In Wisconsin, 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, Wisconsin varies from other states on additional rights and responsibilities for both landlords and tenants. Wisconsin law even varies on both the interpretation of the above rights and the rules on handling violations.
Warranty of Habitability in Wisconsin
Landlord Responsibilities. In Wisconsin, the state’s warranty of habitability places important responsibilities upon landlords. Specifically, Wisconsin landlords are tasked with keeping their units in a “reasonable state of repair,” including when those units are occupied. A Wisconsin landlord may accomplish this goal by providing and repairing certain essential amenities that the state has deemed necessary for human habitation. These include the following:
- Structural elements in a proper and usable state
- In-unit heating and air-conditioning
- An adequate supply of hot and cold water on demand
- Adequate plumbing
- Safe electric wiring, outlets, and fixtures
At any time during the course of tenancy, a Wisconsin tenant may request a repair to these listed amenities as well as any other appliances provided by their landlord at the commencement of tenancy. After receiving this type of request, a Wisconsin landlord must provide the repair service in a “reasonable” amount of time such that the issue itself does not become worse due to negligence. Failure to act in a timely manner in this way may cause a tenant’s unit to become statutorily uninhabitable, which in turn would allow an affected tenant to terminate their lease unilaterally.
Tenant Responsibilities. Under Wisconsin law, tenants are only tasked with one major responsibility that applies to all lease agreements. To that end, a Wisconsin tenant is required to keep all “plumbing, electrical wiring, machinery and equipment furnished with the premises in reasonable working order.” As it is written, this statute implies that a Wisconsin tenant must use these amenities as intended and perform minor repairs if they fall out of working order.
While Wisconsin’s laws do not specifically detail how a landlord can enforce these tenant responsibilities, it is implied that they can be treated the same as other lease terms (if they are written into the applicable lease’s terms, that is). In that case, a Wisconsin landlord who believes that their tenant is not fulfilling their legal responsibilities may issue a 5-Day Notice to Remedy or Quit. If the terms of that notice are not met in a timely manner, the tenant in question may be compelled to move out on the grounds of their duty dereliction.
Also, under Wisconsin law, tenants are empowered to take at least one form of alternative action against their landlord. Specifically, Wisconsin tenants are allowed to withhold rent payments in situations where their unit has been severely damaged through no fault of their own or their unit has been deemed uninhabitable.
Under the statute protecting this right to alternative action, Wisconsin does make clear that rent payments cannot be withheld in full. Instead, these withholdings are meant to act as a kind of monetary abatement that only withholds payments in accordance with which essential amenities are in operable or the severity of the damage sustained to the unit.
Evictions in Wisconsin
In Wisconsin, a landlord is most likely to find success in forcing their tenant to move out if they seek out an eviction under one of the following three conditions:
- Nonpayment of rent – Wisconsin law does not specify when a tenant must pay rent to their landlord. As such, a Wisconsin tenant may be required to pay rent on demand or at the time dictated in their lease agreements terms. If rent payments are not supplied in full at that time or date, a Wisconsin landlord is allowed to issue a 5-Day Notice to Pay or Quit that compels the non-paying tenant to pay up during the resulting notice period. Alternatively, a Wisconsin landlord who does not wish to give their tenant a chance to pay their outstanding rent may issue a 14-Day Notice to Quit. In either case, a Wisconsin tenant who has not met the terms of their notice may be formally evicted after the notice period ends.
- Violation of lease terms – Wisconsin landlords are allowed to enforce the terms of their leases at their own discretion (though fair enforcement is always encouraged). If they discover a tenant has violated one or more lease terms, for example, they may issue either a 5-Day Notice to Remedy or Quit (fixed term leases) or a 14-Day Notice to Vacate (all other lease types). This former type of notice must include terms for remedying the stated violation, while the latter does not need to provide a curing opportunity. In both cases, if the notice’s terms are not fulfilled during the applicable notice period, the tenant in question may be subject to a prompt eviction.
- Illegal Acts – A Wisconsin landlord may evict their tenant for any illegal act for which they receive or obtain a police report. However, the state specifically enumerates gang-related activity and illegal drug activity as being worthy of eviction in almost all cases. Regardless of the specific crime that triggers a landlord to act, they may require their tenant to move out immediately by issuing a 5-Day Notice to Vacate. Wisconsin law does not require this type of notice to include a curing clause, either, regardless of the type or severity of the illegal act in question.
Evictions without a lease. In Wisconsin, tenants who choose to rent from a landlord without signing a lease agreement are typically considered “at-will.” However, this state’s laws provide some protections to this type of tenant as well, including when it comes to evictions. As a result, a Wisconsin tenant in a fixed-term rental agreement cannot be evicted before the end of that term. Even an at-will tenant in Wisconsin who rents on a month-to-month basis is entitled to 28 days of notice in advance of an eviction order becoming active against them.
