner offers you a lease, read it carefully before signing it. Leases, which typically run for one year, are binding legal contracts.

Tenancy-at-will agreement

A tenancy-at-will agreement, which can be written or verbal, gives you the opportunity to move out after giving the property owner a proper 30-day written notice. It also allows the property owner to ask you to leave or increase your rent with a proper 30-day written notice.

Lease

A lease offers you more security but a tenancy-at-will is more flexible.  Read any agreement completely before signing it and keep a copy for your records.

Dealing with an eviction?

If a property owner wants to evict you, they must end your tenancy with the proper written notice, and file a summary process action in court. Ultimately, only a judge can evict you.

How to respond to an eviction

Make sure you respond to any court documents you receive. If you do not show up to defend yourself in court, you will most likely lose by default. If you live in a building with four or more units and it’s being converted to condominiums, you have extra protections against eviction under a Boston Ordinance.

If you have any more questions, or need help, please contact the Office of Housing Stability.

Condo conversions

A Boston Ordinance gives some protections to tenants in rental buildings in Boston with four or more units that are being converted to condominiums. Some buildings are exempt, like federal buildings and college dorms. Property owners may convert their buildings into condos, but they must follow certain eviction procedures:

  • The property owner must give elderly, disabled, and low- or moderate-income tenants a notice at least five years before the conversion. They also need to help them find another apartment. Property owners can give all other tenants one-year notices.
  • The property owner needs to give tenants a chance to buy their unit before they sell it to anyone else. The property owner also needs to offer the same or better terms for the unit.
  • Property owners cannot raise the rent more than 10 percent during the notice period. They also can’t evict a tenant without good reason during the notice period.
  • Tenants who leave voluntarily during the notice period can get relocation benefits from the property owner. Elderly, disabled, and low- or moderate-income tenants get $10,000 for each household. All other tenants get $6,000 for each household.

Rights after a fire

By law, the property owner’s insurance has to cover up to $750 in costs per household for costs or damages to tenants affected by a fire. The property owner generally isn't responsible for damage to your belongings, so consider getting Renters Insurance. The property owner cannot charge you rent while your apartment is unlivable.

Neighborhood Services works with the Red Cross to help people displaced by a fire. The Red Cross will often give hotel vouchers that are good for a few nights. If you have any more questions, or need help, please contact the Office of Housing Stability.

Other common issues

WITHHOLDING RENT

There are a few situations where you may consider withholding your rent payment. This includes if the property owner refuses to make repairs AND:

  • there are code violations
  • the property owner knew about, or should have known about, the problem
  • you didn’t cause the damage
  • they can make the repairs while you’re still living there, or
  • the problem is a hazard to your health or safety.
IF THE PROPERTY OWNER SELLS YOUR BUILDING

The property owner has to give your deposits to the new owner. If they do not, you can sue for up to three times of the amount of the deposits.

The new property owner is still responsible for your deposits even if they didn't get them from the previous owner. A building may be exempt from these rules if it is being foreclosed.

Tips for tenants

NOISE

Be considerate of your neighbors. Having loud parties late at night, or cranking up the music may lead to complaints, and eventually to eviction.

CONDITION OF APARTMENT

Before entering into a rental agreement, check out the condition of the apartment. If you cannot, have a friend do it for you and inform the property owner of any noted conditions. You do not want to be charged for damage that was already there before you moved in!

CODE VIOLATIONS

You are entitled to an apartment that is in compliance with local and State Sanitary and Building Codes. Violations should be reported to your property owner, preferably in writing. If they do not make the necessary repairs, call Inspectional Services at 617-635-5322.

RENTERS INSURANCE

You probably invested more in personal property than you realize. Computers, iPods, TVs, clothing, jewelry, cell phones, and furniture would be expensive to replace after a fire or theft. Renters insurance is a good idea, and can be affordable.

ROOMMATES

If you have a lease, you will likely be responsible for paying the entire rent if a roommate moves out, so try to find reliable roommates.

SCAMS

Whether you are looking for an apartment online or in person, always get confirmation that you are dealing with the property owner or a legal representative. You can check the Suffolk County Registry of Deeds site to see who the owner is. You can check if a broker has a valid license on the State broker registry site.

Anyone can make a website and use fake photos. Watch out for apartments listed at below-rental market rates and short-term furnished apartments. If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. You can check average rental rates on websites like rentbits.com.

You should walk right away from an offer if the property owner:

  • refuses to speak to you on the phone
  • asks for your social security number or other personal information
  • says they are out of the country
  • asks you to pay a deposit before you see the apartment, or
  • asks you to wire money. Also avoid using PayPal's "My Cash." It does not protect you from scams.

If you think you have been scammed, file a complaint with the Massachusetts Attorney General. You can also visit the Federal Trade Commission website for more information on scams.

More resources

Office of Housing Stability

The Office of Housing Stability can help property owners and tenants with housing issues. If you have questions, contact them at 617-635-4200, or email rentalhousing@boston.gov.

INSPECTIONAL SERVICES

Housing Inspectors make sure apartments in the City are up to state and federal sanitary codes. If you have a problem with your apartment and the property owner will not fix it, call Inspectional Services at 617-635-5300.