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What Is Landlord-Tenant Law?

Depending on which side you listen to, both landlords and tenants have too many rights or not enough. Both sides agree that they are unfairly treated, and neither side thinks the other should have more laws on their side.

State laws protecting landlords and tenants sometimes conflict with city, county, or federal laws. When property owners and renters have disputes over who owes what to whom, they need legal help before a problem becomes an eviction or worse.

What Is Landlord-Tenant Law?

Landlord-tenant law is the body of legislation and rights that covers the leasing and renting of all properties. It includes rental agreements, warranties of habitability, tenant rights, the eviction process, and much more.

Landlord/tenant law, or LLT, also includes civil rights and criminal law. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) prohibits housing discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, gender, family status, or disability. Some states allow landlords to evict tenants engaged in certain criminal activities, such as drug sales or prostitution.

Whenever there are landlord-tenant disputes, there are two unhappy parties who think the law is on the other party's side.

Landlord Rights and Responsibilities

A landlord's responsibilities begin with the lease agreement. The lease is the agreement between the landlord and the tenants. It contains everything the landlord must do and everything the tenants can and cannot do during the tenancy period.

Lease agreements are available online, but each state, and sometimes each county or city, has different requirements. For instance, California has a standard lease agreement, but the City of Los Angeles has different rent and eviction laws. If you're considering leasing out a property, you should consult an attorney to be sure you're using the right agreement form.

Landlords must provide a habitable residence when the tenants move in. Each state has its own standards for what constitutes habitable. For instance, Florida requires tenants to turn on the electricity themselves, but landlords may not allow the tenants to move in until the power is on.

Most landlords depend on a property manager for the repairs and maintenance of the property. Your lease agreement should spell out exactly what repairs the landlord handles, how long it will take to complete them, and whom the tenant should contact for routine and emergency repairs. One of the biggest causes of legal issues among tenants and landlords is arguments over household repairs.

Tenant Rights and Responsibilities

Tenants are responsible for paying the rent on time and not destroying the rental property. As long as they do these things, the law protects their rights against almost anything the landlord does. Unfortunately, many tenants are not able to complete these basic duties.

A lease agreement is a legal document. Tenants should obtain legal advice before signing, no matter how straightforward it seems. Failing to obey the terms can lead to eviction.

Tenants should be sure about some things in the lease:

  • Security deposit: Some tenants believe they can use a security deposit as the last month's rent. This is not true unless it says so in the lease. Be sure your lease says how you will pay the last month's rent.
  • Repairs and maintenance: The lease should say what the landlord will fix and what you will fix. If the property manager is fixing things in the unit, there should be regular and emergency numbers.
  • Restrictions: If the lease specifies no pets, that means no pets. If it says no smoking in the unit, it means no smoking. If the lease says rent is due on the first with no exceptions, it is due on the first.
  • Signatures and Safety: Be sure you receive a copy of the entire lease, with signatures, and all additional pages and waivers. Most states' real estate laws require a lead paint page that advises if the building was formerly painted with lead paint. If the building had mold abatement or other toxic material abatement, you must receive copies of these documents. The lease is incomplete unless you have all these documents, with all signatures.

The Eviction Process

All the documentation and paperwork matter because of the eviction process. State laws describe the procedure for evicting a tenant, but it is similar in most states. A landlord may not evict a tenant for no reason or because they want to raise the rent and have found another tenant at a higher rate. A landlord may only evict a tenant for legitimate tenant issues based on non-payment of rent, violation of the lease terms, or in a few cases, violations of the law.

A landlord must give the tenant sufficient notice of intent to evict, and an opportunity to correct the violation, called a "cure or quit" notice. If the tenant has failed to pay rent on time, the landlord must give the tenant three days to pay the back rent before the formal eviction process can begin. If the tenant has done something in violation of the lease, they must have an opportunity to fix the problem.

If the tenant does not correct the problem, the landlord can file a complaint and begin the eviction. The tenant has the right to file a response and explain the reason for their alleged violation. Many of these claims do not require the services of an attorney and land in small claims court.

Repair and Deduct: A Misunderstood Strategy

Almost every tenant has heard somewhere that if the landlord won't fix a problem in their unit, they can fix it themselves and then not pay the rent the next month. Unfortunately, that is not what repair and deduct actually means. Repair and deduct is a legitimate means of tenant self-help, but you must do it properly.

If the landlord or property manager has not fixed an issue in a rental property, the tenant can give notice in writing that if it is not fixed within a statutory period, usually 30 days, the tenant will make the repairs and deduct the cost from the following month's rent. The tenant must give written notice and allow the full time to elapse before beginning repairs. The deducted rent must include all receipts and invoices for the repairs.

If you plan to repair and deduct, consult an attorney to ensure you've done it right.

Landlord-Tenant Lawyers

Whether you are a landlord or a tenant, if you need legal services for your rental property case, you should search carefully for an attorney with experience in the field.

Because landlord-tenant law covers so many legal matters, attorneys tend to focus on one practice area within the law, either landlord or tenant. When you ask for representation, you will need to tell the lawyer whether you are a tenant or a property owner. Most experienced attorneys will be able to give you a referral to the other side if you need one.

Some landlord-tenant attorneys do not handle rental litigation. They work on landlord or tenant legal rights in rent control, zoning ordinances, injury claims relating to renter's insurance, and similar areas.

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