In Massachusetts, as with any other state, if rent is paid in a timely manner in exchange for inhabiting property, a landlord-tenant relationship is established (even without a written lease), and with this relationship comes rights and responsibilities for both parties.
Basic Landlord Responsibilities
Keep the rental fit to live in. The landlord is required to provide housing that is habitable and to make repairs in a timely manner when required.
Quiet enjoyment. The landlord is required not to disturb the tenant’s rights to peacefully and reasonably use their rented space.
Basic Tenant Responsibilities
Pay rent on time. If the tenant does not pay rent in full and in a timely manner, the landlord has the right to take action to end the tenancy.
Cover excessive damages. Tenants are responsible to cover the costs of damages to the property beyond normal “wear and tear”.
With that said, Massachusetts varies from other states on additional rights and responsibilities for both landlords and tenants. Massachusetts law even varies on both the interpretation of the above rights and the rules on handling violations.
Warranty of Habitability in Massachusetts
Landlord Responsibilities. In order for a rental unit in Massachusetts to be considered statutorily livable, all landlords operating in this commonwealth must uphold the regulations put forth in the commonwealth’s extensive warranty of habitability. Among other qualitative standards, this statute requires Massachusetts landlord to provide and maintain the following amenities while a tenant occupies one of their units:
- Windows and doors that lock
- Walls, floors, and ceilings that are waterproofed
- Hot and cold water
- In-unit heating (and air conditioning, if it is provided at the beginning of tenancy)
- Adequate plumbing
- Safe electric wiring, outlets, and lighting
- Adequate gas lines and fixtures for cooking
- Working sanitation facilities
- A trash can for trash removal services (multi-family dwellings only)
- Safe staircases and railings
- Safe, clean, and accessible fire escapes
- Operational smoke and carbon monoxide detectors
- Working kitchen appliances (if they are provided at the beginning of tenancy)
At any time during tenancy, Massachusetts tenants have the right to request a repair for any of the essential amenities listed above. When such a request is filed in writing, a Massachusetts landlord has 14 days to respond and perform the necessary repairs. If they fail to do so, they enable their tenant to take “alternative action” against them or to push for immediate lease termination on the grounds that their landlord has not upheld their statutory responsibilities.
Tenant Responsibilities. Tenants in Massachusetts are also required to play a part in the habitable upkeep of their rented unit. Specifically, they must keep their unit “clean” to the point that nothing within or near the tenant’s residence possess a risk to other tenant’s safety or the physical well-being of the building structure.
Massachusetts landlords are tasked with upholding this standard and ensuring that a tenant’s actions or negligence do not cause their unit to fall into an unclean state. If this occurs, Massachusetts landlords have the right to inform their tenant accordingly and issue a notice to cure the issue at hand. This notice can be for any length of time, but the tenant in question must still meet the terms specified or face eviction.
Massachusetts tenants are empowered to take certain kinds of “alternative action” against their landlords as well, specifically when their landlords fail to provide or repair an essential amenity. In these situations, a tenant in Massachusetts may repair the issue at hand and deduct the associated cost from their next rent payment. This action must be preceded by 14 days of advance notice to the applicable landlord, however. This action is also limited by statute in terms of how much money can be deducted at any one time.
Tenants in Massachusetts are also empowered to withhold rent entirely when their landlord fails to address their repair requests. Choosing to pursue this course of action comes with a number of requirements in order for it to be held up in court, including a requirement to deposit withheld funds with a court clerk. More info on these withholding requirements can be found here.
Evictions in Massachusetts
Massachusetts’ landlord-tenant laws allow landlords operating within the commonwealth to evict tenants for any of the legally-justified reasons listed here:
- Nonpayment of rent – If a Massachusetts tenant fails to pay rent on time (including after an applicable grace period), they may become liable to fines and the threat of eviction at their landlord’s discretion. Specifically, as soon as a rent payment becomes “late,” a Massachusetts landlord may issue a 14-Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit. If the full amount listed in that notice is not paid at the conclusion of the notice period, then that tenant may be served a formal eviction after their landlord files a Summons and Complaint.
