The landlord/tenant relationship seems simple enough: “We sign a lease. I give you keys. You give me rent.” Unfortunately, there’s a lot more to it than that.
The history of tension between landlords and tenants in this country has contributed to a developing menu of laws meant to regulate the rental market. Most of the time, these laws heavily favor tenants over landlords. That means it’s up to us to know the law so that we can observe our tenants’ rights and protect ourselves in the process.
Today, I want to talk about three of the most important areas of law that apply to landlords: rent control, eviction, and anti-discrimination.
A Quick Note About Lawyers
I’m going to give you enough information to get started on your own legal research. That said, I’m not a lawyer. I highly recommend you find a local real estate attorney. They can help you navigate these issues more carefully than anything you find on the internet.
The history of rent control traces its origins to the early 20th century when public outcry against rent-profiteering seemed to be at its height. Over the last century, these laws have evolved in various ways to keep landlords from taking advantage of their tenants.
Rent control laws typically regulate the following:
- How Much, and How Often You Can Increase Rent
- Services You Can Withhold from Tenants
- Methods and Procedures for Adjudicating Disputes About Rent
- Acceptable Grounds for Eviction (see below)
Thanks to a Supreme Court ruling in 1924, the federal government has left rent control up to states and cities to decide for themselves. The upside of that is that Washington, D.C. doesn’t get to tell landlords in Atlanta, GA what they can do with their rents.
There is a minor downside, however, in that every landlord needs to track down and study the rent control laws (if applicable) that govern his or her market.
Thankfully, Landlord.com has compiled a helpful chart with links to everything you need to know for your state and municipality. You can find it here.
Like rent control laws, the rules that govern the eviction process are determined by each local jurisdiction. These laws can be quite detailed, spelling out the exact process needed to serve a tenant an eviction notice properly.
Generally speaking, there are three types of termination notice a landlord can serve:
- Pay Rent or Quit – The tenant is given a certain number of days to pay overdue rent, or they must vacate the property.
- Cure or Quit – Similar to the previous notice, but reserved for lease-violations that don’t relate specifically to rent (noise complaints, occupancy violations, etc.).
- Unconditional Quit – As the name implies, this notice gives the tenant no recourse. It’s usually served in response to some form of breach, repeated late rent payments, and/or severe damage to the property.
If the tenant fails to comply, the next step is to file a lawsuit to have them evicted. As long as the tenant doesn’t put up a fight, this process can be completed in less than a month. If, however, they decide to challenge the eviction in court, things can take much longer.
As you wait for judgment, do keep up utility payments and do not remove the tenant’s personal property. Trying to lock or freeze out a tenant will hurt your case in court and expose you to a world of legal liability, including charges of trespass and wrongful eviction.
If the court rules in your favor, you’ll be required to make contact with local law enforcement. It’s their job to serve and enforce the eviction order. Once the tenant is gone, you’ll have to follow additional state guidelines for storage or disposal of any remaining personal property.
Discrimination is one of the thorniest social issues in our society today. For landlords especially, even the slightest hint of impropriety will be enough to land you in a courtroom.
That’s why it’s vital that you internalize the following lists of protected classes. Review your screening and application process regularly to make sure you’re not discriminating against any of them in any way.
Federally Protected Classes
Under the Fair Housing Act, a landlord may not refuse a tenant based on any of the following reasons:
- National Origin
- Disability or Handicap (Physical or Mental)
- Sex (Gender)
- Family Status
Further State Regulation
Many states in the union have determined that federal protections don’t go far enough and have voted to expand upon them. California, for example, adds the following classes:
- Sexual Orientation
- Gender Identity and/or Expression
- Genetic Information
- Marital Status
- Source of Income
A Warning About Professional Scammers
I’m sorry to say there are people out there who make their living by baiting landlords into discrimination and then suing for damages. Don’t fall victim to these scammers. Protect yourself by knowing the law and reviewing your policies regularly.
In this post, we’ve looked at the three most important areas of rental law for landlords: rent control, eviction, and anti-discrimination. As we’ve seen, each area has its own particular concerns.
This may seem like a lot to keep track of, but with a little bit of research and a conversation or two with your lawyer, you can easily run a profitable business without violating anyone’s rights under the law.