- Buying a home
- Renting a Home
- Unsafe or Unfit Housing
- Landlord Entering Your Home
- Subsidized Housing
- Mobile Home Parks
Buying a home
Buying a house is a good way to build credit while gaining a property asset. In some cases, buying a house can be as affordable as renting. There are several good reasons to own rather than rent:
- You can deduct the cost of your mortgage interest from federal income taxes.
- You can deduct the property taxes paid from your federal income taxes.
- The value of your home will go up through the years.
Buying a house can be complicated, involving brokers (persons who assist buyers and sellers), banks, mortgages, offers and counteroffers. Here is a simple overview of the process.
Find a real estate broker. A broker (or realtor) is not required but can be very helpful. A broker or realtor is a specialist in real estate purchases and sales who can help you pick out a house, deal with the seller and discuss your options for financing with you. See Resources for the Maine Association of Realtors.
Get pre-qualified for a loan. It is a good idea to get pre-qualified for a loan. Pre-qualification is a process that a bank will use to determine how much you may borrow to buy a house. Factors the bank will use include your employment, income and existing debt. Once the bank tells you how much you can borrow, you will know what you can afford. Your realtor can find homes for you to look at in your price range.
Save enough money for your earnest money, down payment, and closing costs. You will need enough money available to provide earnest money. Earnest money is the deposit you put down on your home when you make an offer. You will also need enough money for a down payment (the percentage of the cost you agree to pay upon sale). Your earnest money will be applied to the down payment. You will also need money to pay for closing costs. These are costs you pay to process the paperwork to buy your home.
Financing. You do not need to pay for a house all at once. Your broker will help you decide what kind of financing will work best for you. There are several ways to finance the purchase of a home.
Traditional mortgages. Most people use a fixed rate mortgage, which means that your interest rate will stay the same for the whole length of the loan. If interest rates are particularly high when you mortgage your home you may want to choose an adjustable rate mortgage. This would mean that your interest rate would change as often as twice a year depending on several economic factors. Most traditional mortgages require between ten and twenty percent as a down payment.
HUD (Housing and Urban Development) Programs. The federal government has some mortgage programs for people who do not have a lot of money for a down payment. You can contact a HUD-funded counseling agency to determine whether you qualify for one of these programs. See Resources below.
Rural Development, U.S. Department of Agriculture also offers low-interest loan programs for people with low incomes. See Resources.
Maine State Housing Authority (MSHA) Programs. MSHA has programs for first-time home buyers if they have low or moderate incomes. These programs provide lower interest rate financing and lower down payment requirements than banks. Special mortgages like these can mean that you will have to pay as little as five percent down when you buy your house. See Resources, Maine State Housing Authority.
CAUTION: Be careful about taking on a home loan. Some types of home loans are “predatory,” meaning that they are a good deal for the lender but not a good deal for you. Be sure that you are borrowing from a trust-worthy lender and that you understand the terms. Get advice from a HUD-approved Housing Counselor, if you can, before signing up for a mortgage. See Resources below.
Credit. Consumer protection and credit issues are discussed in Money Matters. Your credit will play a role in obtaining a mortgage. The best way to monitor your credit is by requesting your free annual credit report. See Money Matters.
Property Conditions. You should be familiar with the property before you buy. A real estate broker is required to tell you the truth about these things if you ask questions about them. You should also get a qualified inspector to help you decide if the house is sound. Ask questions about:
- Structural Integrity: Are the foundation, roof, heating system, plumbing, and electrical systems sound?
- Physical Characteristics: What are the characteristics of the land? Can it be built on? What are its boundaries?
- Water Supply: You may need to test that the well on your property is clean and safe. You can request a water testing kit from the Department of Human Services, Health and Engineering Testing Laboratory at (207) 287-2727.
- Insulation: In Maine you must consider how energy efficient your home is. How much will it cost to insulate your home? How much has heating cost in the past?
- Waste Disposal Systems: How old is the waste disposal system in your home? What have past inspections of the system shown?
- Hazardous Materials: Find out if hazardous materials have ever been found on the property. These include: asbestos, lead-based paint, radon, underground storage tanks, and lead in the drinking water.
