landlord legal mistakes   It’s so easy to be blown by the winds of your emotions instead of standing stiff to the letter of the law. But most states enforce rigorous landlord-tenant rules, and hold landlords to a higher standard than renters. Bad tenants can cost you thousands of dollars. For instance, as if a tenant being behind on his rent is not bad enough, now you are receiving noise and noxious odor complaints. Or maybe they’re trashing your property, leaving holes in the walls and ruining the floors. But the last thing you need is for them to beat you in court and continue living rent-free, because you lost your temper.  

What Not to Do – Quick Ways to Be Hamstrung in Court

The list of what not to do is longer than Lindsay Lohan’s rap sheet, but here are the most common ways landlords shoot themselves in the proverbial foot:
  1. Do not shut off any utility or service. This is illegal in most every state!
  2. Do not physically remove the tenant. Not their furniture, not their valuables, not the deadbeat himself.
  3. Never change locks before going through the legal channels of eviction! This includes stunts like removing the access stairway to the tenant’s unit.
  4. Do not threaten your tenant. Oh, you will want to, along with calling him a few choice names. But avoid the temptation or you’ll give them an easy win in court!
  5. Be careful not to smear the tenant on social media. Landlords are still liable for libel, like everyone else.
  6. Do not ignore repair requests – this will also give them an easy argument in court.
  7. Do not harass your non-paying, loud noise-making tenant with phone calls, or knocking on the door at all hours of the night.
  8. Do not contact family or friends, unless of course they were a co-signor. Then do include them on any proper notices and legal correspondence.
  9. If the bum skips town and the apartment appears abandoned, be cautious! Some states require all the normal legal steps of eviction, even if the unit is clearly abandoned. Most states will permit you to secure the apartment. Many states will not even allow you to throw away the filthy couch abandoned in the living room.
  10. Do not get into a screaming match. All contact and correspondence should be from a distance.

Beyond What Not to Do

Who would have thought that being a landlord involved so many rules? I became a landlord in the first place to try make some independent income, not be caged in by even more rules! Welcome to the joys of being a landlord. To call it “thankless” is to grossly understate how apathetic the public is to the difficulties of being a landlord. So, what actions should landlords take, to make sure they’re not left out to dry by the judge?
  1. Document, document, document! Every letter you send, every phone call make, every email flung; keep records for court. Oddly, the tune of “Every Breath You Take” by The Police is humming through my brain.
  2. Know the law! Prepare ahead of time and get to know the eviction laws in your state and locality. Don’t wait until you’re amid a situation to start googling. Haste usually makes waste.
  3. As soon as something goes awry or that rent money is not in hand when it is supposed to be, get busy! Send that first notice as required by your state’s rental laws.
  4. Keep calm. Letting your nerves or anger get the best of you = poor decisions your tenant will take advantage of.

Fair Housing Trip-Ups

Not discriminating is simple, right? You’d be surprised. Fair housing lawsuits are on the rise nationwide, as regulators crack down on landlords who don’t even know they’re breaking the increasingly complex laws. So what do landlords need to know, to avoid being made an example of?
  1. fair housing violationsKeep it consistent. When screening potential applicants, do the same across the board. Same application, same questions, and request the same information for each applicant. Use the same criteria to choose your applicant. Have a range of credit scores, use the same income formula and so forth and so on. Do you notice the consistent use of the word “same”?
  2. Keep up with the laws. Recently, discrimination has been called into question if choosing not to rent to someone with a criminal background.
  3. “When in doubt, don’t!” I used to say that to my children all the time. It was a way to keep them from doing anything questionable. I say the same to landlords. If the questions seem awkward, do not ask. For instance, asking age is a big no-no. It is the “do I look fat” taboo. Do not ask someone if they have a disability. If they bring it up, fine! But if it is not, do not ask about it.
  4. Don’t negate the obvious! Race, color, ethnicity, religious background are never, ever, ever reasons to rent to or not rent.
  5. Do not group people together. There are cases regarding landlords of larger apartment complexes for placing all the families with children in one building, or the singles separated from the couples, etc.
Read more about common Fair Housing pitfalls, because it’s easier to run afoul of the laws than you’d think.  

Get Help from Experts

The legal questions never end. Can I make a tenant responsible for all the repairs? How much late charge do I charge? When do I return the security deposit? How much security deposit can I take? Can I charge a pet deposit over and above the security deposit? While we cover the basic questions in our state rental law summaries, sometimes questions pop up based on your own unique situation. Luckily, we make it easy for you to send questions to landlord-tenant attorneys, free of charge.
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