- Violation of lease terms – Massachusetts does not currently standardize how much notice a landlord must provide to their tenant when informing them of a recent lease term violation. As such, a Massachusetts landlord could theoretically push for immediate eviction following a documented violation. In any case, Massachusetts landlords are still required to issue a Notice to Quit before serving their tenant with a formal eviction notice.
- Illegal Acts – Massachusetts maintains a special kind of nuisance law that empowers landlords to broadly define what acts are “illegal” on their own property. Historically, this has included gambling, prostitution, and the sales/storage of illegal alcohol. Today, many landlords in this commonwealth also consider the production, possession, or sales of illegal drugs and weapons to also justify eviction. Evictions for any of these illegal acts can be processed immediately by filing a Summary Process case.
Evictions without a lease. Massachusetts tenants who rent from a landlord without entering into a written lease are typically considered “at-will” when it comes to their tenancy. Even so, these tenants are entitled to certain amounts of advance notice prior to being evicted, based upon the rental period they regularly utilize. Those following notice periods only apply to tenants who have paid rent on time and have not broken any other policies set forth by their landlord:
- Month-to-Month rental period – 30 days of advance notice
- Week-to-Week rental period – 7 days of advance notice
Illegal Evictions. Massachusetts landlords are forbidden from evicting a tenant in retaliation for taking one or more commonwealth-protected actions relating to their tenancy. Among others, these following actions cannot be used to justify an eviction if they occurred in the prior 6 months:
- Making a health or safety report to a local regulatory authority
- Withholding rent for a justifiable reason
- Organizing or joining a tenant union
- Filing a lawsuit against a landlord or property owner
- Taking legal action against another household member in alleging domestic abuse
Massachusetts commonwealth law also prohibits discriminatory evictions, particularly based upon the numerous personal traits and characteristics outlined in the commonwealth’s fair housing laws. Furthermore, a Massachusetts tenant cannot be evicted simply because they receive public assistance or any kind of rental subsidy.
Security Deposits in Massachusetts
Within the commonwealth of Massachusetts, landlords are required to follow these statutes governing the collection, maintenance, and redistribution of security deposits when engaging with all new tenants:
- Standard Limit / Maximum Amount – In Massachusetts, landlords are only allowed to charge tenants a security deposit that is valued at an equal sum to that tenant’s first month of rent. This amount cannot be raised above this standard limit for any reason, including the payment of a pet deposit (which a Massachusetts landlord cannot charge for in this manner).
- Interest and Maintenance – Massachusetts landlords are required to maintain all collected security deposits in a bank account separate from those utilized for their personal use. These funds must be deposited within 30 days of their receipt and must incur interest while they are in the landlord’s (or rather, the bank’s) possession. This interest must accrue at a rate of 5% annually, though Massachusetts laws do not specify how often or at what interval this interest must be paid out.
- Time Limit for Return – Landlords in Massachusetts are required by law to return any remaining security deposit funds within 30 days of a tenant moving out. If deductions are necessary, this 30 day return period must also include an itemized list that explains the cost of each deduction. Massachusetts tenants are legally allowed to dispute any deductions included on this list.
- Penalty if Not Returned on Time – Landlords in Massachusetts who fail to return their tenant’s security deposit and associated interest on time may forfeit any claim to those funds. Also, they open themselves up to liability, through which an affected tenant may sue for up to three times the original deposit’s value (plus any legal costs and interest).
