You Still Have Rights! Let's talk about the new laws - Tenant Resource Center

You Still Have Rights! Let's talk about the new laws

One of the comments that we hear most frequently here at the TRC is, “well, I guess the [other party] has all the rights.” Landlords say it about tenants, and tenants say it about landlords, but like most things, the truth is way more complex.

The goal of tenant landlord laws is to have some equitable balance of power between tenants and landlords.  Depending on who is in charge politically (folks more inclined to see a tenant’s perspective, or those more inclined to identify with the landlord), the balance shifts.  But it’s never entirely one-sided, and those who want to be given rights have to stand up for them.

So, landlords and tenants, this is your call to action.  The laws have changed, yes, but you still have rights, the other party still has rights, and it’s all of our responsibility to have some sense of what they are and take action based on that knowledge.  That’s why we are here at the TRC – to help you understand what is on the books, and to walk you through possible solutions. 

The most complicated part of these laws is looking at which ones apply for each given situation.

Example #1:

The story: Bill is a landlord in Green Bay. His tenant, Janine, signed her lease on 4/15/12, moved in on 5/1/12, and moved out on 3/31/14.  Bill didn’t give Janine a check-in form, because he’d been doing this for 20 years and never had. While in the apartment, Janine damaged the apartment – she scratched the hardwood floors beyond normal use. Bill tried to hold her responsible for this when she moved out on 3/31/14, assuming that the new law (2013 Wis. Act 76) reinstated the old rules about check-in sheets. While 2013 Wis. Act. 76 did reinstate many of those laws, the law that was effective for their lease was the law that was most current when they signed the lease (2011 Wis. Act 143 because they signed their lease between 3/31/12 and 3/1/14). Thus, Janine got away with the floor-scratching and Bill had to eat the costs because he hadn’t kept track of the laws. [Caveat: not a real story, and each judge will look at the laws and the facts through their own perspective]

Legal Background: Laws on check-in forms originally state that the landlord could simply inform the tenant of the tenant’s right to give the landlord a list of apartment defects within 7 days, or could opt to give a form for the tenant to fill out. On 3/31/12, the law 2011 Wis. Act 143 required that landlords (not tenants) fill out the check in form. On 3/1/14, the law 2013 Wis. Act 76 changed it back.

Example #2:

The story: John was a tenant in La Crosse, and his landlord at the time was Ms. Bernadette Smith. John signed the lease for his unit on 5/15/13 for a lease term of 6/1/13-5/31/14. John’s job transferred him to a different state, and he was forced to move out before his lease term ended. John gave written notice and moved out on 12/31/13.  Due to a miscommunication, Ms. Smith thought John had completely moved out on the afternoon of 12/31, even though he had one load of stuff still to move. Ms. Smith removed the property herself, put it out on the snowy curb, and proceeded to clean the unit and ready it for her daughter, who was finally moving home.  Unfortunately, Ms. Smith didn’t have any clause in her lease allowing her to remove property left behind when a lease is broken, and so she actually needed to follow the 2009 version of the statutes, which require her to give written notice to John before she disposes of his property. John was able to sue Ms. Smith for twice the value of the property that was unrecovered, since he had clear documentation of what was in each box. From then on, Ms. Smith was more aware of what she wrote in her lease. [Caveat: not a real story, and each judge will look at the laws and the facts through their own perspective]

Legal Background #1: The law 2011 Wis. Act 143 changed the rules about property left behind when a tenant is breaking a lease.  It used to be that the landlord had to give written notice (30 days’ notice to give it away, 10 days’ notice to store it and charge for storage), but as of 3/31/12, if the landlord had a clause in their lease stating that they would not store abandoned property, the landlord could do what they wanted with the stuff left behind.

Legal Background #2: The law 2011 Wis. Act 143 also (maybe) gave tenants the right to hold landlords responsible for 2x the amount of the financial loss due to all violations to Wis. Stat. 704, including the property left behind laws.

Moral of the stories: Be aware of the topic areas that each law changes, and whether they apply to you.  Below is a very brief list of the categories of topics that are changed by the various laws.

2013 Wis. Act 76, effective 3/1/14. This law makes changes to: 

  • Disclosures that a landlord must tell the tenant *
  • Towing cars on private property
  • Property left behind once a lease is broken
  • Rules about charging for damages and pest infestations
  • Check-in sheets *
  • Domestic abuse protection language that must be in every lease
  • Rules about Nonstandard Rental Provisions *
  • Security deposits, but only having to do with evictions, breaking leases, and commercial leases
  • Lease clauses that make a lease void
  • Timing of evictions in court are sped up
  • Landlords can let “agents of a landlord” represent them in court
  • Counties can choose whether they will require personal service for summons and complaints in evictions procedures
  • A landlord accepting rent after the 5-day notice has expired isn’t a defense against being evicted
  • Landlords can choose to remove a tenant at the end of the eviction process without the sheriff being there
  • There are officially no rules about landlord references


2011 Wis. Act 143, effective 3/31/12.  This law makes changes to: 

  • Lease clauses which make a lease void at the tenant’s choice
  • Property left behind once a lease is broken
  • Disclosure of building code violations prior to signing the lease
  • Check-in sheet *
  • Staying past the end of the lease, and what a landlord can charge
  • Security deposit return when breaking a lease
  • All violations to 704 while this law is in effect (3/31/12-3/1/14) might allow the tenant to seek double damages
  • A landlord accepting rent after the 5-day notice has expired isn’t a defense against being evicted


 2011 Wis. Act 108, effective 12/21/11.  This law makes changes to many local ordinances: 

  • Removed some local protected classes in fair housing laws *
  • Removed some limitations on what a landlord can check when screening potential tenants for housing *
  • Removed some limitations on when a landlord can show a property *
  • Removed some limitations on security deposits and earnest money *
  • Removed some limitations on credit check fees


* Madison, Fitchburg and Dane County laws are extra tricky. When you look at the local ordinances, you’ll notice that the local written version of those laws haven’t changed, even if they’ve been affected by the law changes.  When trying to assert rights given in a local ordinance, it’s wise to check them against state laws.  Confused yet?  Contact us.

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