Landlord-Tenant Law Basics

tenantriskverification July 25, 2012 0

Most aspects of landlord-tenant relationships are regulated by state and local laws. However, federal statutory law may be a factor (1) in times of national/regional emergencies, (2) in preventing forms of discrimination (e.g., fair housing laws), and (3) regarding certain health or safety issues (e.g., lead-based paint). Failure to obey the law can be costly and ignorance of the law is not a legal excuse.

Landlord-Tenant Law protects landlords and tenants in the renting of real property, both residential and commercial. It defines the rights and obligations of landlords and tenants during the tenancy.

All states have landlord-tenant laws although there are variances among the states. Most states’ laws are similar, sharing general principles of contract law, property law, and, in some states, consumer protection statutes. A number of states
have based their statutory law on either the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (URLTA) or the Model Residential Landlord Tenant Code. Some city and county governments also have enacted various landlord-tenant regulations. There can be instances where the local statute has stricter regulations than does the state statute. The general rule is that local regulation cannot go against state or federal regulation but can impose the stricter rule if the general rule is silent upon the issue.

Landlord Tenant Relationship

The landlord-tenant relationship is founded on duties proscribed by either statutory law, common law, or the individual lease document. What provisions may be contained in a lease (oral or written) are normally regulated by statutory law. Any provisions that do not comply with statutory law are illegal and are unenforceable. The location of the real property determines the applicable state law.

The tenant has a property interest in the land (historically a non-freehold estate) for a given period of time. The length of the tenancy may be for a given period of time, for an indefinite period of time, (e.g. renewable or cancelable on a month to month basis), terminable at any time by either party (at will), or at sufferance if the agreement has been terminated and the tenant fails to leave (holds over). If the tenancy is tenancy for years or periodic the tenant has the right to
possess the land, to restrict others (including the landlord except for specific purposes) from entering upon it, and in most cases, to sublease or assign the tenant’s interest in the property. The landlord-tenant lease agreement may eliminate or limit some of these rights by statutes.

Unless the lease states otherwise, there is an assumption that the tenant has a duty to pay rent. State statutes may provide for a reasonable rental value to be paid absent a rental price provision. Summary eviction statutes commonly allow a landlord to quickly evict a tenant who breaches statutorily specified lease provisions, particularly a failure to pay rent. Landlords in many states are restricted from evicting tenants in retaliation of action the tenant took in regards to enforcing a provision of the lease or applicable law.

In most states, commercial landlord-tenant law is significantly different than residential. For example, many states allow the landlord to lock out a commercial tenant for non-payment of rent provided that
correct procedures are followed, essentially shutting down his business.

Landlord Responsibilities

In most jurisdictions a landlord’s general responsibility can be summarized as a duty to:

  1. Maintain the premises in a fit and habitable condition.
  2. Maintain the common areas of buildings and grounds in safe and sanitary condition.
  3. Comply with building, housing, health, and safety codes.
  4. Keep all electrical, plumbing, heating, and ventilation systems and fixtures in  good working order.
  5. Maintain all appliances and equipment supplied or required to be supplied by the landlord.
  6. Provide running water and reasonable amounts of hot water and heat, unless the hot water and heat are supplied by an installation that is under the exclusive control of the tenant and supplied by a direct public utility hook-up.
  7. Provide garbage cans and arrange for trash removal if the landlord owns four or more residential units in the same building. Some jurisdictions also require recycling containers.
  8. Give at least 24 hours notice, unless it is an emergency, before entering a tenant’s unit, and enter only at reasonable times and in a reasonable manner.
  9. Evict the tenant when informed by a law enforcement officer of drug activity by the tenant, a member of the tenant’s household, or a guest of the tenant occurring in or otherwise connected with the tenant’s premises.

Tenant Responsibilities

In most jurisdictions a tenant’s general responsibility can be summarized as a duty to:

  1. Keep the premises safe and sanitary.
  2. Keep the plumbing fixtures as clean as their condition permits.
  3. Use electrical and plumbing fixtures properly.
  4. Comply with housing, health, and safety codes that apply to tenants.
  5. Refrain from damaging the premises and keep guests from causing damage.
  6. Maintain appliances supplied by the landlord in good working order.
  7. Conduct himself in a manner that does not disturb any neighbors and require guests to do the same.
  8. Permit landlord to enter the dwelling unit if the request is reasonable and proper notice is given.
  9. Comply with state or municipal drug laws in connection with the premises and require household members and guests to do likewise.

Rights of Tenants

There are two important tenant rights that the landlord must protect:

Covenant of Quiet Enjoyment

The courts have upheld the right of the tenant to quiet enjoyment of leased premises regardless of whether the lease agreement contains such a covenant. This covenant ensures the tenant that during his tenancy, the tenant’s use and enjoyment of the dwelling unit will not be disturbed by someone with a superior legal title to the land including the landlord. The covenant between landlord and tenant provides the tenant with the right to exclude others from the premises, the right to peace and quiet, the right to a clean and habitable environment, and the right to basic services. If the tenant is deprived in whole or in part of the beneficial use and enjoyment of the leased premises due to actual or
constructive action by the landlord, a breach of the covenant has occurred.

Warranty of Habitability

The implied warranty of habitability is a legal doctrine in most states that requires landlords to offer and maintain leased premises in a safe and sanitary condition fit for human habitation for the duration of the lease.

In the past landlords were only required to deliver possession of the premises to the tenant in return for the tenant paying rent. However, courts began to uphold that the lease by its nature was a contract and was controlled by principals of contract law. The lease contained mutual dependant warranties – the tenant’s promise to pay rent and the landlord’s imposed obligation to provide habitable premises.

A material breach of obligations by either party relieves the other party from his obligation as long as the breach continues. If the landlord causes a material breach of the warranty the tenant may be entitled to such remedies as damages, lease termination, rent abatement, or repair and deduct expenses. The landlord’s obligations do not extend to breakages, malfunctions, or other conditions which do not materially affect the health and safety of the tenant nor is the landlord held to correct conditions caused by misuse or inappropriate use of the premises by the tenant, the tenant’s family or invited guests.

States that have adopted the implied warranty of habitability through statute or judicial law have used one of two approaches to determine habitability requirements. One approach uses local building codes which have specific minimum requirements for essential services such as water, plumbing, and heat. The other approach uses common law definitions of habitable housing conditions.

An important point for landlords is to understand the source of their state’s requirements (building codes or common law) since the source of the warranty controls the landlord’s responsibilities and tenant’s remedies. States that use building codes as the source of warranty make it easier for compliance because they have detailed, specific requirements for repair and maintenance responsibilities. In states that use common law definitions for habitability, implied warranty is independent of building codes and it may be more difficult to satisfy requirements. Landlords may be responsible for repairs and maintenance under building codes and responsible for repairs and maintenance under the common law approach. Landlords may thus be held to more responsibilities for habitability in those states that use common law definitions for warranty of habitability.

Landlords are advised to check for state and regional variations that may impose additional requirements to ensure habitable conditions.

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