These materials were prepared by the Graduate Student Legal Aid Office at the University of Maryland, College Park. These materials provide very basic information that may be of interest to our student population.
These materials do not constitute and are not a substitute for legal advice. Students with specific questions, problems, disputes, or cases should consult with our office or another legal service provider of their choice. Students should not rely or act on the information contained in these materials without first consulting with our Office or another legal service provider.
These materials focus on rentals in Prince George’s County. Laws may vary from county to county. Students living in other counties can contact their county landlord-tenant office or the Graduate Student Legal Aid Office for further information.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS – LANDLORD/TENANT (Last Update 2/12)
What is a Lease?
A lease is a legally binding contract. A lease cannot be unilaterally changed or terminated by either the landlord or tenant. While leases are generally considered private agreements, state and local laws control some important aspects of the landlord-tenant relationship.
Are verbal leases binding?
Verbal leases of a year or less are legally binding in some but not all circumstances. Read more about this topic at peoples-law.org/categories/4482-2.
How important is it for me to read the entire lease before I sign it?
VERY! While the landlord may not be willing to negotiate any changes, it is extremely important that tenants know the terms and conditions of the lease. Lack of knowledge often translates into additional financial obligations to the landlord. For an example of how serious this can be, see the discussion of automatic renewal clauses below.
Are there special rules that allow students who are graduating to break their leases early?
Students who are graduating do not have any special rights to break their leases early, although they may have other options such as subleasing.
Are there special rules allowing tenants with medical problems to break their leases early?
Maryland law allows tenants with serious medical disabilities to terminate their leases early where a doctor certifies that the tenant is no longer able to live in the rental premises. The tenant must notify the landlord of the need to move and must provide the doctor’s certification. The landlord may continue to hold the tenant responsible for rent for a maximum of two months, regardless of the amount of time left on the lease. The law does not apply where the lease already contains an early termination clause that allows tenants to give 30 days notice of early termination and to pay the equivalent of two months rent as an early termination fee. Before deciding whether you are eligible to break your lease for medical disability — and whether doing so is the best option for you — you should seek further information from our office or another legal service provider of your choice.
Do victims of domestic violence or sexual assault have any special rights to either terminate a lease or to have the landlord force the abuser to leave?
Maryland has several statutes that address this question. Victims who have obtained court orders related to domestic violence or sexual abuse may have a right to require the landlord to evict the abuser, to change the locks, or to allow the victim to terminate the lease early. To terminate the lease early, the abused tenant must give the landlord 30 days written notice along with a copy of the court order. If you are the victim of domestic violence or sexual abuse/assault by someone you are living with, our office is available to discuss these laws with you and to help you determine your options.
I am an international student. I have been treated poorly by landlords who have refused to rent to me, have tried to terminate my lease early, and have taken other actions that seem like discrimination. What are my rights?
If you suspect you are being discriminated against as an international student, you may have a claim under state and/or federal fair housing laws. Among other things, these laws prohibit discrimination in rental housing on the grounds of race, color, gender, familial status or national origin. You may be able to file discrimination complaints that will be investigated by the appropriate local, state, or federal agency. You may have additional options as well. Your rights and remedies will depend on the particular circumstances of your case. For more information, please visit our office or another legal service provider of your choice.
Am I responsible for the full rent if my roommate does not pay his/her share?
The answer depends on the kind of lease you signed. If you and your roommate signed one lease together making you “jointly and severally” liable, then the landlord has the legal right to hold you responsible for the full amount of rent. If you pay the full rent or suffer other damages as a result of your roommate’s conduct, you would have to pursue a claim against the roommate directly. On the other hand, if the landlord allowed you and your roommate to sign separate, individual leases you will not be responsible for the roommate’s share. Most apartment complexes in Prince George’s county require all tenants to sign a single lease, while many individual landlords renting out rooms in group houses may allow for separate leases.
Can I sublease my apartment, house, or room if I want to leave before my lease is up?
Maryland does not have a specific state statute that addresses this question. Therefore, the answer depends on what your lease says and on the county you live in.
In Prince George’s county, landlords cannot prohibit subleasing and may not unreasonably deny a tenant’s request to sublease. This rule is contained in the county code. Reasonableness is not defined in the code and depends on the circumstances. Tenants should not rely on verbal agreements regarding subletting, but should get the landlord’s permission in writing.
If you live in a county that does not have a code provision regarding subleasing, then a landlord can include a “no subleasing” clause in the lease. If the landlord does not include a “no subleasing” clause, then it is generally presumed that the tenant has subleasing rights.
For more specific information relevant to your particular situation, please visit our office or another legal service provider of your choice.
Montgomery County does not have a similar code provision, the landlord may be able to include a “no subleasing” clause in the lease. If your lease prohibits subleasing or if your landlord refuses to consider a sublease, you should consider seeking legal advice.
My one-year lease states that I can terminate my tenancy early if I give 30 days notice and pay a termination fee equal to two months’ rent. Is this legal?
