Leases are important legal documents governing the rights and duties of renters of any type of housing. Leases are usually prepared by landlords. The terms of the lease, therefore, are often written in the landlord's favor. A prospective tenant needs to read the lease carefully before signing it. A lease is a legally binding contract so the tenant must understand and agree with the terms of the lease. A prospective tenant should find out who pays for the hot water, utilities, parking, snow removal, trash removal, and other costs before the lease is signed. If the landlord and tenant agree to change anything in the printed lease, the change should be made in writing and both tenant and landlord should put their initials beside the change. All promises to make repairs to the leased property should be made in writing. Keep a copy of the lease so that you can refer to it if a problem arises. New Hampshire law requires that the landlord give a copy of the lease to the tenant within 30 days after the signing. Tenants should always get receipts for what they pay to the landlord (although canceled checks often are adequate to prove payment).
Beware of "waivers" in a lease in which the tenant gives up rights under certain conditions. For instance, an automatic renewal clause renews an expired lease automatically unless you notify the landlord in writing that you do not intend to renew the lease. The maximum occupancy clause limits the number of people who can live in the apartment. A landlord can also include a clause to force a mid-lease rent increase if property taxes are increased.
New Hampshire's law on security deposits (RSA 540-A) defines a security deposit as any money that a tenant gives to his or her landlord other than the monthly rental payment. The name given to the payment - cleaning deposit, last month's rent in advance, etc. - does not matter. The amount is a "security deposit" if it is anything other than the monthly rent.
In New Hampshire, a landlord who owns more than six units can ask for no more than one month's rent or $100, whichever is larger, as a security deposit. The landlord must keep security deposits in a special escrow account or post a bond with the local municipality to secure repayment.
The tenant is entitled to a receipt for the deposit. The receipt must indicate the bank in which the deposit is being held, or state that there is a bond posted with the town clerk, and must state that the tenant has five (5) days to give the landlord a list of defects and damages in the apartment when she or he moved in. If the security deposit is held for more than 12 months, the landlord must pay at least the amount of interest she or he has actually earned on the money.
Example: Martha signs a 2-year lease agreement to rent an apartment in one of the large apartment complexes owned by Mr. Buck. Martha pays her security deposit, equivalent to one month's rent, when she signs the lease. Mr. Buck's agent gives her a receipt indicating that the security deposit funds are held in an account at the 2nd National Bank in Concord.
Martha moves into her new apartment on the first of the month and before her friends help her move her furniture in, she goes through the unit looking for preexisting damages. She finds a big stain on the carpet in the dining area, along with some slightly worn spots on the linoleum in the kitchen, and a couple of small holes in the bedroom window screen. When she finishes making the inventory, she signs and dates it. The next day, she makes a copy of the inventory and sends the original to Mr. Buck's office, keeping the copy for her own files.
RSA 540-A:5 defines the legal relationship between landlords and tenants so that both will be treated fairly. It applies to all tenants except:
If the leased property is not covered by RSA 540-A:5, then the terms of the lease regulate the landlord/tenant relationship.
The list of defects and damages in the rental unit that should be given to the landlord within the 5-day period is to protect tenants from being charged for damages done by previous tenants. Every new tenant should make a thorough record of defects in the rental unit when moving in. You should include the condition of the walls, floors, carpets, windows (screens, molding, sills and curtains), appliances and fixtures in your inspection. Note any cracks, holes, worn places, stains, dirt, and so forth. This inventory should be signed and dated by both you and your landlord. Make a copy of this inventory before you return it to your landlord within the 5-day time period to keep with the copy of your lease.
Tenants have additional responsibilities which are not part of New Hampshire's landlord/tenant law but are governed by contract law. Tenants have the responsibility to abide by the agreements specified in the lease. Tenants are also responsible for maintaining the landlord's property in an acceptable manner. In most cases, tenants have the responsibility to give the landlord at least 30 days notice of plans to leave the rental unit, unless the lease states some other time period.