Illegal Evictions. Wisconsin landlords are expressly prohibited from retaliating against their tenants on a variety of fronts, including through evictions. As a result, a Wisconsin tenant may be able to successfully fight an eviction order that is explicitly or implicitly leveled in response to a recently filed health or safety report or a tenant’s recent entry into a tenant union.
In the same vein, a Wisconsin landlord may not evict a tenant on discriminatory grounds under any circumstances. As such, a Wisconsin tenant may be able to have an eviction order leveled against them voided if they can demonstrate that it was issued (even in part) on account of their race, color, sex, national origin, religion, disability, family status, ancestry, marital status, age, sexual orientation, or lawful source of income for housing.
Security Deposits in Wisconsin
Under Wisconsin’s landlord-tenant laws, security deposits supplied by tenants must be collected, maintained, and redistributed according to the following standards:
- Standard Limit / Maximum Amount – Wisconsin does not currently maintain either a standard limit or a maximum amount that a landlord operating in the state can charge to a new tenant. As such, these landlords are fully free to set the security deposit rates as high as they wish, even if those rates are not relative to a tenant’s rent rate under an applicable lease agreement.
- Interest and Maintenance – Wisconsin does not require its landlords to maintain security deposits paid by tenants in any particular manner. As a result, a Wisconsin landlord may choose to utilize a bank account or escrow that may or may not be interest-bearing in nature. Should an interest-bearing option be used, a Wisconsin landlord retains a full claim on any accrued interest due to a lack of statutory requirement for distribution to tenants.
- Time Limit for Return – If a Wisconsin tenant terminates their lease, moves out, or is evicted, their landlord must return any remaining security deposit funds in their possession to that tenant. These returned funds must be accompanied by an itemized list of deductions that describes each claim against a portion of the deposit and the claim’s approximate (but still reasonable) value.
- Penalty if Not Returned on Time – A Wisconsin landlord who wrongfully withholds all or part of a tenant’s security deposit or fails to adhere to the state’s regulations for returning a tenant’s security deposits may be obliged to pay out the entire deposit’s value, plus damages, as a penalty.
- Allowable Deductions – A Wisconsin landlord may deduct all or part of a tenant’s security deposit for any of the following reasons:
- Damage or neglect of a rental unit’s physical condition
- Unpaid rent or utility bills
- Unpaid municipal permit fees
- Any other reason outlined in an applicable lease agreement
Lease Termination in Wisconsin
Notice Requirements. When a fixed end date lease is set to naturally conclude, a Wisconsin tenant is not obliged to provide notice of their intent to not renew that lease to their landlord. However, periodic tenants in Wisconsin are required to provide written notice of this kind when they intend to terminate their lease in the immediate future:
- Month-to-month lease – 28 days of advance notice
- Yearly lease without an end date – 5 days of advance notice
Legally Breaking a Lease Early. A Wisconsin tenant who wishes to break off their lease early in a legal manner should re-read their lease to learn if it includes an early termination clause. These lease provisions usually allow for an easy and mutually-beneficial lease termination process to begin. However, because this type of termination clause is not required in all Wisconsin lease agreements, a Wisconsin tenant may need to call on one of these alternative termination methods instead:
- 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 – A Wisconsin landlord is required to fulfill all of their legal responsibilities under the state’s warranty of habitability, including those pertaining to repairs and providing essential amenities. Failing to fulfill any of these duties over a period of time may cause a tenant’s unit to become statutorily uninhabitable (especially if an affected tenant has reported their condition to a regulatory authority). Should this condition be allowed to continue, an affected tenant may be allowed to unilaterally terminate their lease on the grounds of a continued health and/or safety risk.
- Landlord Harassment – Wisconsin state law requires all landlords to provide 12 hours of advance notice before they are legally allowed to enter a tenant’s unit. Wisconsin landlords are obliged to adhere to this entry policy for most regular forms of entry, including when they perform a repair or show the unit to a prospective tenant. If they fail to follow this standard periodically, they may be accused of invading a tenant’s privacy. This kind of harassment may be used in turn to justify a lease termination motion on an affected tenant’s part.
- Domestic Violence – A Wisconsin tenant may request a lease termination if they or their child “face an imminent threat of serious physical harm from another person” by remaining in their current dwelling. If this request is granted, the tenant is question shall not be liable for rent at the month following their termination. The state statute protecting this special right to termination does not indicate how swiftly this kind of voluntary termination request must be answered or acted upon by a landlord, however.
Wisconsin state law does require its landlords to take “reasonable” steps to re-rent a tenant’s unit after they have terminated their own lease before its established end date. Specifically, Wisconsin’s laws require a landlord to make all “reasonable” efforts to re-rent a vacated unit before passing the liability to pay for said unit back to a former tenant. A Wisconsin tenant can greatly decrease the likelihood that they’ll be charged rent after terminating their lease by assisting their landlord in re-renting the unit.