Renting a Home
The agreement you make with your landlord will affect your rights. There are two types of agreements: leases and tenancy at will.
Leases. You may sign a written agreement called a lease. A lease lists the names of the landlord and tenant, the address of the apartment, the length of the lease, and the day the rent is due. Most leases contain much more than this. Read these "extra conditions" carefully and understand them before you sign.
A lease sets out the rules you and your landlord agree to follow. For example, it will probably say whether the landlord can evict you before the lease ends, what reasons he must have, and what kind of notice he must give you. If the landlord is trying to evict you, a judge will look at what your lease says to decide the case. If something in a lease is grossly unfair to you, a judge may say that it can't be used against you. But, usually your rights depend on what the lease says.
If you have a written agreement that does not have a "lease term" (a specific amount of time you will be renting), then you have a "rental agreement," not a lease. Our advice to you is the same. Read the agreement and understand it before you sign!
Tenancy at Will. If you rent without a lease, you become a "tenant at will." Maine law gives you certain rights. For example, to evict you, your landlord must give you time after a written notice and must get a court order if you are still not out. Read more about this under "Evictions" below.
Whether you have a lease, a rental agreement or a tenancy at will, the following rules apply:
Security Deposits. A security deposit is money you give to your landlord when you move in. Your landlord can use it to cover any unpaid rent or damages. You may not use your security deposit to cover your last month's rent unless your landlord agrees.
There are limits to what your landlord can charge. Your landlord cannot make you pay a security deposit that is more than two times your monthly rent. If you live in subsidized housing, your security deposit should be much less. Check with your housing authority.
Return of your deposit. If you owe back rent or you have damaged your apartment, your landlord may deduct those costs from your security deposit. If you owe your landlord more than the amount of your security deposit, he may sue you in court.
Your landlord cannot keep your security deposit for "normal wear and tear." Examples of "normal wear and tear" are:
- a worn carpet
- chipped paint on the edge of a cupboard door
- worn finish on wood floor
- faded or dingy paint
Your landlord can deduct the cost of fixing damages that are beyond "normal wear and tear." Examples of these damages are:
- kid's crayon art on the walls
- broken windows
- holes in the wall
- leaving trash or other items that have to be thrown away
- leaving your apartment so dirty that it is unsafe or unhealthy
If your apartment is damaged by a storm, a fire, or a vandal, tell your landlord right away. He cannot charge you for the repairs if you or your guests did not cause the damage. It is also a good idea to make a police report.
Your landlord must either return all of your security deposit or send you a letter telling you why he is not giving some or all of it back. He must send this letter to your "last known address." Give your landlord your new address, or make sure your mail is being forwarded so that you will get the letter.
If you are a tenant at will (no written lease), your landlord must give back the deposit or send you the letter within 21 days after you move out and return the key. If you have a lease, check to see what it says. If there is nothing in the lease about this, or if the lease gives more than 30 days, then your landlord has 30 days to return the deposit. This is the legal limit.
Remember, if you follow these tips, you will have a better chance of getting your security deposit back.
- Get a payment receipt and keep it.
- When you move in, make a list of the defects. Keep the list and give a copy to your landlord.
- Clean your apartment and take away all of your things, including trash.
- Take pictures or write down what is right and what is wrong with the apartment when you leave. Have a friend look over the apartment just before you move out. (He can be a witness in case you have to go to court).
- Leave your new address with the landlord (so he can send you your deposit).
- Try not to owe any rent when you leave.
Unsafe or Unfit Housing
Your landlord has a duty to make sure your apartment is safe and fit for tenants. If your housing is not safe, you have some remedies.
Landlord's duty. Maine law gives tenants an "implied warranty of habitability." This means that your landlord must promise that your home is safe and fit to live in. Examples of landlord violations:
- undrinkable water
- no heat or too little heat in the winter
- a combination of problems, such as leaking ceilings, unsafe heating system, broken windows, and roaches
If your home is not safe, take the following steps:
Step One. Ask your landlord to fix the problem. If he does nothing, you may want to follow up with a written demand. Keep a copy of your letter.
Step Two. Call your city hall or town office and ask about any housing codes that may apply to your building. If your town has a building code enforcement officer, you can ask him to look at your home and send the landlord a letter demanding that he fix any serious problems. If there is no building inspector, ask if there is a health inspector to look at your home and contact the landlord. All towns also have local plumbing inspectors.
