Almost everyone rents housing at some point in life. Both landlords and tenants can prevent misunderstandings, hassles and possible legal expenses by knowing their rights and responsibilities under the Montana Residential Landlord and Tenant Act and their rental agreement.
The Montana Attorney General’s Office provides the following general information to assist landlords and renters in the state. However, this office is prohibited from providing legal advice or representation to individuals, and does not handle complaints related to landlord-tenant disputes.
For complaints or questions regarding:
- legal assistance, contact Montana Legal Services Association
- legal information, contact MontanaLawHelp.org or Montana Public Interest Research Group (MontPirg)
- federal law, see the Federal Fair Housing Act
A tenant’s rights and responsibilities are determined by the rental agreement and the Montana Residential Landlord and Tenant Act. This law includes certain requirements that apply regardless of what is in the rental agreement.
There are two common types of rental arrangements: leases and month-to-month rental agreements.
- Lease – A lease requires the tenant to stay for a specific period of time (for example, one year). A lease must be in writing. Neither the landlord nor the tenant can change the terms of the lease, including raising the rent, during the term of the lease unless they both agree to the change.
- Month-to-Month – A month-to-month rental agreement is open-ended, with rent usually payable on a monthly basis. The agreement may be in writing or it may be an oral agreement. Either the landlord or the tenant may change the terms, raise rent, or end the month-to-month agreement at any time with proper notice.
Before signing any rental agreement, a renter should know:
- What does it say? Read the entire agreement carefully and ask for an explanation of any part you don’t understand. If the landlord’s explanation is different from the written agreement, ask him or her to add the verbal explanation in writing on the agreement.
- Is it legal? Check to make sure the agreement doesn’t contain any illegal provisions in violation of the Montana Residential Landlord and Tenant Act or the federal Fair Housing Act.
- Is anything blank or missing?The agreement should address how you and the landlord will handle situations like necessary repairs, unauthorized pets or guests and nonpayment of rent, and the cleaning you are expected to do when you move out. If you are concerned about a situation that the agreement does not address, ask the landlord:
- how he or she would want to handle it
- to write it into the agreement
- to fill in or cross out any blanks before you sign
Illegal Provisions in Rental Agreements
Certain provisions that are not legal or enforceable under the law may appear in your lease or rental agreement. Illegal provisions include any that:
- waive any right given to tenants by the Montana Residential Landlord and Tenant Act
- contain discriminatory terms prohibited by the federal Fair Housing Act (such as requiring higher rent for tenants with children)
- waive tenants’ right to defend themselves in court against a landlord’s accusations
- limit the landlord’s liability in situations where the landlord would normally be responsible
- allow the landlord to enter the rental unit without proper notice
- require a tenant to pay for all damage to the unit, even if it is not caused by the tenant or his or her guests
- states the tenant will pay the landlord’s attorney’s fees under any circumstances if a dispute goes to court
- allows the landlord to seize a tenant’s property if the tenant falls behind in rent
At the beginning of the rental agreement, a landlord may require a tenant to pay a deposit that is refundable when the tenant moves out, if the tenant causes no damage, completes all required cleaning, and owes no unpaid rent or utilities.
At the time the landlord and tenant enter the rental agreement, the landlord must provide the tenant with a written statement of the condition of the property, signed by the landlord. If the landlord does not provide such a statement, the landlord may not keep any part of the tenant’s security deposit for damages when the tenant moves out, unless the landlord can clearly prove that the tenant caused the damage.
Rights and Responsibilities
Under the Montana Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, a landlord must:
- maintain the dwelling so as to comply with state and local building and housing codes related to a tenant’s health and safety
- maintain in good and safe working order all electrical, plumbing, heating, air-conditioning, and other facilities and appliances supplied by the landlord, including any elevators
- keep all common areas, such as lobbies, stairways and halls, in a reasonably clean and safe condition
- make repairs and do whatever is necessary to make the premises fit and habitable
- inform the tenant of the name and address of the landlord or landlord’s agent
- provide smoke detectors, and ensure they work properly when a new tenant moves in. (Tenants are responsible for maintaining the smoke detectors.)
Under the Montana Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, a tenant is required to:
- pay rent and any utilities agreed upon
- comply with any requirements of city, county or state regulations
- keep the rental unit clean and sanitary
- dispose of all garbage and waste properly
- properly operate plumbing, electrical and heating systems
- maintain smoke detectors, including replacing batteries
A tenant may not:
- damage or destroy any part of the property
- disturb neighbors’ peaceful enjoyment of their property
- change the locks without obtaining the landlord’s permission and providing the landlord with a copy of the new key
Notice Required – When something in the rental unit needs to be repaired, the first step is for the tenant to give written notice of the problem to the landlord or person who collects the rent. The notice must include:
- the address and apartment number of the rental
- the name of the owner, if known
- a description of the problem
It is a good idea to deliver the notice personally, or to use certified mail and get a return receipt from the post office.