Early termination fees (sometimes called redecoration or reletting fees) are commonly used by large management companies and other landlords in Maryland. It is not illegal for a landlord to include this type of provision in a lease, but various factors may effect whether the landlord is entitled to fully enforce it. For example, you may choose to exercise your option to sublease instead or there may be other reasons that the landlord is not entitled to the full amount of the early termination clause. For a full evaluation of your case and discussion of your options, please consult with our office or another legal service provider of your choice.
What can I do if my landlord will not make necessary repairs?
Landlords must provide minimally safe housing and essential services such as heat and running water. You can report violations to your local housing inspection office. A list of these offices is contained in our Landlord-Tenant Resource Section below. You may also be eligible to deposit your monthly rent in escrow with the court until repairs are made. You may also have additional options depending on your particular circumstances. We encourage you to come talk to our staff or to another legal service provider of your choice early on if the landlord is not making needed repairs.
What is Rent Escrow?
Rent escrow is a court process permitting tenants to deposit their monthly rent with the court until the landlord makes necessary repairs or takes other action the court has ordered. Maryland has a specific rent escrow statute that details the process, and many counties — including Prince George’s — have similar laws.
Rent escrow is only available when the landlord has failed to address serious health and safety problems within a reasonable time. The tenant must be able to prove that the landlord had notice of the conditions and failed to correct them. It is ordinarily best to provide the landlord with written notice or to have a housing inspector issue a citation before you try to use the rent escrow statute. This avoids the possibility of conflicting testimony in court about whether or not the landlord had actual notice of the problem.
Tenants initiate rent escrow actions by filing a complaint with the court (affirmative rent escrow). In some cases, tenants may also be able to raise rent escrow as a defense if they have withheld their rent and are now being sued by the landlord for non-payment (defensive rent escrow).
Our office strongly urges students to come see us or another legal service provider before trying to use the rent escrow statute — and we especially caution students against withholding their rent before seeking more information.
How do I get my security deposit back when I move?
Maryland state law establishes rules governing return of security deposits. Local county codes have similar provisions. These laws are mandatory and the landlord cannot refuse to follow them.
In general, a landlord may keep a security deposit or a portion of it to cover unpaid rent or damages beyond wear and tear caused by the tenant. Landlords may not charge more than twice the monthly rental for a security deposit. Landlords who do not follow the rules set out in security deposit law may lose the right to keep the deposit, even if the tenant owes rent or caused damages. These rules include but may not be limited to honoring a tenant’s written request to be present at a move-out inspection; providing a written list of alleged damages within 45 days; and returning the deposit or portion owed, with interest required by law, within the 45 day period. Most apartment complexes and larger landlords must also include information about security deposit rights in the lease.
Tenants may sue a landlord who keeps all or part of a deposit without following the security deposit rules. Tenants can also sue where they dispute having caused the claimed damages, dispute the reasonableness of the charges, or deny owing rent or bills. If you read the security deposit law, you will notice that tenants are allowed to sue for up to three times the amount of the wrongfully withheld portion of the security deposit. Be aware, however, that judges do not usually grant such “punitive damages.” As a practical matter, many disputed security deposit cases can be resolved without having to go to court.
IMPORTANT: The above rules only apply where tenants have properly moved out at the end of their lease term. Tenants who break a lease or abandon the premises have more limited rights and must take special, affirmative steps to protect their right to return of their security deposit. For more information, please see Legal Aid or another legal service provider of your choice BEFORE you break your lease or move out.
Can my landlord charge a late fee is I do not pay my rent on time?
Generally, a landlord cannot charge a late fee unless the lease specifically has a late fee clause. Regardless of what the lease says, however, the amount and timing of late fees are controlled by state and local laws. The Prince George’s County Code stipulates that “The landlord shall be entitled to charge a late fee of not more than one percent (1%) of the total monthly rental payment per day for each day the tenant is late, commencing with the sixth (6th) day of the period for which rent is due and being paid, not to exceed a total of five percent (5%) of the total monthly rental payment. (The Prince George’s county late fee law can be found in the County Code, Section 13-158). State law is not quite as strict, but also has caps and time limitations. Other counties may have different rules and need to be checked separately.
Can my landlord sue me for unpaid rent without giving me prior notice?
Yes. There is no legal requirement that a landlord notify a tenant before bringing suit for unpaid rent. It is common for landlords to sue as soon as the rent is more than five days late. These suits usually ask for the unpaid rent, late fees, and attorney’s fees associated with the lawsuit. Remember: It is always preferable to pay your rent on time to avoid disputes with the landlord and other problems, including potential poor credit ratings.
If my landlord sues me and wins, will I have to pay attorney’s fees?
The answer depends on your lease. The large management companies and many smaller landlords include an “attorney’s fees” clause in their leases. These clauses typically state that the tenant must pay reasonable attorney’s fees if the landlord sues the tenant for unpaid rent or other breaches of the lease. The final decision about whether to award fees and the amount of fees is up to the judge who handles the case.
