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Renter beware: Rights, lease details often confusing for apartment hunters

GRAND FORKS -- Legal jargon and long lease contracts can lead North Dakota renters to misunderstand their rights and protections while renting homes, but payments, property treatment and other specifics covered in leases are part of state law dictating what landlords and tenants can and cannot do.

"To evict a tenant, the landlord needs to have a good reason and give three days' notice. They can't just lock the door," said Terry Hanson, executive director of the Grand Forks Housing Authority. "But there might be some life-threatening issues that could be an exception to that."

According to North Dakota tenant laws, a landlord can evict a tenant "for nonpayment of rent, disturbing other tenants 'peaceful enjoyment,' illegal activity conducted on the property, unreported pets or too many occupants in violation of the lease."

If the tenant does not leave the residence within three days, a summons and complaint may be filed, effectively beginning the legal process.

Evicting a tenant is not the only way a landlord can legally remove a leaseholder. At the end of a lease, landlords can provide notice of termination.

Hanson said typically the notice of termination must be made 30 days prior to the end of the lease, and landlords don't need to provide any reason.

North Dakota tenant rights state that tenants may terminate a lease at any time during the leasing period, if they are "a victim of domestic violence or (someone) who fears imminent domestic violence."

To do so, the tenant must provide the landlord a written notice giving a specific date of termination as well as a protection order or an order prohibiting contact via hearing.

However, tenants must pay the full rent for the month of termination and an additional amount equal to one month's rent.

Lease details

As for rent payments, Hanson said landlords can opt to raise the cost of rent at the end of every leasing period without negotiation.

"The lease will tell you how and when landlords can increase the rent," Hanson said. "Once the lease is up and you enter a renewed leasing period, the landlord can raise the price with a 30-day notice."

Hanson said deposit checks don't have to just be security deposits, so if a tenant hands over a deposit and chooses to back out of the lease before moving into the property, getting the full amount back isn't a guarantee.

"Some of that deposit can go towards an application fee or be paid to the landlord for credit or landlord reference checks," Hanson said. "But, if it was for a damage deposit and the tenant has not resided in the unit at all, they should get it all back."

North Dakota tenant rights state the cost of a security deposit can be as much as one month's rent.

As far as negotiating clauses in the lease, Hanson said it's possible but up to the landlord to be open to negotiations.

"Typically this doesn't happen," Hanson said. "Oftentimes, the details drawn out in the lease are up to the landlords, and leasers are sometimes required to go down the list and initial each graph to signal they understand the specifications."

Hanson also advises that tenants keep a copy of their lease handy to avoid any future questions.

"If you have an issue, that lease is the first place you should go," Hanson said. "There is no point complaining or getting all shook up over an issue covered in the lease."

However, according to state law, landlords "may change the terms of the lease to take effect at the expiration of the month upon giving notice in writing at least 30 days before the expiration of the month."

In that case, renters can terminate the lease at the end of the month by giving a 25-day notice.

Fair housing

If a tenant believes her rights outlined in the lease have been violated, Hanson said it's a matter for the courts. However, if it is a fair housing or discrimination issue, leaseholders should contact the North Dakota Department of Labor.

Fair housing and discrimination laws are federal and state laws that prohibit discrimination against "race, color, national origin, religion, sex, family status, marital status, financial status, or handicap."

To file a housing discrimination complaint, contact the North Dakota Department of Labor at 800-582-8032.