Tenant Options – For conditions that affect the tenant’s health and safety, the tenant may notify landlord that repairs must occur within 14 days or the tenant may terminate the rental agreement at the end of 30 days. If landlord does not make the repairs within 14 days and the cost of repairs is less than one month’s rent, the tenant may either:
- notify the landlord that the tenant is terminating the rental agreement
- have the repairs made and deduct the cost from the rent. However, before a tenant deducts any amount from the rent, the tenant should consult an attorney to make sure the deduction is lawful. Whenever a tenant pays less that the full rent due, there is a risk that the landlord will seek eviction based on nonpayment of rent.
For emergency conditions, the landlord must make repairs within three working days of written notice from the tenant.
When the Landlord Can Enter Your Rental
- Except in emergencies, a landlord must give a tenant at least 24 hours’ notice of intent to enter the rental unit, and may enter only at reasonable times.
- The landlord may only enter for valid purposes, including repairs, inspection or alterations to the property. The landlord may not abuse the right of access or use it to harass the tenant.
- The tenant may not unreasonably withhold consent to enter. If the tenant does so, the landlord can terminate the rental agreement or get a court order to allow access, with the tenant responsible for the landlord’s legal expenses.
- In the case of an emergency, the landlord may enter the unit immediately without the tenant’s consent.
Illegal Actions by a Landlord
The law prohibits a landlord from taking certain actions against a tenant. These illegal actions include:
- Lockouts – The law prohibits landlords from changing locks or adding new locks to keep a tenant out, even if the tenant is behind in rent. A tenant who is locked out can file a lawsuit to regain entry.
- Utility Shutoffs – The landlord may not shut off utilities because the tenant is behind in rent or to force a tenant to move out. If the utilities have been shut off by the landlord, the tenant should first check with the utility company to see if it will restore service. If it appears the shutoff is illegal, the tenant can file a lawsuit.
- Retaliation – The law prohibits the landlord from retaliating against a tenant for exercising rights under the law, such as complaining to a government authority or deducting for repairs. Examples of retaliation are raising the rent, reducing services provided to the tenant, or evicting the tenant.
If you feel your landlord has taken an illegal action against you, you may wish to consult an attorney or contact Montana Legal Services Association to determine whether you are eligible for legal assistance.
Proper Notice to Leave
The notice a tenant is required to give a landlord upon moving out depends upon the type of rental agreement. A tenant who is moving out may not sublet or transfer possession of the rental unit to someone else unless the landlord has approved this in writing.
- Lease – A tenant cannot terminate a lease prior to its expiration unless the landlord agrees. A tenant who chooses to move out before the lease has expired is responsible for paying the rent for the remainder of the lease until the landlord finds another tenant. The landlord must make reasonable efforts to rent the property to someone else as soon as possible.
- Month-to-Month Agreement – A tenant must give 30 days’ notice to terminate a month-to-month rental agreement. It is a good idea to give this notice in writing and to keep a copy for your records.
Return of Deposits
A landlord may keep part or all of a tenant’s security deposit to pay unpaid rent, utilities, late charges, damages to the property, cleaning expenses paid by the landlord, and a reasonable amount for the landlord’s labor.
In certain circumstances, the landlord may not keep part or all of the security deposit. For example:
- The landlord cannot deduct cleaning expenses from a security deposit unless the landlord gave the tenant written notice of the cleaning that needed to be done, and gave the tenant at least 24 hours to do the cleaning.
- The landlord must send the tenant a written list of any deductions from the security deposit within 30 days. Any landlord who fails to provide the departing tenant with such a list may not withhold any portion of the security deposit for the damages or cleaning charges.
- If the landlord did not provide the tenant with a written statement of the property’s condition at the time the tenant moved in, the landlord cannot keep any part of the security deposit for damages unless the landlord can prove by clear and convincing evidence that the tenant caused the damage.
A landlord must return a tenant’s security deposit within 10 days after inspecting the rental if there are no damages, no cleaning left to be done and no unpaid rent or utilities.
It is the tenant’s responsibility to provide the landlord with a forwarding address to which the security deposit can be sent. Otherwise, the deposit is sent to the tenant’s last known address.
- Lease – A lease may not be terminated early unless the tenant has violated the rental agreement or the requirements of the Montana Residential Landlord and Tenant Act.
- Month-to-Month Agreement – A landlord may generally terminate a month-to-month rental agreement by providing 30 days’ notice to the tenant.
If the tenant has violated either the rental agreement or the requirements of the Montana Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, the landlord may terminate a rental agreement with 14 days’ notice to the tenant, except under the following circumstances:
- The landlord need only give 3 days’ notice if the tenant’s violation involves:
- unpaid rent
- an unauthorized tenant or pet
- damage to the rental property
- the tenant’s arrest for producing or manufacturing drugs on the rental premises
- The landlord need only give 5 days’ notice if it is a repeat violation about which the landlord has previously notified the tenant within the past six months.
If the noncompliance is something the tenant can fix through repairs, payment of damages or otherwise, and the tenant adequately remedies the noncompliance before the date specified in the notice, the rental agreement does not terminate.