Most landlord-tenant agreements are laid out in a lease. It specifies the length of the landlord-tenant relationship, the use of the property, the type of occupancy, and any restriction on the property, such as smoking or pets.

Even without a lease or in the absence of one, landlords still owe certain duties to their tenants and can exercise certain rights.

What Are a Landlord’s Rights Without a Lease?

A landlord has the right to:

  • Be paid rent on time
  • Ensure the property meets applicable housing codes
  • Screen and choose the tenants to reside on the property
  • Collect a security deposit
  • Enter the unit in emergencies that threaten the property
  • Enter the unit to make scheduled or necessary repairs
  • Evict tenants who do not pay rent, destroy or severely damage the property, or break the law or agreed rules

What Are a Landlord’s Obligations In a Lease?

A landlord is obligated to:

  • Maintain all units in a hospitable condition
  • Return the security deposit at the termination of the lease, minus any costs to repair or clean
  • the unit according to local law
  • Collect only the rent and any applicable penalties
  • Provide adequate notice of showing the property, late rent, or eviction
  • Respect the privacy of all tenants
  • Not consider race, ethnicity, religion, sex, disability, or sexual orientation of tenants

DON’T: Discriminate Against Prospective Tenants

A landlord cannot discriminate against a prospective tenant. A landlord cannot deny an applicant based on race or color, national origin, familial status, disability, or sex. The following factors can influence a landlord’s decision:

  • Credit history,
  • Employment history, and
  • Income.

When a landlord rejects an applicant based on information in a credit report, the Fair Credit Reporting Act requires the landlord to provide the applicant with the name and address of the credit reporting agency. A landlord should record why a prospective tenant was rejected and apply the same screening process to all applicants.

Put a Landlord/Tenant Agreement in Writing

To be a good landlord, you must enter into a written rental agreement with your tenants. Several important rental terms in a typical residential lease agreement define the landlord-tenant relationship.

Included in the lease are the names of the tenants, the length of the tenancy, the amount of the security deposit, the parties responsible for specific repairs, whether pets are allowed, and the amount of rent. The lease agreement should specify when rent is due, what payment is acceptable, whether a grace period applies, and whether late and returned check fees apply.

Inspecting the Property

Landlords should inspect rental properties for dangerous conditions. The landowner may be liable for injuries sustained by tenants on the property. People injured on a property can recover compensation when the landlord acted recklessly or intentionally, was unreasonably careless, violated health and safety regulations, failed to make certain repairs, or the premises were uninhabitable.

Landlords should also be aware of criminal activity on and around their rental properties. Most states require landlords to protect the surrounding neighborhood from illegal activity by tenants. The landlord must also protect tenants from each other and criminals entering the property. If there are reports of criminal activity on the premises, the landlord should install security features such as deadbolts, security lighting, and window locks.

Notify Tenants Before Entering the Rental Unit

Each state has rules regarding when a landlord can enter a rental unit, but most laws are based on the tenant’s right to privacy. Thus, a landlord may only enter a rental unit for a few specific purposes. Most states allow landlords to enter a unit to make repairs, inspect the property, show the property to prospective tenants, or in an emergency.

Except during an emergency, landlords must provide 24 hours’ notice of their intent to enter the premises. An emergency, such as a gas or water leak, overrides the notice requirement.

Making Repairs Promptly

A landlord is responsible for repairing and maintaining rental properties so that they are fit for occupancy. Most states require rental units to provide tenants with heating, plumbing, electricity, and gas. This is known as an “implied warranty of habitability.” It is illegal to fail to provide these basic features. The tenant has several options when the landlord fails to repair a necessary fixture in the unit.

Most states allow a tenant to withhold rent, make repairs and deduct the costs from the rent, move out, notify state or local building inspectors, or pay the rent and sue the landlord for the difference between the rent and the real rental value of the property. The tenant may sue the landlord for compensation if an injury occurs due to the failure to repair.

Failing to Make Disclosures to Prospective Tenants

Before a new tenant moves in, every state has different requirements. Standard disclosures include:

  • The landlord notifies the tenant when mold is discovered if they know or have reason to believe it exists
  • Information about a state’s sexual offender registry
  • Notification of sex offenders living in the area if the landlord is aware of them
  • Disclosure of recent deaths that have happened in the rental unit
  • Whether the rental unit contains lead-based paint if the property was constructed before 1978

DON’T: Use Illegal Provisions in a Rental Agreement

You should not include provisions in a residential lease agreement that violate state or federal laws. Landlords should avoid the following mistakes:

  • Placing discriminatory conditions in a rental agreement
  • Requiring the tenant to waive the right to a refund of a security deposit
  • Forcing a renter to waive their right to sue the landlord

An illegal provision may result in a lawsuit for money damages (a landlord liability suit).

Failing to Provide a Safe Environment

Landlords are legally responsible for protecting tenants from dangerous conditions in many states. This includes keeping the property free of criminal activity. You must:

  • Make inspections
  • Inform tenants (and anyone legally entering the property) of hazards that exist on the premises
  • Take reasonable measures to ensure the safety of tenants from other tenants and from criminals that enter the property

When you learn a property is unsafe, act immediately. Alternatively, a tenant who suffers physical or property damage may be able to sue you. They can win, charge you for their attorney, and recover compensation from you.

Refusing to Make Repairs

Repairs should be specified in the rental agreement. Sometimes, a landlord must legally make repairs, even if the rental agreement does not specify these duties.

All rental properties are subject to an implied warranty of habitability. A habitable rental unit will provide the following:

  • Heating
  • Plumbing
  • Gas
  • Clean water
  • A structurally safe roof
  • Safe flooring
  • Electricity

If a property remains in disrepair, a tenant may:

  • Fix the problem and deduct the cost from the rent
  • Move out
  • Report the violation to a state building inspector

The landlord can be sued if these significant repairs are not made when requested.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

Landlord-tenant law is extremely localized depending on where the property is located. In addition to state law, one city may offer rent control, whereas the next may not. These tips are just a few rights landlords should be aware of. To help make your life as a landlord easier, it would be wise to consult with an experienced landlord-tenant lawyer who is familiar with the law in your area.