In the absence of this express agreement, a tenant generally will not be responsible for the landlord’s attorney’s fees. In addition, a tenant may have a defense to the landlord’s claim for attorney’s fees, even where the tenant agreed in the lease to pay such fees.
For more detailed information — and especially if your landlord is threatening to sue you, has already sued you, or is otherwise holding you responsible for attorney’s fees — please consult with our office or another legal service provider of your choice.
What is an automatic renewal clause and is it binding?
I signed a one year lease that ends this July. However, page 5 of the lease states that I must give 30 days notice before the end of the term or the lease will continue on a month-to-month basis. Aren’t these two clauses inconsistent?
Automatic renewal clauses (like the one on page 5 of your lease) are very common. They are often overlooked by tenants who may sign a lease without reading it in its entirety, or who may understandably be confused by the apparent inconsistency. Nevertheless, automatic renewal clauses are legal subject to the following rules:
- Automatic renewal clauses of a month or less are enforceable in Maryland. You must give the required notice and, until you do, the lease will remain in effect on a month-to-month basis.
- Automatic renewals of more than a month are also enforceable, as long as they are clearly set apart in the lease and have been initialed by the tenant.
What is a month to month tenancy?
Month-to-month tenancies are rentals that technically last for only one month. However, the tenancy automatically renews each month unless notice to quit is given by either the landlord or tenant.
The amount of advance notice required to terminate a month-to-month tenancy is often set forth in the lease. If it is not, the general rule in Maryland is that 30 days notice is required.
If the parties do not agree upon a specific amount of time that a lease or rental will last, the tenancy will be considered month-to-month. Month-to-month tenancies may be based on a written lease or on a verbal agreement to rent.
Many of the large management companies in Prince George’s County use leases that have an initial one year term and that automatically convert to month-to-month tenancies once the year is up.
What do I need to know about terminating a month-to-month tenancy?
In Prince George’s County month to month tenancies can generally be terminated upon thirty days written notice by either the landlord or tenant, unless the parties have agreed upon different terms. By law, the amount of notice required to terminate the lease must be the same for both the landlord and tenant. If it is not, you may want to seek legal advice to make sure the landlord is not violating state or local notice laws.
My landlord says I did not give enough notice, but I think I did. Who is right?
It is very important that the notice given by either the landlord or tenant correspond to the date on which rent is due. For example, assume a tenant’s rent is due on the 1st of each month. The lease requires the tenant to give 30 days notice to quit. The tenant intends to move at the end of December. The tenant’s written notice should be given no later than the last day of November to avoid any dispute as to whether the 30 day rule was met. These same rules apply when the landlord is giving notice to quit. There may be some exceptions, but these must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
I want to sign a year long lease but my landlord will only offer me a month-to-month lease. Is this legal?
Generally, landlords are not required to offer year long leases. There are exceptions depending on the type of rental and the county in which the property is located; for example, in Montgomery county landlords must offer single family homes for a rental period of two years (although the parties may agree to a shorter period).
Emergencies: Landlords are required to have an emergency phone number. If the emergency involves a utility, call the company directly as well. You can also call your local house enforcement office. A list of these offices is found below.
Phone Information Lines:
Maryland Consumer Protection Hotline, 888-743-0023 or 410-528-8662
BNI Tenant Information, 1-800-487-6007
Maryland District Court “Talk to a Lawyer” (see link on our home page)
Recommended Reading about Landlord-Tenant Law:
People’s Law of Maryland: peoples-law.org/categories/4482-2
BNI, Inc.: http://www.bni-maryland.org
Office of the Attorney General, Consumer Protection Division:
Maryland Legal Aid Bureau: mdlab.org ; 301-927-6800
District Court of Maryland Website – Landlord-Tenant Section: http://www.courts.state.md.us/legalhelp/housing.html
Housing Code Enforcement Offices
If you are located in an incorporated town, call your local housing inspection office. Otherwise, call the main county inspection office
If you live in Prince George’s County:
Prince Georges County Property Standards Group: (301) 883-6100
Prince George’s County Housing Development Division: (301) 883-5570
City of College Park Code Enforcement – Housing Inspector: (301) 864-8877
City of Hyattsville Code Compliance: (301) 985-5014
City of Greenbelt Code Enforcement: (301) 345-5417
Town of Berwyn Heights Code Enforcement – Code Enforcement Officer: (301) 474-5000
If you live in Montgomery County:
Montgomery County Housing Code Enforcement: (240) 777-3785
City of Rockville Code Enforcement:
- Housing Inspectors: Oscar Valle, (240) 314-8335; Chuck Aubertin, (240) 314-8334
City of Takoma Park Code Enforcement: (301) 891-7100
Disclaimer: The information on this site provides general information only. This information does not constitute legal advice and does not take the place of consulting with an attorney. We do not warrant that the materials on this website are completely accurate, error-free or comprehensive.
This website contains links to other resources on the Internet. We do not sponsor and are not otherwise associated with the creators of those other sites, do not warrant their accuracy, and are not responsible for their content or validity.
Recommendations and opinions are those of the Graduate Student Legal Aid Office and not of the University of Maryland or any of its components.