Tenants are also responsible for insuring their own personal property. The landlord will usually have insurance coverage for the building, but this insurance does not cover the tenant's personal belongings. It is a good idea for tenants to invest in renters' insurance to make sure their possessions are protected against theft, fire damage and a number of other perils.
A landlord is responsible for providing his or her tenants with a safe and sanitary dwelling. In New Hampshire, building codes set the standards for construction and maintenance of the building, including protection against fire hazards. Housing codes set standards for adequate light, air, heat, ventilation, sanitation, and space for tenants. A tenant may contact local housing officials to learn more about whether the apartment where he or she lives meets applicable requirements.
RSA 48-A:14 sets minimum health and safety standards for rental property in towns that do not have ordinances that establish housing standards. An apartment does not meet these minimum standards if:
A landlord who fails or refuses to maintain an adequately safe and sanitary dwelling may be forced by the courts to reimburse tenants. You should report any defects in your dwelling which violate any of the housing or building codes which your landlord refuses to repair to your local code enforcement officer and/or to the New Hampshire Division of Public Health in Concord.
To provide further protection for tenants, New Hampshire law also requires landlords to provide smoke detectors for their rental units. RSA 153:10-a requires every rental unit to be equipped with at least one automatic smoke/fire warning device located in each hallway or area adjacent to a sleeping area. The law also requires multi-unit dwellings to be equipped with automatic smoke/fire warning devices on every floor level, in each common stairway and in each common hallway. The landlord is responsible for maintaining these smoke/fire detectors in suitable working condition.
If a rental unit is not equipped with a smoke/fire detector, or the building's hallways or stairways are not equipped with smoke/fire detectors, the tenant should contact the landlord and request the devices be installed and to contact local fire officials to encourage the landlord to comply with this state law.
Under some conditions, tenants may stop paying rent in order to compel the landlord to comply with health codes or with RSA 48-A (see RSA 540:13-c and -d). Because failure to pay rent can be grounds for eviction, tenants need competent legal advice before they withhold rent. The New Hampshire Consumer Protection Bureau would refer any tenants thinking of taking this action to New Hampshire Legal Assistance or to a private attorney for help.
When the tenant moves out of a rental unit, the landlord has thirty (30) days in which to either return the entire security deposit plus interest if appropriate, or send a written statement of any deductions made from the deposit for repairs, cleaning, etc., the cost of each repair (supported by copies of appropriate receipts, estimates, contracts, etc.) along with the remaining amount of the deposit (RSA 540-A:7). The tenant needs to notify the landlord of his or her new address within 30 days of moving out. The notice must be in writing, but need not be formal.
The landlord may deduct from the security deposit:
Note: As you might expect, the meaning of the term "normal wear and tear" can be the subject of dispute. Crayon marks, holes in the wall, broken windows, battered doors and so forth probably will be called "damages." Worn carpets, worn floors, damage caused by pipes accidentally breaking or by leaking roofs probably will be called "wear and tear." The hardest damages to categorize are those caused by a tenant's alleged failure to adequately maintain the apartment.
Example: Martha writes to her landlord's agent two months before her lease ends to state that she does not wish to renew her lease. After Martha moves her furniture out of the apartment, the agent for Mr. Buck, the building's owner, comes over to inspect the apartment before Martha leaves. The agent finds a big stain on the carpet in the dining room, some very worn spots on the linoleum in the kitchen, several small holes in the screen in the bedroom window, and a cracked window in the kitchen. Martha produces her copy of the inventory that she made when she moved in, showing that the carpet stain and holes in the screen existed when she moved in. Both Martha and the agent agree that the worn linoleum is normal wear-and-tear. The agent does inform Martha that the cost of replacing the cracked window pane in the kitchen will be deducted from her security deposit.
Three weeks after Martha moves out, she receives a check from Mr. Buck. The check is for the amount of her security deposit, plus the interest earned on the deposit, minus the cost of replacing the cracked kitchen window. Attached to the check is an itemized statement of the cost of the window and the amount of interest.