Step Three. If you cannot get local help, you may be able to get some help from one of the state agencies listed offices.
State Fire Marshall's Office
Licensing and Inspection Unit
626-3880 TTY: 287-3659
Electrical wiring problems:
Senior Electrical Inspector
624-8640 TTY: 1-888-557-6690
624-8639 TTY: 1-888-557-6690
Lead paint. You can be tested or have your children tested for lead. Ask your family doctor or clinic about lead tests. If your child's test shows a high level of lead, the lab will tell the Maine State Lead Prevention Program in Augusta. They can inspect your home for free and order your landlord to remove the lead.
To test for lead in your home, use a lead swab kit. You can buy one at a local hardware store for $2.00-$5.00.
Contact the Maine State Lead Prevention Program at 1-866-292-3474 before starting a home repair or before allowing a landlord to start a repair that may disturb lead paint. Someone from the program can talk with you about the best ways to keep your risk of lead exposure low.
If you have a young child who has been harmed by a landlord's failure to tell you about known lead hazards, or failure to give you other required warnings (see "Tips" above), he may be fined or ordered to pay you damages. Get legal advice.
Smoke alarms. All apartments must have smoke alarms in or near bedrooms. This rule also applies to single-family homes built or renovated after 1981. In apartment buildings with more than 3 stories, all hallways must have alarms. Landlords may be fined for up to $500 for each violation. If you are deaf or hard-of-hearing, you may request a non-audible alarm. If your landlord refuses, you may put one in yourself and deduct the actual cost from your rent. (See below.)
Fixing the problem yourself: "Repair and Deduct." Sometimes if a repair is not too major, you can "repair and deduct." You can fix the problem and deduct the cost of the repair from your next month's rent. To find out the rules for doing this, contact Pine Tree Legal Assistance.
Withholding rent. Maine law does not really protect you if you withhold rent. You will risk eviction and can still be charged for the rent while you are living there. Talk to a lawyer before you decide to stop paying rent. Exception to the rule: If your apartment burns down or is so damaged that you can no longer live there (and it's not your fault), you do not have to pay rent from the day you are forced out.
Many people are confused about whether a landlord has to have a reason to evict you. The answer depends on whether you are a tenant at will or have a written lease.
If you have a written lease or live in subsidized housing or own your own home in a mobile home park, your landlord probably has to have a reason to evict you.
If you are a tenant at will (no lease) and you do not live in your own home in a mobile home park, your landlord can evict you without giving a reason. However, he must give you 30 days notice in writing. There are some exceptions to this, explained below.
Prior notice. In almost all cases, your landlord must notify you in writing before taking you to Court to get an eviction order. The type of notice he must give depends on what type of tenancy you have.
If you don't move out after this notice expires, your landlord must go to court to evict you! If you do not move out by the end of the notice period, then your landlord can have you served with court papers. The court case is called a "Forcible Entry and Detainer." (This does not mean that the landlord can enter your home by force or detain you.) The papers say that he is trying to evict you. They ask the court to hold a hearing to decide if you can be evicted. If you want to fight the eviction, you have a right to be heard in court. A landlord cannot legally evict you without a court order.
Here is what will happen:
- A deputy sheriff will give you court papers: a summons and a complaint. The landlord can have these papers served on you anytime after the end of the notice period. The summons will tell you the date, time and place of the court hearing. You must get the papers at least 7 days before the court hearing.
- Seek legal advice immediately.
- If you end up going to the hearing without a lawyer, ask for a recorded hearing. Send a letter to the court ahead of time. Then ask for a recording again when you get to court.
- You have the right to a free interpreter, if you need one, for the court hearing. Tell the court as early as you can that you will need and interpreter.
- Be on time for your hearing. At the court hearing the landlord will tell the judge what notice he gave you and why he wants you to be evicted. Then you have a chance to explain why you should not be evicted. Get a lawyer if you can, or at least talk to one before your hearing to find out what legal defenses you can use.
