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Tom Clark

Tom Clark|United States

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Can You Do That? Your Complete Guide to Landlord Tenant Law

May 22, 2019

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Being a landlord is no easy task.

You're responsible for purchasing and maintaining your property so that tenants can live in it. On top of that, you have to make sure that you're well-versed in landlord-tenant law to avoid ending up in court. With an ever-rising percentage of Americans renting homes instead of purchasing them, good landlords are in high demand.

Not on the up-and-up with landlord-tenant law? You've come to the right place. Read on to learn all about your rights and obligations as a landlord.

You Have an Obligation to Not Discriminate

When it comes to renting out your personal property, it's only natural that you'd feel picky about who gets to live there. Unfortunately, the federal government has limited your ability to choose who lives in your home if you restrict people who fall under a protected class based on their membership in that class. The Fair Housing Act restricts landlords from discriminating against people on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or disability. 

How does this look in real life?

Let's say you place an ad on Craigslist for a two bedroom apartment. In that ad, you state that the apartment is available to "graduate students and young professionals only." You have violated the Fair Housing Act because you are refusing to rent to families.

In short, you cannot refuse to rent to people within these protected classes and, if you already rent to them, you cannot take any adverse action against them if it based on their membership in those classes.

You Have the Right to Require Tenants to Qualify

Does staying in compliance with the Fair Housing Act mean that you have to rent to anyone who applies to live in your property? Absolutely not! You still have the right to establish minimum standards for qualification, so long as they are not discriminatory.

For example, you can require renters to have a minimum credit score, a positive rental history, and meet minimum income requirements. You can even limit the number of people who live in your property so long as it isn't based on the fact that the applicants are a family.

A good rule of thumb to follow in order to stay in compliance with the Fair Housing Act is to allow any person or persons who qualify to rent out your property.

You Have an Obligation to Maintain the Property

Your job isn't done once tenants move into your property. You still have an obligation to maintain the property and keep them in a habitable condition. You also have to make sure that the property is delivered and maintained in accordance with expectations at the time your tenants signed the lease.

Let's unpack that a bit.

First, you must give your tenants a way to get in touch with you in the event something within the apartment stops working or gets damaged. Let's say your tenant emails you and says that the oven is broken. It is your responsibility to repair or replace the oven as soon as possible.

If you do not repair or replace the oven, then the tenant may have the right to repair the oven themselves and deduct the expense from the rent, or they may be able to withhold rent until it is repaired. Why? Because when the tenants executed the lease, they agreed to pay rent on an apartment with a functioning oven, and failing to repair or replace the oven puts you in violation of the lease agreement.

You Have the Right to Require Tenants to Take Care of Premises

Part of the lease agreement is a good faith expectation that the tenant will do their best to keep the apartment clean and undamaged. You can also require them to handle minor repairs, such as replacing drip pans on the stove or replacing lightbulbs, themselves.

This right allows you to charge your tenants if they caused the damage to your property. So, if your tenant's dog broke the glass on a bedroom window, you have to make the repair, but you have every right to require them to cover the cost of the repair.

You Have the Obligation to Return Security Deposits

Once your tenant moves out, you must return the balance of their security deposit minus the cost of cleaning and necessary repairs. Many states require you to return the security deposit along with an itemized statement of repairs within a certain time frame. If you do not return the security deposit or send out a statement within that time frame, then you could potentially face monetary damages.

You must be reasonable when assessing charges. A good practice is to pro-rate the cost of repairs based upon the life of the item that needs to be repaired or replaced. For example, if you need to replace the carpet, and the carpet has a life of five years, you calculate the tenant's share of the cost of replacement based upon when the carpet was put in and the date that the tenant moved out.

You Have the Right to Sell 

Being a landlord doesn't mean you have to hang on to the property so long as you have tenants living there. In fact, you can sell the property at any time.

That doesn't mean, however, that, as soon as you sell the property, the tenant must move out. The buyer must honor the existing lease until it expires. At that time, the new owner can choose whether to renew the lease.

If you're not sure how to sell your house while you still have tenants living there, seek out the help of a realtor or an attorney who is well-versed in landlord-tenant law.

Landlord-Tenant Law Isn't Complicated

On its face, landlord-tenant law can seem like a complicated body of law. In reality, your obligations under federal, state, and local laws generally require you to simply be a landlord who doesn't discriminate, keeps your property in habitable conditions, and who is reasonable about rental rates and security deposits. In short, treat your tenants like you would like to be treated if you were in their position.

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