Remarkably, problem tenants can often be more aware of the nuances of the law than landlords. It’s amazing how many seemingly underachieving people turn into F. Lee Bailey when they appear in court. If you’re going to successfully protect your property and your rights, here are a few of the laws landlords you need to know.
Generally speaking, the subtleties of landlord/tenant laws vary from state to state. However, many of the basic issues are the same regardless of the state within which your property is located. Key issues include changing or breaking leases; disclosures; security deposit limits, deadlines, and disputes; as well as laws prohibiting landlord retaliation. Other regulations include those governing eviction procedures, basic rent rules and termination of tenancies.
For example, in most states, tenants have the right to break a lease if domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking or elder abuse is occurring. Landlords can’t force people to remain in those situations. Active military duty, health and safety code violations — as well as harassment or invasion of privacy by a landlord are also considered justifiable grounds to break a lease.
In general, landlords must provide disclosures regarding fire protection, as well as whether the building has an emergency notification or evacuation plan. Landlords must also provide their name and address, either on the rental agreement or have it posted conspicuously. Other disclosures include mold information, screening criteria and fees for potential residents, move-in checklists and the nature and amount of the security deposit.
State laws also typically mandate the maximum amount of a security deposit. In California for example, the security deposit cannot exceed two month’s rent for unfurnished units and three months if the dwelling is furnished. Deposits must be returned within a set amount of time and an itemized list of deductions must be provided.
To ensure you’re covered should a dispute arise regarding a deposit, you must conduct a documented inspection according to the move-in checklist with which the tenant was provided as part of the lease agreement. You should also prepare an itemized list of deductions. If you are called upon to defend yourself in small claims court, you want to make sure you can show you were aware of — and followed — your state’s security deposit rules to the letter.
Any form of retaliation against a tenant who has exercised a legal right is considered a violation of the law in practically every state.
Termination notices, rent hikes, or any other demonstrably punitive measures will be frowned upon in court. Among others, these rights include complaints to government agencies regarding housing discrimination, health or safety issues and political activity.
As you might well imagine, there are strict guidelines governing eviction procedures. Tenants must be given adequate written notice of a violation and a chance to mend their ways. Eviction procedures vary state by state, so it’s important to make sure you’re in precise compliance with the rules governing evictions, or your case could be thrown out of court.
In all likelihood, you’ll already know if rent control is a factor in your city. However, there may be statutes covering when and how rent increases can be imposed, even in non-rent controlled situations. Further, if you find yourself in a dispute with a tenant, they may well decide to withhold rent payments until the dispute is settled. You’ll want to make sure you’re well-grounded in the rules regarding that activity as well.
Requirements governing the termination of month-to-month tenancies typically require 30 to 60 days’ notice, and there are specific parameters within which notice must be given. Again, these vary state-by-state, so make sure you’re familiar with the way your state wants these matters conducted.
While it’s impossible to cover all of the laws landlords need to know in an article such as this, our goal here is to provide you with the basics, as well the resources you need to be at least as knowledgeable as your tenants are likely to be.
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