- Allowable Deductions – A Massachusetts landlord may be justified in their choice to deduct funds from a security deposit if they focus on deducting for one of these reasons:
- Unpaid rent or utility bill
- Unpaid taxes relating to their tenancy
- Damages that go beyond regular wear and tear
Lease Termination in Massachusetts
Notice Requirements. Massachusetts tenants that are entered into a fixed end-date lease are not required to give notice to their landlord when they intend to move out (due to the established nature of their tenancy’s conclusion). However, tenants who lease a unit on a more periodic schedule are required to give the following amounts of notice in writing:
- Month-to-Month lease – 30 days of advance notice
- Yearly lease without an end date – Same amount as average payment interval (typically 3 months)
Legally Breaking a Lease Early. When it comes to breaking off a lease early, most tenants in Massachusetts are able to do so by utilizing an early termination clause written into their lease agreement. However, not all Massachusetts tenants have this kind of provision in their lease. These tenants may, instead, utilize one of these legally-protected justifications for early lease termination:
- Active Military Duty – Federal law allows service members who are relocating due to deployment or permanent change of station to terminate their lease as early as 30 days from the next rent period.
- Unit is Uninhabitable – Regardless of how long a tenant has lived in a unit, Massachusetts landlords are required to uphold their responsibilities under the commonwealth’s warranty of habitability laws. Failure to do so may result in a unit being deemed statutorily unlivable, which in turn gives all affected tenants the opportunity to void their own lease obligations and move out immediately.
- Landlord Harassment – Massachusetts statutes do not define how much notice a landlord must give before entering an occupied unit. Even so, landlords operating in this commonwealth are required to adhere to any entry standards established in an applicable lease agreement. Regular failure to do so may enable a tenant to claim that their privacy is being violated, which in turn would allow them to justify breaking a lease early.
- Domestic Violence – Massachusetts provides several special protections to domestic abuse victims. This includes providing the right to request immediate lease termination due to a continued threat of violence against them in the previous 3 months. Landlords may verify a tenant’s status as a victim before completing this kind of request, however.
Before terminating a lease early, Massachusetts tenants should read into their financial obligations to pay for their former unit after their lease is broken. This is because some leases require a tenant to “buy out” their lease. This new obligation to pay can be removed if a new tenant is found to sublease or establish a new lease for that unit. Massachusetts landlords are not obligated to help in this re-renting process, though, so the onus for action falls to the tenant.
Rent Increases & Related Fees in Massachusetts
Rent control & increases. Like many other US states and commonwealths, Massachusetts’ current zoning laws preempt all local rent control policies. As such, landlords operating in this commonwealth are free to raise rent as much and as often as they desire. However, in advance of a rent increase, all tenants must be given 30 days of notice to accept the new rent terms. If the affected tenants do not accept the new rent rate, it is assumed that they can break off their lease unconditionally.
Rent related fees. Landlords in Massachusetts are allowed to institute a number of fees that affect their regular business operations, particularly when it comes to charging rent. To that end, Massachusetts landlords may charge late payment fees of any value (in total or per diem) due to the commonwealth’s lack of statutory restrictions on the matter. These landlords may also charge returned check fees, but they cannot be valued at more than $30 per instance.
Also, of note, Massachusetts strictly limits what kind of charges a landlord can charge at the beginning and end of tenancy. To this extent, Massachusetts landlords are broadly forbidden from charging most application or cleaning fees.
Housing Discrimination in Massachusetts
Federal Protections. The Fair Housing Act protects tenants from being discriminated against due to race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or disability. However, the law does not apply to all housing, such as owner-occupied homes with 4 or fewer units or housing operated by religious organizations.
Commonwealth Protections. Massachusetts’ civil rights laws provide a significant number of protections for current and prospective tenants who are engaged in the housing industry. Specifically, these following protected classes are designated under Massachusetts law and may not be targeted y discriminatory housing policies or business practices:
- Source of income
- Sexual orientation
- Gender identity
- Marital status
- Military status
- Genetic information
Discriminatory Acts & Penalties. Housing discrimination complaints in Massachusetts are handled by the commonwealth Attorney General’s Civil Rights Division. Though they leave room for interpretation, these following business practices and behaviors have been enumerated by this group as being discriminatory when they are targeted at one or more protected classes:
- Refusing to rent
- Providing different leasing terms, including rent prices
- Steering prospective tenants towards or away from certain units
- Refusing to or failing to make reasonable physical accommodations
- Refusing to provide certain financial services, including a mortgage
- Threatening to report a tenant or anyone related to them to immigration authorities
The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Civil Rights Division accepts discrimination complaint reports online, both in English and in Spanish. While their website outlines the materials needed to make a report as well as the process that takes place following a report, they do not outline specific punishments levied against landlords. As such, it is assumed that any penalties applied are administered on a case-by-case basis.
