Tenants: Protect Yourself in Rental Agreements

Authored By: Iowa Legal Aid LSC Funded
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When clients come into our office due to a landlord-tenant dispute, one of the first questions we ask them is what kind of records they have kept during their tenancy. Having documented evidence to bring to court often is the difference between winning and losing. Photos, receipts, leases and correspondence are all important when preparing for a court case.

Treat every landlord-tenant arrangement as if you will one day have to explain the whole situation to a judge. It is up to you to protect yourself by keeping detailed records of your tenancy. This means:

  • Putting in writing any important messages to your landlord and keeping a copy, as well as keeping copies of any notices you receive from your landlord;
  • Keeping copies of all written documents;
  • Getting receipts for rental payments, and for the return of keys to your landlord. While there is no law forcing a landlord to give you a receipt, you should request one. If your landlord refuses, try paying with a personal check or money order, or write out a receipt yourself and ask your landlord to sign it. Before you sign a lease, ask the landlord if it is their practice to give receipts. If they don't, you should think twice about renting from them;
  • Having a witness handy to see or hear anything that could later be the subject of dispute;
  • Taking photos of any condition of the rental property which you may want to describe to a judge later on, including taking photos showing that you have cleaned everything thoroughly;
  • Keeping a record or diary of when important events took place (for example: when you first complained about the need for repairs, or when the landlord came in without knocking).
  • You should also pick up all certified mail from the post office right away. A landlord can send you very important notices by certified mail. Those notices should also be given to you by regular mail and posted as well.

It is best to avoid conflicts by trying to maintain a feeling of cooperation and consideration in a landlord-tenant relationship. No one likes going to court. But by treating every rental arrangement as though it could end up before a judge, you'll be prepared for the time if and when it does.



Iowa Legal Aid provides help to low-income Iowans. 

To apply for help from Iowa Legal Aid:

  • call 800-532-1275.
  • Iowans age 60 and over, call 800-992-8161.
  • Apply online at
If Iowa Legal Aid cannot help, look for an attorney on “Find A Lawyer” on the Iowa State Bar Association website   A private attorney there can talk with you for a fee of $25 for 30 minutes of legal advice.
As you read this information, remember this article is not a substitute for legal advice.
Last Review and Update: Feb 22, 2021