Top four reasons for landlord-tenant legal problems

Once people find a rental property that fits their needs and budget, few give further thought to the landlord-tenant relationship: sign here, initial there. But that initial transaction—for both the tenant and the landlord—paves the way for either a harmonious relationship or a tumultuous one.

Unfortunately, too many fall into the latter category, ending up in legal disputes and even lawsuits. Whether you’re a landlord or a tenant, here are the top four reasons landlords and tenants clash and tips for avoiding or addressing problems.

#1 Security deposit disputes. By far, security deposit disputes are the most common. Oftentimes, landlords will debit the security deposit for damages, and tenants will argue the property was already damaged when they moved in. 

To avoid this problem, landlords are supposed to provide tenants with a completed check-in sheet outlining the condition of the property and the tenant is supposed to inspect the property and return the completed check-in sheet with their notes regarding the property to the landlord within 7 days. That process establishes a baseline for the condition of the property at the outset.

Oftentimes landlords will place these incomplete check-in lists in a packet with other materials, and tenants never review and return them. It’s definitely in both parties’ best interest to complete and provide/return them. It might make sense to take photos prior to leasing/occupancy as well. Finally, at the end of the lease term, landlords need to provide notice of any deductions from the security deposit and return any remaining security deposit to the tenants within 21 days. Tenants therefore should provide the landlord their new address. 

#2 Late rent. Rental agreements virtually always include a due date for rent, but sometimes tenants want to stay, can’t pay on time, and wish to negotiate a payment plan to come current. That’s a tough call for landlords; they have no duty to allow it. It may be a good tenant who just had a bad month, or it may be a tenant who keeps promising to pay but doesn’t follow through. If landlords do agree to a payment plan, they should put the agreement in writing signed by both parties and be prepared to serve a proper notice of eviction if tenants still do not pay.  It might be smart to contact a lawyer if you have concerns about this situation.

#3 Belongings left behind.  When tenants move out and leave belongings behind, it leaves landlords guessing. Is it just garbage or is it property that is worth something and could be returned, sold or stored? Have the tenants actually vacated the property?  A landlord must inform the tenants in the lease if the landlord does not intend to hold the tenants’ personal property after the tenants vacate. (Note that a landlord has notice requirements for titled autos/mobile homes and for prescription medication even with the lease notice!)  If the landlord does not provide notice in the lease, the landlord has to store the property and provide a 30-day notice of sale or disposal to the tenant but can charge for moving and storage expense. If the tenant doesn’t claim the property within that time frame, landlords may sell it.  It probably makes sense to photograph the abandoned property prior to disposal or sale and to contact an attorney if you have questions about the process because there can be legal repercussions.

#4 Problems with the property. Windows break, water heaters fail, and pipes leak.  Stuff happens, and when it does, landlords need to respond in a timely fashion so the property is safe and usable. At the outset of the lease, a landlord is required to provide tenants with the name and contact information for the person (1) who collects rent; and (2) who does maintenance. Tenants should talk to the landlord about how best to contact him or her in case of an emergency. If tenants do encounter a serious issue and the landlord doesn’t respond, they can inform the landlord that they are going to get the problem fixed with a contractor and can call the city inspection department about it. The landlord must not retaliate for the tenant doing so, but the tenant should work with the landlord so that communication about these issues is smooth and the property is maintained. 
    
Of course, the key to avoiding problems is for both tenants and landlords to approach the relationship with integrity.  Reviewing and responding to important documents and being reasonable are at the foundation of compatible landlord-tenant relationships.

Article by Joe Veenstra, attorney at Johns, Flaherty & Collins. For a real estate lawyer in La Crosse, call him at 608-784-5678.

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