Owning a rental property is just like running any other business; as a landlord, you must provide your tenants with habitable units while still turning a profit. No matter how experienced you are in doing this, though, there may come a time when run into a troublesome tenant and, thus, some murky legal water. Maybe a tenant is overstaying their lease or harassing a neighbor. Perhaps you need to evict someone, yet you aren’t sure how. Before you accidentally step outside the law or make the matter worse, contact an attorney for advice.
As a landlord, there are countless circumstances where you would benefit from the knowledge, experience, and guidance of an attorney. Here are some of the most common scenarios:
You are unsure of your right to evict a tenant.
When it comes to evicting tenants, some situations are not black and white. If you are unsure in the slightest, call a lawyer before you send an eviction notice or ask a court to grant an eviction order. Also, be aware that your right to evict a tenant—and the process—depends on state and local laws. Every jurisdiction has its own rules, though common reasons for eviction include tenants failing to pay rent, tenants conducting illegal activity on the premises, and landlords putting the property up for sale.
Eviction is especially tricky in a city like New York, where laws are more pro-tenant and rental units can be rent stabilized or rent controlled. "In New York, an eviction lawsuit is a summary proceeding that takes much less time than other New York civil matters," writes New York real estate attorney Sean Hayes of IPG Legal. "But, in exchange for the expedited treatment of cases, landlords must follow detailed court rules to the letter. These rules range from serving proper and timely notice on the tenant to filing the right papers in court with the appropriate legal arguments. Additionally, landlords should know at the outset that New York Landlord-Tenant judges, who recognize that the subject matter of the litigation is the tenant’s home, set a very high burden of proof for New York landlords to meet."
You have a tenant who refuses to leave.
If you have evicted a tenant or their lease has run out and they refuse to leave—despite your notices—call a lawyer before you throw their belongings on the curb, change the locks, or turn off the utilities. Every state prohibits “self-help” evictions, which means you could be liable for damages if you take matters into your own hands. An attorney’s advice will keep you from running afoul of the law, even if you think you're in the right.
You suspect there’s illegal activity going on.
If you think anything illegal is going on in a unit, such as the creation or sale of drugs, call a lawyer. You may need to get the police involved, too. Illegal activity may involve creating, selling, or using controlled substances, prostitution, and dog or other animal fighting. Keep in mind, you can almost always evict a tenant for illegal activity, however, you need more than a hunch. You must be able to prove it is going on.
A tenant accuses you of discrimination.
If anyone accuses you of discriminating against one or more tenants in violation of local, state, or federal law, get an attorney immediately. Housing discrimination is illegal under federal law as well as many state and local laws. Your tenant could file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or with a state agency, and you need to be prepared to respond appropriately. Charges of discrimination could be levied against you even if someone is not your tenant, should they believe you were discriminatory in not accepting their rental application.
Someone is injured on your property.
If a tenant, guest, or pedestrian is hurt on your property, you may face a premises liability claim. You are responsible for maintaining habitable units and keeping the premises reasonably safe for tenants and guests. Your exact duty of care depends on state law. You may also have to uphold certain standards under your state’s building code and within the lease you signed with the tenant.
Call a lawyer to learn more about your legal duty toward the person who was injured and how you may defend against a claim.
A tenant becomes ill.
If a tenant has become ill and is blaming a condition in your property, such as mold or lead, contact a lawyer. You may be facing a lawsuit, though your liability for an alleged toxic condition and your tenant’s illness depends on federal and state law. Currently, there is no federal law in regard to mold in rental units. However, there is a federal law regarding lead paint disclosures.
A tenant accuses you of failing to properly maintain the property.
The law requires you to keep the premises up to a certain standard, which is typically known as the warranty of habitability. It requires the unit to be secure from the elements and have a locking door. It must have drinkable water and hot water, electricity, heat, working plumbing, and trash receptacles. It also typically must be free from vermin or infestations. If one or more tenants accuse you of falling below that standard, you could face serious consequences.
You want to revise your standard lease.
If you want to update your standard lease, contact a lawyer to help you draft up a new agreement and advise you on when you may implement it with current tenants. You can usually change the terms of a lease, however, when you can do so is restricted by state law. Generally, you must wait until a tenant’s current lease is set to end before seeking to change the terms and require a new lease. You do have the opportunity to amend the lease should the laws change before it ends.
You are being audited by state or federal authorities.
If you receive notice that state or federal tax authorities are auditing you, call a lawyer right away to learn about your rights and responsibilities during this process. An audit can be an uncomfortable process, but you can usually get through it with professional assistance.