New Hampshire has a special process for eviction. No landlord can lawfully evict a tenant without following the steps set out by state law (RSA 540). A tenant can be evicted for violating the lease. If the tenant has no written lease, she or he can be evicted for a variety of reasons. In New Hampshire, tenants renting part of a privately owned and owner-occupied home can be evicted for almost any reason.
In New Hampshire, there are five "good" causes for eviction:
"Other good cause" may include legitimate business reasons of the landlord. If, however, the "other" cause is something that the tenant did or did not do, then the landlord must first give the tenant a written warning that in the future the action or inaction will be grounds for eviction.
The tenant can reverse the order for eviction in the first three causes by "remedying" the situation, that is, paying the rent, repairing the damage, and so forth.
A landlord can legally evict a tenant only by sending a written notice to the tenant. This written notice must be in the form of a "written notice to quit or leave" which is a legal document. Eviction for not paying rent, damages to the property or danger to the health or safety of others require seven days' notice. All other grounds for eviction require 30 days' notice.
In the case where a tenant has not paid rent, the landlord must make a written demand for payment of the money before issuing the notice-to-quit. The notice-to-quit for nonpayment of rent must explain the tenant's right to defeat eviction by paying the rent owed plus $15 before the last day of the notice-to-quit (RSA 540:3, IV). If the payment is made, then eviction for nonpayment of rent is no longer possible (RSA 540:2-5, 9). However, tenants can only avoid eviction by "curing nonpayment" three times during one calendar year.
The landlord may not break into the dwelling, may not move a tenant's belongings out, and may not turn off the heat and utilities. The sheriff is the only person who may remove property from the premises and this can be done only after the landlord has been awarded a court judgment called a "writ of possession" (RSA 540-A:3, III-IV).
A landlord cannot evict a tenant for reporting a building or housing code violation to the authorities, lawfully withholding rent, filing a complaint in court asking for an order to stop certain practices, or meeting with or organizing other tenants (RSA 540:13-A).
Example: Petey rents an apartment from Mr. Buck in a large complex. Petey has not paid his rent for the last three months, although Mr. Buck's agent has sent Petey several reminder notices. Mr. Buck decides that he is going to have to start eviction proceedings against Petey for nonpayment of rent. Mr. Buck sends a letter demanding that Petey pay his overdue rent within two weeks or Mr. Buck will have Petey evicted. Petey does not respond to the letter. Mr. Buck issues a notice-to-quit which informs Petey that he has to pay the rent owned plus $15 within seven days or he will be evicted. Petey does not respond.
Mr. Buck files a landlord-tenant complaint in court to start the eviction proceedings. At the court hearing, Petey tells the judge that he can't pay his rent, and that he won't pay his rent. Mr. Buck is issued a "writ of possession" and has a deputy sheriff execute the writ to remove Petey from the apartment. Petey finally removes his belongings from the apartment under the watchful eye of the deputy.
A good source of help for landlord-tenant problems is New Hampshire Legal Assistance. There are several branches of New Hampshire Legal Assistance around the State:
Contact the New Hampshire Consumer Protection Bureau:
NH Consumer Protection Bureau
Department of Justice
33 Capitol Street
Concord, NH 03301-6397
(603) 271-3641 or 1-888-468-4454
If you are a student, you also may be able to find assistance through your college or university. Several campuses have either a lawyer on staff for student consultation or off-campus housing offices that are skilled in assisting students with these types of problems.
Complaints about health and safety violations should be made either to your local health department or housing authority. Problems regarding smoke detectors should be directed to your local fire chief.
Housing code violations can also be reported to the New Hampshire Division of Public Health Services:
NH Division of Public Health Services
Department of Health and Human Services
29 Hazen Drive
Concord, NH 03301
Portable Document Format (.pdf). Visit nh.gov for a list of free .pdf readers for a variety of operating systems.
New Hampshire Department of Justice
33 Capitol Street | Concord, NH | 03301