How to Safely Navigate Landlord-Tenant Laws as a Real Estate Investor

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Before I was an experienced landlord, I had lots of ideas and expectations.

Didn’t we all?

Before I knew anything about landlord-tenant laws, I thought you could just put clauses and clever phrases into your lease. A lease is a binding legal document, right? I should be able to just slip in things like:

“If tenant fails to pay rent for 5 consecutive days, landlord may remove tenant and all tenant possessions, change the locks and re-rent.”

If they sign the lease, they are agreeing to the terms, so this is totally legit. How hasn’t anyone thought of this before? I’m such a genius!

All of you experienced landlords can stop laughing now.

Landlord-tenant laws rule the world of rentals. You may have read in the Forums that the lease reigns supreme, but the landlord-tenant laws of your state trump the lease.

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Learn Your State’s Landlord Tenant Laws

There are 50 states plus Washington DC. None of them can agree on anything, so that makes 51 different sets of landlord-tenant laws. But the only laws you need to know are the ones that govern the state your property is in.

Related: Landlords: The 6 Best Ways to Minimize Your Chances of a Lawsuit

Do you know how much time you have to provide a written accounting of how you spent any deposit money you keep? (That’s actually the only thing they all have in common — you have to give your tenants a full accounting of how you used any deposit funds you kept.)

How about the laws governing when you can enter the premises? What is the limit your state allows you to charge for late fees?

These sorts of things, among MANY others, are controlled by the landlord-tenant laws in your state. These are precisely the things that can get you into big trouble and can cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Ignorance of the law is no excuse.

Properly prepare yourself as a landlord by learning all the laws — city, county, state, and federal — that govern being a landlord where your property is located.

But not everything is covered in the laws.

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Get Yourself a Rock-Solid Lease

Things not dictated by the laws include policies like smoking in the property, who pays the utilities and in whose name the utilities should be, pets (not to be confused with service or emotional support animals), and cleaning policies.

Smokers are not a protected class. While I would not advise to discriminate against them solely because they smoke, you can absolutely put into your lease that no smoking is allowed in or around the property. If you do not put this into the lease, you have no recourse when your tenant lights up.

Does the rent include utilities? If not, the lease is where that important information should go — not only who is responsible for the utilities, but also whose name is on the utility bill.

Pet owners are also not a protected class. You do not have to allow pets of any kind in your property. Notice I said PETS.

Service animals (animals specially trained to perform a job like a seeing eye dog or a seizure response dog) and emotional support animals (animals who provide emotional support for conditions like PTSD) are NOT pets, and you cannot use the animal as a reason to not rent to the tenant.

You have the right to expect the property be turned back over to you in the same condition in which you rented it, and you may charge a reasonable cleaning fee to ensure this happens.

Knowing what IS covered under the landlord-tenant laws of your state will help you craft a lease to cover those policies that are not.

What’s the Harm?

Evictions are one of the most difficult things a landlord will face. Tenant screening can go a long way to help you avoid an eviction, but even good tenants can have a change in circumstances that leads to an eviction.

My cute little story above about inserting language to avoid a lengthy eviction? Not legal, not enforceable. I could put it in there, and maybe a tenant would read that and get scared. But most likely not.

Many tenants are well versed in the landlord-tenant laws, and you don’t want to find yourself behind the 8-ball.

You might be thinking, “So they call my bluff? What’s the harm?” If you don’t follow the proper steps to an eviction, your case can be dropped, causing you to start all the way back at square one.

If you keep a tenant’s security deposit or even just fail to properly account for the money you held back for damages and the tenant takes you to court, a judge can determine that you didn’t follow the laws and can award treble damages — up to three times the amount you withheld, even if you had a legal right to withhold it.

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When in Doubt, Lawyer Up

The best person to write up your lease is a super-local real estate attorney. Find someone in your town to craft a lease or to review the one you already have. Any special clauses or addenda should be given special scrutiny — what’s legal and customary in another state may not be in yours.

This won’t be a freebie — expect to pay a few hundred dollars for the review. When choosing an attorney, make sure they will be able to defend you in court if necessary for evictions, tenant lawsuits for withheld security deposits, etc.

Related: 7 Tips to Keep Landlords Free From Costly Tenant Lawsuits

Sit Down and Explain It – Thoroughly

There isn’t any way to absolutely guarantee that a tenant will comply with the lease. Tenant screening can take you far, but it isn’t a sure bet. Just as ignorance of the law won’t get YOU out of compliance, “I didn’t know I couldn’t smoke/have nine dogs/rent the property on AirBnB/had to clean up…” shouldn’t absolve them of their responsibilities, either.

The best way to make your expectations crystal clear is by sitting down with your new tenant when you turn over the keys to the property and going over the lease with them. Explain in as much detail as necessary how you expect they will treat your property and the penalties if they choose to break the rules.

As the owner of the property, you set the tone of the relationship. From the very beginning, make sure your tenant knows that you mean business. Learn your local laws, get a great lease, written as clearly and in language as easy to understand as possible, and stick to it.

Investors: What are the landlord-tenant laws like in your area? Have you ever run into issues trying to navigate these laws?

Leave your stories below.

About Author

Mindy Jensen

Mindy has flipped numerous homes in the past 10 years, one at a time and doing much of the work with her husband. She lives in Longmont, CO, and is always looking for an ugly duckling to turn into a swan.

6 Comments

  1. Curt Smith

    You didn’t mention the key to avoiding challenges to being “denied” your apartment is having written requirements. Here’s an example:

    https://property-services-of-ocean-view.com/Tenant_Requirements.html

    If you google “tenant requirements” you’ll run across apartment building’s requirement, which makes perfect sense. I put my requirements at the bottom of my rental ads.

    Google “federal fair housing enforcement”

    http://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/program_offices/fair_housing_equal_opp/FHLaws/yourrights

    Notice on the right side of the above page “how to file a complaint”.

    We need to know in detail fair housing regs and have our own WRITTEN requirements. Just put it on a sheet that you put on the kitchen counter next to the applications.

  2. Deanna Opgenort

    NOLO press does a great set of landlording books for California (may have other states –avail online or print, or both). Includes a good “starter” lease. Well worth reading both Landlord’s rights AND Tenant’s rights books if you have the time. Read your state’s tenant’s laws (usually on a state.gov site) as well as city laws if you can find them. Research as if you were a tenant trying to find out what your rights are (since that’s what your tenants are likely to do).
    The Nolo books were extremely helpful when I had to “ask” my first tenants to leave. Local lawyer was useless. He charged $110, took my original rather well-written “end of tenancy” letter, shuffled a few minor things around (nothing that had any real legal bearing on anything as far as I could tell) BUT accidentally put her name as “landlord” and mine as “tenant”. The point of having a lawyer is to avoid mistakes, right? I did the rest of the process without him, and fortunately didn’t have to do an eviction.

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