State Bar of Montana

Renting a House or Apartment

Questions often arise as to the legal rights of tenants and landlords. This discusses some of the questions most commonly asked.

What is a landlord? What is a tenant? A landlord is a person who owns real property and rents it to another. Lessor is another word for landlord. A landlord may be represented by an agent who manages the property.A tenant is a person who rents real property from a landlord. A tenant is sometimes referred to as a renter. Lessee is another word for tenant.

What is the difference between renting and leasing? The only difference between renting and leasing is how those terms are generally used to describe the length of time the property is being rented. Renting generally means month-to-month. Leasing generally means for a longer term, such as a year, with limited rights to end the agreement.

What is a landlord's responsibility for repairs and maintenance? A landlord must keep the property in a fit and habitable condition. This includes keeping the electrical, plumbing, heating, and other facilities in good and safe working condition, and supplying running water. The landlord must also install an approved smoke detector.

What are the tenant's responsibilities for maintenance? The tenant must maintain the premises in a reasonably clean and safe condition, using appliances and facilities in a reasonable way. A tenant may not damage or remove any part of the premises and must maintain the smoke detector in good working order.

What is a security deposit? A security deposit is money given by a tenant, generally in advance, to secure payment to a landlord for damage to, or cleaning of the rented premises, or to secure payment of rent to the landlord. A landlord who requires a security deposit must give a new tenant, before that tenant moves in, a statement of the condition of the premises.

When can a landlord keep a security deposit? A landlord cannot withhold money for cleaning charges unless the landlord gives the departing tenant written notice of cleaning which needs to be done, and gives the tenant 24 hours to complete the cleaning. A landlord also cannot withhold money for cleaning or damages unless the landlord gives the tenant, within 30 days after the tenancy is terminated, a written list of any rent due and damage and cleaning charges. With the list, the landlord must return the balance of the security deposit not kept for cleaning, damages, or unpaid rent. The departing tenant should give the landlord written notice of his or her new address. Tenants who fail to do this lose some of their rights against landlords who wrongfully withhold security deposit money. If after inspections there is no unpaid rent due, no damage or cleaning expenses, and no unpaid utilities owing by tenant, the landlord is required to return the security deposit within ten (10) days.

Can a landlord enter the rented property without the permission of the tenant? A landlord may enter a dwelling unit without the tenant's consent only in case of an emergency; pursuant to court order; when the tenant has abandoned or surrendered the premises; to make repairs when a tenant has failed to do so after 14 days written notice; or, when reasonably necessary during a tenant's absence of more than seven days. A tenant may not unreasonably withhold consent to the landlord to enter the dwelling unit to inspect or make necessary repairs. The landlord generally must give the tenant at least 24-hours notice of the landlord's intent to enter and may enter only at reasonable times.

Can a landlord adopt and enforce rules for tenants? Yes, subject to some conditions, a landlord can adopt and enforce reasonable rules regulating a tenant's use and occupation of the premises.

What are a landlord's rights when a tenant fails to pay rent on time? If rent is not paid when due, a landlord can give written notice to the tenant that the rental agreement will terminate if the rent is not paid within three days. If the rent is not paid within the three-day period, the landlord can terminate the rental agreement. Rules for tenants renting mobile home site, but who own the mobile home may be different.

If a landlord fails to make necessary repairs, can a tenant make the repairs and deduct the cost from the rent? If a landlord fails to make repairs which are the landlord's legal responsibility, and the failure affects health and safety, the tenant can make the repairs and deduct the cost from the rent if:

  • The repairs do not cost more than one month's rent.
  • The tenant has given the landlord notice and the landlord has failed to make the repairs within a reasonable time.

Are attorney fees recoverable in a court action on a rental agreement? Yes. Generally, in an action on a rental agreement, reasonable attorney's fees and costs may be awarded to the prevailing party.

What is housing discrimination? Housing discrimination occurs when prospective tenants are prevented from living in a house, apartment or mobile home of their choice due to their race, color, national origin, sex, age, religion, physical or mental handicap, marital status or the presence of children in the family. If you think you have been denied housing for one or more of these reasons, you can call the Montana Human Rights Bureau, 1-800-542-0807, to file a complaint and learn more about your rights under Montana's fair housing laws.

What if I enter military service? The Soldiers' and Sailors' Civil Relief Act (SSCRA) permits a tenant who enters active military service after renting an apartment to cancel the pre-service lease by delivering written notice to the landlord. The effective date of the termination will depend upon the type of lease.

For more legal information, see the following web sites: or the Montana State Law Library (Landlord/Tenant section)

Last updated January 2003

This information is intended to inform you about Montana law generally. It is not intended as advice. You are encouraged to speak to an attorney regarding the specifics of your situation.



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