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A Landlord’s Guide to Tenant’s Rights: What You Need to Know to Protect Yourself

by Editor | ezLandlordForms
Landlords Guide Tenant Rights

With most leases, landlords have good experiences with tenants. They reach reasonable rental agreement terms, and the tenants smile and pay on time and remain in the property the entire lease term without damaging the unit.

But not every tenancy ends that way.

If you’re a landlord who intends to be in the property rental business for the long haul, you meet every kind of tenant, good and bad.

Some tenants seem to be looking for the smallest irregularity in your property. Others get into your rental property and seem to become different people, never answering their phones, ignoring emails and seemingly bent on disaster and nonpayment.

And still others seem to magically have a half dozen brothers, sisters and friends who move into a property which you specifically were told would only have two adults and one child.

Whatever you as a landlord intend to do, it is best to know the array of different paths, ordinances and avenues tenants use to stand up for their own “rights.” You need to know these rights to you can best protect yourself.

The rights of a tenant begin early – as soon as they respond to a For Rent listing.

Tenant Rights Materialize as Early as the Tenant’s Own Property Search

Many tenants are very aware of what criteria a landlord can and cannot use to decide who is an appropriate rental candidate. By law, landlords may not discriminate who they rent to based upon race, sex, religion, family status (whether have children), disability, and a variety of other personal characteristics.

However, the Federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the subsequent 1988 Amendments in this area leave many gaps, including owner-occupied properties with 4 or fewer units, certain religious-affiliated housing and properties tailored for senior citizens, among other exceptions. However, some states such as California have passed laws further narrowing these federal exceptions in an effort to reduce discrimination in a way more tailored to their own populations.

So landlords need to be very careful in their written and verbal language they use both in advertisements and in interviews. A word to the wise: don’t blurt out disparaging comments about the number of children who might live in the property or other language that would suggest bias.

Be Careful to Include All Information Required in Leases for Your Area

Some cities require apartment or single family home leases to include an estimate of the average monthly heating bill. This is supposed to prevent unexpectedly high unpaid heating bills that could force a tenant out in the dead of winter.

Other cities require that a tenant complete a walk-through property condition checklist of items to document pre-existing damage to the rental property. This is supposed to prevent later disagreements between the landlord and tenant about the original property condition.

Either way, be aware of the requirements of these lease agreements. If you have a disagreement with your tenant that later ends up in court, good tenant attorneys look for every possible avenue of attack.

Once a Tenant Is in the Unit Lawfully, They Have a Right to Remain

Once you allow tenants to move into a property, they have a right to remain there and you may have to file a forcible entry and detainer (eviction) suit to get them out again.

Sometimes a landlord allows a tenant early entry into a unit expecting to get a security deposit that doesn’t show up. Other times it’s discovered that there was some key misunderstanding between the landlord and tenant that makes it impossible to continue a tenancy.

Either way, if a tenant gets into a unit lawfully, then that tenant has to be taken out lawfully. That can mean either filing suit for forcible entry or giving the tenant proper inducement to leave.

Simply taking the possessions of a tenant and leaving them on the front lawn after changing the locks may get the tenant out in the short run, but you can bet that tenant will scramble to sign up with the first public interest attorney that comes along and file a lawsuit claiming serious damages.

Tenants Have the Right to Live in a Habitable Property

Once your tenants have moved in, they have the right to live in a property that is not falling down around them. Although these laws are enforced with varying zeal around the country, the basic idea is that a landlord must maintain a basic standard of habitability.

Judges in larger, older cities tend to be more sympathetic to a greater number of property condition issues than judges in smaller jurisdictions away from more substantial population centers.

They daily hear about cases of large rats, tubs with no water flow, heating systems that work little if at all during cold winter months, and every other variety of hardship that causes human discomfort.

Also, larger cities often have well-crafted ordinances that create certain steps and procedures for tenants to withhold rent if major life-affecting property elements are in disrepair.

The routine language in these ordinances requires tenants to make a written communication to the landlord about the major property shortcoming. If the repair is not made within 15-30 days, tenants have the right to undertake the repair and offset this by paying less rent.

However, landlords are not responsible for damages that are caused by unreasonable tenant misuse. If a tenant engages in a drunken brawl and puts a person-shaped hole in the wall, the repair costs belong to the tenant.

Most importantly, look carefully at the specific language of the ordinance. Usually, specific written notification of a defect must be made. A few phone calls by a disgruntled tenant are usually not enough to allow rent to be offset.

If You Take Tenants to Court, Judges Will Often Give Them Extra Time

If you need to get tenants out for any reason, and your best negotiations and persuasion have not worked, you may have to resort to the local courts.

In general, the larger the city, the more time judges give tenants at all stages of the process. If you successfully serve a tenant, you might get lucky and get a trial date and resolution on your first court appearance.

But sometimes you show up in court and your tenant appears without an attorney, and asks the court for time. Unless this is the second or third appearance, the judge will usually give some time, typically a week to 14 days. And then there can be a similar delay when a trial date is set.

When the Lease Term Ends, Make Sure You Follow Proper Procedure to Keep or Return the Security Deposit

Some of the biggest headaches for landlords come when they correctly use a tenant’s security deposit to repair damages beyond reasonable wear and tear at the end of the lease term.

The language of most state laws and local ordinances requires that security deposits be held in separate accounts by the landlord (if the owner has more than 5-8 rental units). It also typically requires that security deposits be returned in full or explained within 30-45 days of when a tenant vacates.

So many landlords with good intentions make appropriate repairs, but fail to keep proper documentation, or fail to forward proper notice of this to the tenant.

The problem arises when a savvy tenant or public interest lawyer gets involved. These laws often have provisions that require a landlord to pay double or triple damages, and also pay the tenant’s attorney’s fees.  So take care to document and forward copies of all repairs that lead to a reduced security deposit, so that an ambulance-chasing public interest lawyer doesn’t put you in the crosshairs of a litigation-happy tenant with an axe to grind.

Related Reading:

EZ Landlord Forms’ Ultimate Guide to Landlord Rights

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