You feel violated. You feel unsafe. You wonder what would have happened if that person had come in while you were in sleeping or in the shower. These are all totally legitimate concerns that many tenants have, and that parents of those about to set out on their own often ask. So, when can a landlord legally enter your apartment?
Landlords can only legally enter a rented property under certain circumstances. Those are usually set out in your lease, but they are also typically based on a state’s landlord-tenant laws. In instances where the two conflict, the state’s law will usually trump a provision in the lease (unless the state law allows for a more expansive provision in lease agreements).
In virtually every state, the law prohibits landlords from entering a rented property without providing prior notice (usually 24 hours) except in the event of an emergency. If you are away and one of your pipes bursts and begins flooding your downstairs neighbor’s unit, it is probably reasonable for the landlord to come into your unit without notice. Similarly, if there is a fear that you are in danger the landlord may be able to enter your unit, though he or she would be best advised to do so only with the appropriate law enforcement or emergency medical authorities on the scene.
Under almost any other circumstance, the landlord does not have a right to walk into your rented space without providing you with prior written notice. Doing so can lead to consequences that could be quite serious for the landlord. These could include both civil actions by you for trespassing and criminal charges if the police become involved.
How is it possible for a landlord to trespass in his or her own property, you might ask? Well, the concept of ownership is actually much more complicated under the legal system than most people realize. When one owns something, what they are actually saying is that they have a particular bundle of rights with regard to a particular place or thing. Among those rights are the power to possess the property, the power to use it, and the power to convey it to someone else (either temporarily or permanently). These rights are not absolute in most cases, and the bundle does not have to be kept together in order for one to retain ownership.
So, if you imagine a bundle of sticks, these may represent what we commonly think of as ownership of a piece of property. When a landlord decides to lease that property, he or she gives the tenant a few of the sticks from the bundle. These include the rights to use and enjoyment of the property and the right of possession. These rights are not given away entirely, as they are conditioned on the tenant abiding by a lease agreement and paying rent. But, until the lease ends and the tenant gives those sticks back, or a court intervenes and makes the tenant give the sticks back (i.e. through an eviction), the tenant has possession of those sticks and the landlord cannot use them.
Thus, while a lease is in place, a tenant has the right to use the property without having to worry about the landlord showing up unannounced. The tenant has a right to expect his or her possessions to remain safely in the property without the landlord poking through them. The tenant has the right to be free of any surveillance or snooping while in the property. Thus, the landlord cannot try to use some of the sticks in the bundle of rights that he or she has given to the tenant as part of a lease arrangement.
Should the landlord overstep these boundaries, the tenant’s actions are quite clear. The tenant may call the police regarding a trespasser. The tenant may also sue the landlord for trespass, and may have grounds to terminate the lease without penalty and move away to someplace he or she feels more comfortable.