Whose Job Is It? Your Lease Must Make It Clear
Here's a goose bump-inducing fact for you: Florida is home to more than 80 species of mosquitoes – more than in any other state or province in North America. Is it any wonder that lawmakers in Florida require that windows in rental properties have screens and that landlords repair those screens once every year? It's true! It's part of Florida's landlord-tenant law.
In fact, officials there are stepping up enforcement of that rule in light of the recent revelation that dozens of pregnant women in Florida are being watched for the Zika virus. The virus is carried by some mosquitoes and has been linked to serious birth defects.
Florida isn't alone in setting mandates that require landlords to keep their rental properties in good shape. It's up to the landlord to know the maintenance and repair requirements in the state or province where the rental unit is located, and to make sure that rental agreements follow state laws.
But what about tenant responsibilities? Landlord-tenant laws cover some areas of tenant responsibility but the rest is up to the landlord to explain in advance. No tenant should be expected to guess at the rules that apply at a particular rental property.
For instance, you may know that your city expects its residents to retrieve empty bins from the curb once trash has been picked up on collection days. Will your tenant know that rule? Will he or she know that failing to shovel snow from sidewalks within as little as one day may result in a fine, depending on the town's rules?
How do landlords explain the rules?
When we buy a new appliance, we expect to get an instruction booklet with it. Those lengthy brochures cover everything from the seemingly obvious – Don't submerse electrical components in water – to such lesser known details as how to replace worn-out parts.
Rental leases work the same way. Everything should be included, from the obvious – No use, possession or sale of illegal drugs – to guidelines on such things as how many overnight guests are permitted and how long guests may stay. That way, any failure to follow the rules becomes a lease violation.
Here's why that's a good thing: Lease violations can be resolved, or “cured”, with a written notice. The notice explains that the violation must be remedied or the tenant could face eviction. If a tenant breaks a rule that isn't in the lease, the landlord has to make a convincing argument against further infractions. Yet, in many cases, a verbal request from the landlord lacks the authority of a lease term.
Imagine your tenant wants to plant a garden and, in order to make room for his vision of vegetables, he digs up beds of flowers that you purchased and carefully planted. Without a lease clause that forbids such action, all that you, the landlord, may be able to do is throw up your hands. Why not attach a New Tenant Welcome Letter to your leases? It explains the steps your tenant must take before changing the landscaping or painting a room, or when minor repairs are needed. Your tenant's signature on the lease is all you need to confirm that he has read its contents.
Landlords who leave out rules can unintentionally hurt tenants. Without knowing it, a tenant may break local laws. That's because most municipalities have ordinances that govern residents' activities. They typically state how many days trash cans can be on a curb in advance of garbage collection days, how soon after a snowfall sidewalks must be shoveled, or how long grass is permitted to grow before it must be mowed. In some Maryland communities, for instance, it's against the law to mow or blow grass clippings into the street or leave them on the sidewalk. If landlords in those Maryland towns fail to include a clause about picking up grass clippings, unsuspecting tenants may get a nasty surprise when local authorities impose a fine for clippings left on the sidewalk or street.
Every guideline that is listed in a lease is a preemptive strike against tenant confusion. Clear expectations save landlords time and money, not to mention anxiety over possible misunderstandings.
What are the possible scenarios?
Once you establish the rent amount and other lease basics, the best way to decide what else to include is to ask yourself, “What can go wrong?”
For example, every rental will need repairs at some point, even if it's just replacing burned-out bulbs or clearing a clogged kitchen sink trap. Lease agreements can specify who must buy and replace light bulbs. They can state that tenants must cover the cost of repairs up to a certain amount, say, $50, and must provide the landlord with details on the repairs.
Think about scenarios with your specific tenant, too. If you're renting to someone who is an auto mechanic, you may want to specify that no repairs may be done to autos other than the tenant’s own vehicles. You also may want to limit the number of vehicles that may parked on the property at any given time.
Lease terms can set noise limits, prohibit trampolines and forbid tire burnouts in the driveway or parking lot. You can expressly forbid the use of portable heaters and ban the use of the kitchen oven as a room heater. Leases can require the tenant to seek permission to erect a basketball net, swing set, sandbox and wading pool.
Don't let misunderstandings arise over appliances, either. When listing appliances that you will supply and maintain with the unit, be sure to only list those you are actually going to maintain. If a previous tenant left behind a refrigerator that's in good shape, and the new tenant wants to use it, fine, but don't include “refrigerator”on in the list of appliances you will supply, or you will have to repair or replace it if it breaks down.
Lease addenda increase the number of pages in a lease, without a doubt, but that lengthy document is an invaluable resource when questions arise about what is and isn't permitted at the rental. So, take your time when writing a lease, consider possible problems ahead of time and make sure nothing is left to chance.