State Laws About Real Estate Leases
Every state has statutes that cover landlord/tenant relationships. Most of these cover issues such as late rent and evictions but some have rules that apply to the content of leases. If you are a landlord, you should be familiar with the laws in your state.
Security Deposit Laws
Many states have laws covering security deposits. A few cities (those with rent control) also have such laws. The laws in many states limit the amount of a security deposit. Some require that deposits are held in separate accounts and a few require the payment of interest on the deposit to tenants. Some states have exemptions for small landlords. Some states have certain requirements that must be followed if a landlord wants to keep the security deposit. If you do not follow the law to the letter, then the tenant may get his deposit back plus attorney's fees, regardless of the condition of your property.
Applying a Security Deposit
State laws may also dictate how a landlord applies the security deposit at the time of move-out. Depending on your state, a security deposit may be used to cover unpaid rent as well as any damages to the property beyond reasonable or expected wear and tear. You may also be entitled to use a security deposit to cover unpaid utilities or to clean the premises when the tenant vacates the property. In some cases, you may even use the security deposit to restore or replace personal property rented to the tenant. Check with your local housing agency for additional information on using security deposits.
Returning a Security Deposit
The timeframe for returning a security deposit also varies by state, ranging from 10 to 45 days or more after the tenant has vacated the property. When withholding money from a security deposit, landlords are usually required to account for any deductions with an itemized list of damages to the unit. This list is typically sent to the tenant's last known mailing address two to three weeks after the tenant moves out.
Normal Wear and Tear
"Normal wear and tear" is a subjective assessment based on the total time a tenant occupied the premises, the condition of the unit on move-in, the use of the premises and whether pets were allowed. The longer a tenant lives in a rental unit, the more likely it is that "normal wear and tear" will occur. Examples of normal wear and tear include worn floors, chipped paint, dirty air filters and broken hinges. Excessive wear and tear may include damage to walls (holes), cigarette burns in carpeting, damaged plumbing and removed items. In order to get a fair assessment on move-out, many landlords conduct a walk-through before the tenant vacates the unit and notifies the tenant of any damage he or she deems abnormal. Some states actually require you to give tenants notice of the inspection and allow them to attend. To find out the laws in your state, contact your local housing agency.
In addition to the federal discrimination laws, many states and municipalities have their own laws. The rationale is that while federal remedies may be difficult to enforce, a local law can provide more protection. Some of these laws are even stricter than the federal laws and include more categories, such as sexual orientation.
There are laws in some areas regulating when a landlord may enter a unit. Many of these require "reasonable notice." If there is no law giving the landlord a right to access and a lease does not grant access to the landlord, then he has no right to enter the premises until the end of the lease. Whether or not there is a law, it is important to spell out the landlord's rights in the lease. This way there will be fewer disagreements or hard feelings.
In some communities in four states and in the District of Columbia, there are laws regulating the amount of rent that a landlord may charge. Those states are California, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York. If you own rental property in an area covered by rent control, then you should obtain the applicable rules from the rent control board or an apartment owners' association.
Many states have laws forbidding landlords from protecting themselves from liability for their own acts with clauses in the lease.
Many states have laws that require landlords to take care of certain maintenance on the premises. In some cases the terms of the lease control and state laws only apply if the lease is silent on the matter.
Repair and Deduct
In some states, when a landlord fails to do perform maintenance on the premises the tenant is allowed to have it done by a third party and can deduct the cost from the rent. In some cases the lease may govern by stating that the tenant agrees to do all maintenance at his or her expense.
Several states have laws requiring certain disclosures to tenants, such as if a tenant's electric bill covers lights in common areas as well as his or her apartment. Georgia and Oklahoma require disclosure of whether the unit was subject to flooding during the last five years. Florida requires the disclosure of the person authorized to receive notices from the tenants for the landlord, and in buildings exceeding three stories, the availability of fire protection. California requires disclosure that a person can obtain information from the state on sex offenders living in the area. Hawaii requires disclosure of the landlord's excise tax number.
In some states there are laws that a landlord cannot forbid water beds in their units. However, the landlord can usually require the tenant to buy insurance in case the water bed causes damage to the property.
Some states have laws that require that if a lease is negotiated in a language other than English it must be written in that language.
In some states if a tenant's utility bill covers more than just his or her unit, then the lease is required to explain exactly what areas are paid for by the tenant.
In some states, laws require that every lease contain a mention of a possible hazard from radon gas. In addition to disclosing the issue to tenants, it is actually a protection for the landlord against litigation. Like the warnings on cigarette packages, it may protect the landlord if the tenant later wants to sue for damages.
In some states the landlord is required to disclose to the tenant the presence of asbestos in the premises.
State law often controls when and how a tenancy may be terminated. When there is a lease for a fixed term the landlord usually must give notice before terminating the lease for default. Even where the tenancy is month-to-month the law may spell out how many days notice must be given before it may be terminated.
In some states, lease forms or other forms or notices are required or provided by law. These may include lease forms, or notices to pay rent, to vacate the premises, or to file a court eviction. If the forms are merely recommended then it may be better to use your own form or to adapt the recommended form, adding improvements where necessary.
You should carefully read your state and local laws that apply to renting property to see if they apply to your specific situation.