As a landlord, you may own a rental property, but once a tenant inhabits it, you can no longer enter the premises whenever you wish. In fact, tenant privacy rights are very closely regulated, although the laws do vary from state to state.
However, even though there are differences in the way each state protects tenants’ rights, there are some general requirements that are applicable in almost every situation, says attorney Henry Pharr III, a partner with the law firm of Horack Talley. Along with his paid work, Henry also has a pro bono practice, which includes landlord/tenant cases for Mecklenburg County (North Carolina) Legal Aid.
Henry noted that unless the lease says that the landlord is to have unlimited access to the apartment, the landlord is required to give reasonable notice, either written or verbal, that they will be entering the apartment and the reason for the entry. Other than an emergency, the two reasons for entry are to make a repair, or to show the apartment to a perspective tenant.
Henry added that the term “reasonable notice” is generally interpreted to mean that the tenant is given enough time to be out of the apartment if they choose, or at least not be caught in an embarrassing situation.
There’s another important point to remember about having given notice. Even though you have told the tenant you are coming, you don’t have the right to enter the property anytime of the day or night unless it is a real emergency. To enter at unreasonable time of the day or night would be violating the tenant’s right to the “quiet enjoyment” of the apartment, and the tenant’s right to have full reign over the space. If a landlord violates these rights by continually entering the premises with their key and without giving notice, the tenant can go to court and sue as long as they can show they have suffered damages a s a result of this action. A good example of this is if the tenant works from home, and the landlord’s repeated entry has caused the tenant to be unable to finish their work.
Knowing when you as landlord can enter an apartment isn’t as difficult as it may seem. Here’s how Henry breaks it down:
• Obvious emergency like smoke coming out of the apartment – landlord can enter and the tenant would not be able to contest.
• Serious repair, but not an emergency such as replacing a substantial length of leaking pipes – The landlord should be able to get access, although the tenant has some input as to when this can be done.
• Showing the apartment to a perspective tenant – Here is where the tenant has the most input, and the landlord must respect their rights when making an appointment to show the apartment.
Each state may have different requirements pertaining to when the landlord may enter the leased premises. So what is the best way to protect yourself from being sued for violating a tenant’s right to privacy? Have a lease that spells out when the landlord can enter, and know your state’s privacy statutes. Contact your State Attorney General's Office or Consumer Protection Agency to get advice about tenant privacy rights.