If you do not go to the court hearing and your landlord does, you will lose. The judge will most likely enter a "default judgment" against you. Then the landlord can go back to court 7 days later and get a "writ of possession." He takes this "writ" to a sheriff, who will serve it on you. He will give you 48 hours to move before he forces you out.
If you owe the landlord money for rent or damages, he cannot get a court order for this at the eviction hearing. He can only ask for an eviction order. He can sue you later, if he wants to, for any money you owe him.
Illegal eviction. It is illegal for your landlord to throw you out by force. Your landlord must get a court order before he evicts you. If your landlord tries get around this by changing the locks, taking your property, or shutting off any of your utilities he has broken the law. If you take him to court and ask for immediate help, the court may stop the landlord and order him to pay you for your losses or $250.00, whichever is greater, and your court costs. If you have a lawyer and you win, the court can also order your landlord to pay your attorney fees.
Landlord Entering Your Home
If your landlord wants to come into your home to make non-emergency repairs or to show or inspect the apartment, she must give you "reasonable notice." Normally, this means at least 24 hours notice.
Your landlord can come in only at "reasonable times." Generally, this means during the daytime or evening, not in the middle of the night. There may be other factors that make certain times "unreasonable" for you. Exception: If there is an emergency, your landlord can enter after a shorter notice or without notice. For example, the pipes burst or there is a fire in your apartment.
If your landlord does not follow these rules, or if your landlord tries to come in without good reason to the point you feel harassed, you can sue your landlord. The judge can order your landlord to pay you for your "actual damages" or $100.00, whichever is more. She can also order the landlord to stop coming into your apartment without good reason and without fair notice. If you have a lawyer and you win a hearing, the court can also order your landlord to pay your lawyer fees.
If you cannot get a lawyer and if you need fast protection from serious, repeated harassment, you can file a Protection from Harassment complaint in District Court. Call Pine Tree Legal if you want more information about how to do this.
Changing the locks. If you need to change your locks for any reason, you must notify your landlord. Also, you must give him a key within 48 hours of the change. Your landlord may give you an eviction notice if you change the locks without following these rules. He can also charge you for any damage caused, if he needs to enter in an emergency and is locked out.
If a housing authority or other agency pays all of part of your rent, your housing is "subsidized" by the government. Your rent may be subsidized even if your house or apartment is owned by a private landlord. This is usually a "section 8" or "voucher" subsidy. "Public housing" is also subsidized. See Resources.
If you live in "subsidized housing," you should have a standard lease. This lease gives you more protections than most non-subsidized tenants have. For example, your lease may have a "grievance procedure" which gives you the right to an informal, out-of-court hearing on a complaint you have against your landlord. Your lease probably gives you more protections against eviction than the ones described above. It may say that your landlord cannot evict you unless he has "good cause" or unless he can prove you broke the lease. You also have rights under federal law that may not be explained in your lease.
Different subsidized housing programs have different rules and different form leases. Read your lease! If you are not sure of your rights under your lease or if you are being evicted from subsidized housing, contact your local Pine Tree Legal office.
Mobile Home Parks
If you rent a lot or a home in a mobile home park, many of the rules described above apply to you, but some rules are different. You can find out more about your rights in a mobile home park from Pine Tree Legal Assistance or the Attorney General's office.
This is a summary of The Rights of Tenants in Maine. For more details, see resources below.
Pine Tree Legal Assistance
Buying a Home:
HUD-approved Housing counselors:
HUD: Buying a Home
Rural Development, U.S. Department of Agriculture
Maine Association of Realtors
19 Community Dr.
Augusta, ME 04330
Maine Human Rights Commission
51 State House Station
Augusta, Maine 04333-0051
HUD Fair Housing Office
10 Causeway Street, Room 321
Boston, MA 02222-1092
phone: 1-617-994-8300 or
toll free: 1-800-827-5005
Subsidized rental housing:
Maine State Housing Authority
89 State House Station
Augusta, Maine 04330
toll free phone: 1-800-452-4668
County-by county list of subsidized housing projects in Maine
Other Online Information:
Rights of Tenants in Maine
Don't Borrow Trouble! Mortgages, Home Equity Loans and Refinancing
Consumer Rights When You Live in a Mobile Home
Fair Housing: Your Right to Rent or Own a Home
(also available in Spanish, Somali, Arabic and Chinese)