Rent Increases & Related Fees in Wisconsin
Rent control & increases. Wisconsin’s current statutory code explicitly prohibits towns, cities, and other local jurisdictions from passing an ordinance to “regulate the amount of rent or fees charged for the use of a residential rental dwelling unit.” Because of this preemption on any local rent control, a Wisconsin landlord is free to set their own rent rates without government-level limitations.
A Wisconsin landlord cannot simply raise their rent whenever they want, however, Due to a separate state statute, a Wisconsin landlord must provide 28 days of advance notice before a rent increase levied against a month-to-month tenant can be considered active and valid.
Rent related fees. Wisconsin’s landlord-tenant laws generally allow landlords to charge any kind of fee they deem necessary, as long as it is outlined (both in terms of administration and value) in the applicable lease agreement. This includes late rent payment fees, which can be set as high as a landlord desires and administered on either a total or per day basis.
Meanwhile, some fees that a Wisconsin landlord may wish to charge their tenants are capped in value by state statute. Background check and credit check fees are a prime example because a state statute prohibits them from costing more than $20 in total.
Housing Discrimination in Wisconsin
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.
State Protections. Under Wisconsin’s current fair housing legislation, tenants in the state are protected from discriminatory business practices based upon several more categories than are provided in the federal Fair Housing Act. Moreover, Wisconsin’s laws establish the following protected classes for all issues relating to fair housing in the state:
- Marital status
- Sexual orientation
- Lawful source of income
Discriminatory Acts & Penalties. The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development’s Equal Rights Division administers a variety of the state’s civil rights laws, including those pertaining to the practice of fair housing. As such, this Department has the task of enumerating what business practices are worthy of reporting when they target tenants based upon their protected class traits. Several examples put forth by the Department include the following:
- Refusing to rent or negotiate the sale of a dwelling
- Offering different terms, conditions, or privileges between tenants
- Failing to provide or allow for reasonable accommodations
- “Steering” tenants into moving into or away from certain buildings or neighborhoods
- Advertising the sale or rental of a dwelling in a manner that indicates a discriminatory preference
The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development’s Equal Rights Division allows tenants in the state to report suspected discrimination to them, so long as the discriminatory act occurred within 1 year of the report’s filing. After filling out and submitting the appropriate form, the Division looks into settlement options before initiating a fully-fledged investigation. If an investigation becomes necessary, the Division will carry out a fact finding process for the purpose of discovering if the tenant’s complaint was justified.
In the end, this investigation may result in a “probable cause” finding being issued by the Division. This finding may then be used to support a civil case in which the tenant seeks damages for their improper treatment. The Division itself does not appear to administer punishments on its own, however.
Additional Landlord Tenant Regulations in Wisconsin
Here are a few more crucial Wisconsin landlord-tenant laws that you must know before entering into your next lease agreement:
Landlord Entry. Wisconsin landlords are required to provide 12 hours of advance notice when they intend to enter an occupied unit under regular circumstances. For example, this entry standard applies when a landlord intends to enter a tenant’s unit to perform a repair or show the space to a prospective tenant. However, this notice requirement does not apply when a landlord needs immediate entry to inform a unit’s inhabitants of an apparent emergency.
Small Claims Court. A Wisconsin landlord or tenant may choose to file suit in the state’s small claims court if they believe that they will be unable to resolve their ongoing dispute in an informal manner. These suits may be valued at up to $10,000 and may involve eviction. More information about utilizing this judicial venue can be found here.
Mandatory Disclosures. In order for a lease agreement in Wisconsin to be considered valid, a Wisconsin landlord must issue the following types of mandatory disclosures to all applicable tenants:
- 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. Before a new tenancy can begin, a Wisconsin landlord must supply their tenant with documentation that includes the names and addresses for all relevant property owners. This disclosure must also include the names and addresses for all agents who are allowed to act as managers for that tenant’s property.
- Code Violations. A Wisconsin landlord must disclose any known or documented housing code violations to a prospective tenant. This type of disclosure must be made to any tenant whose health or safety may be affected if the issue is not corrected or addressed.
Changing the Locks. In nearly all circumstances, Wisconsin landlords are forbidden from changing a tenant’s locks without permission due to a clear prohibition on lockouts. However, a Wisconsin tenant is entitled to request for a lock change if they supply their landlord with proof that they or their child are at an imminent threat of harm. In that case, a Wisconsin landlord must comply with the request and carry it out within 48 hours of receiving the request.
Local Laws in Wisconsin
Landlord tenant rights are not exclusively governed by state law. Cities and counties may enact their own rules and regulations for renters.
Milwaukee Landlord Tenant Rights
The city of Milwaukee currently maintains a local ordinance that supplements the state’s fair housing protections for tenants. Specifically, this policy adds “receipt of rental or housing assistance” to the enforceable list of protected classes. This ordinance can be read in full here. This city also maintains local ordinances protecting tenants based upon their gender identity and expression, as well.