It’s wise to avoid a litigious relationship with tenants. Landlords and agents simply have more to lose than tenants when it comes to litigating a landlord-tenant dispute. Here are a few tips to avoid a day in court:
- Use a written lease. A written lease provides a clear understanding of the parties’ roles and responsibilities. Be especially careful to clearly define payment obligations, repair obligations, and security deposit policies. Have the lease reviewed by an attorney to ensure it includes the required statutory components.
- Perform a tenant background check. A standard background check is a key part of the tenant intake process. We also recommend searching the county court records for recent eviction cases involving your prospective tenants.
- Understand fair housing laws. Be careful about the questions you ask when performing tenant intake, and consult with an attorney before preparing your own tenant intake forms. It is illegal to discriminate against tenants based on race, religion, national origin, familial status, disability, or sex. When advertising a rental, do not indicate a preference or limitation based on these characteristics. Do not impose different lease requirements based on these characteristics.
- Develop a relationship with your tenants. Establishing a good rapport with your tenants will pay off when attempting to resolve disputes.
- Obtain and provide contact information. Be sure you have up to date contact information for every tenant, including cell phone numbers, work phone numbers, and email addresses. Also make sure that the tenants can easily contact you in case a repair needs to be addressed. At the conclusion of the lease, make sure you have updated contact information for the tenants, including a mail forwarding address.
- Factor in annual rent increases. Clearly explain rent increases in writing well in advance of any change in the rent.
- Have a clear pet policy. We frequently see issues where landlords and tenants fail to discuss the presence of pets. If your tenant has a pet, be sure to address the allowance or disallowance of the pet with a specific pet provision in the lease. If your tenant mentions that they have a service animal, it’s best to contact an attorney who can help you ensure Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance.
- Perform a video walk-through inspection with the tenant before move-in, and after move-out. Tenants who know their landlord has a record of the initial condition of the property are far less likely to cause damage to the unit. At the conclusion of the lease, video evidence is useful for making a claim against any security deposit and will help protect the landlord if a security deposit dispute arises.
- Make sure the unit is up to code. An uninhabitable unit is the most frequent basis for tenants breaking a lease, or withholding rent. Make sure your windows and doors lock, and perform regular maintenance on the plumbing, air conditions, and electrical systems. Keep in mind that the lease can shift repair obligations to the tenant for certain components.
- Promptly respond to tenant requests for repairs. You may have as little as seven days to repair certain components of the rental unit before the tenant is entitled to withhold rent. It’s best to promptly respond to request for repairs that the landlord is obligated to perform under the terms of the lease or under the Florida Landlord Tenant Act. If you plan to be out of town for an extended time, make sure the tenant has contact information if there is an emergency.
- Send the appropriate security deposit notice. This may seem simple, but we see landlords and agents make mistakes all too frequently. A mistake with this notice could result in the landlord losing the ability to make any claim on the security deposit.
- Respect tenant privacy. Tenants have a right to privacy while occupying rental property. There are statutory notice requirements that need to be respected before a landlord or agent re-enters the property. We suggest coordinating any inspections, repairs, or showcasing of your rental unit with the tenants, and providing at least 24 hours advanced notice. Make sure that you give notice in writing, whether it be email, text, or regular mail. In the case of a true emergency, you have a right to access the unit, but it is still wise to provide advance notice to the tenants.
- Don’t retaliate. If the tenants fail to pay rent or are otherwise non-compliant with the terms of the lease, don’t resort to turning off the power, or otherwise harassing the tenants. This is perhaps the easiest way to wind up in court. Contact an attorney regarding the process for delivering a notice of non-payment, or notice of non-compliance.
- Weigh the costs and benefits of litigation. Understand that evictions can be expensive and time-consuming. An uncontested eviction can take anywhere from three weeks to two months. A contested eviction can take significantly longer and can result in extraordinary legal fees. Even if the landlord has the ability to recover attorney’s fees under the lease, you may eventually find that any recovery you win in court may ultimately be uncollectible from the tenants.
These tips can help you avoid a landlord-tenant lawsuit, but if you find yourself involved in a dispute with a tenant, seek legal counsel as early in the dispute as possible.
Berlin Patten Ebling, PLLC
Article Authored by Ben DeMarsh, Esq. email@example.com
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