Frequently asked questions about Minnesota landlord-tenant law.

My landlord has kept all of part of my damage deposit, or some other type of deposit: what can I do about it?

First, remember you're not alone. Damage deposit questions are one of the most problematic areas of landlord-tenant law. It appears that some landlords simply consider the damage deposit a "signing bonus" and don't like to give them back. Fortunately, the law is strongly in favor of the tenant in a damage deposit dispute. One exception is if you're thinking about using the damage deposit for your last month's rent: this is forbidden and there are penalties. DO NOT USE YOUR DEPOSIT TO PAY THE LAST MONTH'S RENT.

Minnesota Statue 504.20 deals with damage deposits. The rules that follow apply to any money you might have given your landlord whether it was called a damage deposit, rent deposit, pet deposit, or anything else. The only exception is an explicit advance payment of rent.

Your landlord must provide a list of written reasons for keeping your money within three weeks after you leave, unless you left because the building was condemned in which case they must provide a list within five days. You, in turn, must provide your landlord with an address they can mail the list to. Do this via certified mail (jot a quick note to your landlord with your new address and bring it to the post-office, then keep the green card they send back to you).

If your landlord has sent you a list of reasons see if the landlord claims 1. you didn't pay your rent and so they kept the deposit money to cover it, or 2. you injured the building beyond ordinary wear and tear. If they are claiming they kept money for any other reason, add up the amount and put it aside. After that, add up any amounts that aren't true (for example, the landlord charged for repainting when the apartment hadn't been painted in five years: the repainting is what's called normal wear and tear). Add these amounts to those amounts in the last list and jot them down. Remember, your landlord has the responsibility to prove the "damages" -- you do not have a responsibility to prove they didn't happen. Don't hesitate to remind a judge of that, if necessary.

Add all the amounts on your list and double the total. Then, if your landlord didn't send the list in time or you're reasonably sure they knew they didn't have a right to keep your money, tack on another $200 (that's what "bad faith" means). Give your landlord a call or jot them a nasty note telling them you're going to sue for the total amount you've come to above and that you're "entitled to recover that amount pursuant to Minnesota law." Set a deadline for them returning your deposit and, if they don't, march down the county courthouse and sue them for the total amount -- i.e.: double the amount on your list plus $200, if applicable.

All damage deposit disputes are addressed in conciliation court, not housing court. If you're not sure where conciliation court is, the people at the courthouse will guide you to the right place. Don't forget to add any other amounts you're entitled to in your lawsuit. If you live in Ramsey and Hennepin county and there's also a rent escrow or eviction involved, you should sue in housing court.

My landlord is charging me for "late fees" when I only pay a few days late. Can they do this?

The short answer is: kind-of. Minnesota law obligates you to pay your rent the day it's due. If you pay late, the landlord may require a "late-fee" but this fee may not be a penalty and must be in proportion to the amount of money the landlord lost because of your late payment. Therefore, a late fee of something like $25 -- or even $10 -- a day is probably illegal because it's clearly a penalty and bears no relation to what a landlord actually lost.

If a landlord show you late-fees for paying a mortgage, see when those late fees begin (it's usually not until they've missed their payment by weeks and then it's usually a relatively small amount). If they say they needed to hire extra clerical help to deal with your late payment, make them prove it. Remember, you have the right in any legal case to see evidence: don't believe what your landlord tells you unless he or she is willing to show you proof.

I want to move and I don't have a lease or my lease has expired. How much notice do I have to give my landlord?

If you want to move and you don't have a lease or your lease has expired you are what is called a "tenant-at-will." That is, a tenant who is there with no contractual obligation to remain. Minnesota Statue 504.06 deals with the amount of notice a tenant-at-will needs to give before moving.

As a tenant-at-will you have to give as much notice as the time between lease payments. Therefore, if you pay monthly, you have to give at least one month's notice. Additionally, this notice must be given on or before the day it is due. So, if you want to leave at the end of February you must tell your landlord (preferably, in writing via certified mail) on or before the last day of January. Regardless of how often you pay rent a tenant-at-will never has to give more than three months notice.

I don't live in Minnesota but these rules seem similar to those in my own state. Is it o.k. to to rely on them?

No. The rules of every state are different. Sometimes the differences are subtle but sometimes they can be significant. The best way to antagonize a judge is to bring law to court that is not correct. Call a tenant's union for help -- they should be listed in the phone book. I do plan to write Plain-Person's Guide's to Landlord-Tenant law for other states. If you would like your's considered as a candidate, please drop me an e-mail at the address at the end of this page.

My landlord has done something not permitted or prohibited in the lease which is making it impossible for me to live at my apartment. What can I do?

This area gets tricky. First, run through the rest of this program and make sure that the landlords actions are legal. If they are legal, but simply obnoxious -- like making the tenant live with a roommate they can't stand -- the options are limited. One option would be to try to file a rent escrow claim, in which the tenant pays rent into court and the court holds the money until the landlord makes needed repairs of fulfills promises. A second option is to withhold rent until the landlord remedies the problem.

The other option is to argue your landlord has made life so terrible for you that they in-effect evicted you. The landlords behavior must be so bad that it is as if their actions made it impossible for the tenant to continue living in an apartment just as if they had the sheriff throw the tenant out.. This is called a constructive eviction.

To perform a constructive eviction the tenant must move out of the apartment then claim the landlord did something which made the apartment unlivable. This is very dangerous because if the court disagrees, the tenant will be held responsible for unpaid rent until the apartment can be leased to a new tenant plus the cost to the landlord of finding a new tenant.

Historically, constructive eviction was one of the only ways to get out of a lease if a building was unlivable. However, the legislature encoded the "covenants of habitability" into law. These are a series of responsibilities a landlord cannot dispel through a lease. If the landlord has violated one of the promises, the tenant is better off filing a rent escrow claim than trying to claim constructive eviction.

The Plain-Person's Guide to Landlord-Tenant Law seems biased towards tenants. How can you publish such a thing?

Actually, the Plain-Person's Guide is not as biased as the author originally intended. There just isn't a reason: Minnesota law is generous to tenants, realizing there's an enormous power discrepancy between tenants and landlords. That's why the Attorney General's guide seems a little biased (it's just following the law).

Tenants have since the earliest days of landlord-tenant law been on the bottom. In England, where our laws come from, it was assumed that only God could own land but that God vested the right to give out land to the King. The King in turn gave that right to a several chosen people, called Lords (thus, the term landlord and the House of Lords in England). Lords gave it to sub-lords and so on, until the land was finally leased to the people to lived on it, called serfs.

Life as a serf was rough: they had very few rights. Therefore, the founders of the U.S. reformed the law and adopted relatively liberal policies to tenants. These have always been around: they're as American as apple pie and baseball (and free speech, and elections). The idea was that landlords are in a more powerful position and the state has a moral obligation to intervene and even out the playing field.

Finally, if you're not satisfied with that answer the founder's of the U.S. inserted verbiage into our constitution permitting anyone to say anything they want to. While this has come under attack frequently -- especially on the Internet -- it remains one of the most guarded and treasured of U.S. freedoms. It is under the first-amendment, and all the rules surrounding it, that the Plain Person's Guide is published. Use it, enjoy it, and if you like it drop a note to the author at :

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