Additional Landlord Tenant Regulations in Massachusetts
As you begin to learn and understand this commonwealth’s landlord-tenant laws, be sure to read up on these following Massachusetts statutes. They are often the subject of disputes between both parties, even in an otherwise peaceful leasing relationship.
Landlord Entry. Massachusetts does not require its landlords to provide any certain amount of notice prior to entering. This includes in instances where repairs are being made or a showing is set to take place. However, landlords operating in the commonwealth are still obliged to follow any entry policies set forth in an applicable lease agreement. To this end, the commonwealth recommends landlords provide at least 24 hours of advance notice whenever they enter a tenant’s occupied unit.
Regardless of individual policies, however, landlords in Massachusetts are generally understood to be able to enter an occupied unit without permission when an emergency situation arises. However, this right of entry cannot be abused such that it constitutes an invasion of the affected tenant’s privacy.
Small Claims Court. Landlords and tenants in Massachusetts are allowed to utilize the commonwealth’s small claims court to settle disputes over assets or damages valued at no more than $7,000. However, eviction cases cannot be handled in this venue and instead must be filed with the commonwealth’s civil courts. Landlords and tenants in Boston may also be required to file with that city’s municipal courts, instead.
Mandatory Disclosures. Massachusetts landlords are required to make the following informational disclosures to their tenants prior to the beginning of their tenancy. Failure to do so may void the applicable lease agreement or allow a tenant to sue for damages caused by their uninformed status later on:
- Lead-based paint. For houses built prior to 1978, federal law requires landlords to provide tenants with information about lead based paint hazards. Read more.
- Owners, Managers, and Agents. Landlords in Massachusetts must disclose their own name and address prior to allowing a new lease to go into effect. This disclosure must also contain the names and address for all relevant property owners and any agents qualified to act on their behalf.
- Property Insurance Provider. Upon request by a tenant, a Massachusetts landlord must disclose key information relating to their property insurance policy within 15 days. This disclosure must include details about the property insurance company’s name, as well as the amount the property is insured for as well as any individual who receives payouts from that insurance policy.
- Security Deposit Location. Massachusetts landlords are required to disclose the location where a tenant’s security deposits are held. This disclosure may also include a listing of a tenant’s rights as they relate to obtaining interest on said deposits.
Changing the Locks. Under ordinary circumstances, it is unclear whether a Massachusetts tenant can change their own locks without permission. However, a landlord may be requested to perform a lock change on a tenant’s behalf if they provide proof that they have recently been a victim of domestic abuse. However, other types of lock changes by a Massachusetts landlord are generally forbidden due to the likelihood that they will cause an illegal lockout.
Massachusetts Landlord-Tenant Resources
Here are just a few more digital resources that will help you understand Massachusetts’ latest landlord-tenant law updates:
A Massachusetts Consumer Guide to Tenant Rights and Responsibilities – Published by the Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, this handbook is a one-stop guide for tenants living in the commonwealth. This guide is particularly useful because it is written in plain language so that tenants can understand the practical implications of the commonwealth’s landlord-tenant laws.
Good Neighbors Handbook – Published by the Boston Department of Neighborhood Development, this guide is designed to help landlords and tenants living in Boston understand their obligations under both the commonwealth and city ordinances. This guide also provides helpful insights to commonly disputed situations using actual precedent.
The Attorney General’s Guide to Landlord and Tenant Rights – This digital resource is the most up-to-date location to learn about this commonwealth’s landlord-tenant laws. This resource can also help direct tenants to reporting resources if they feel that their landlord has violated one or more of the listed statutes.