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DIY

Keeping It Legal for DIY Landlords

A legal hammer.

ALWAYS have everything in writing. Specific terms should spell out exactly what is expected and legal from all parties involved

Working through the web of renting your properties can be mind boggling when you realize the details involved with signing a tenant. Knowing federal laws and local regulations will help keep you in business and profitable. Working from a template and a detailed checklist is a good way to keep everything legal from Day 1. If properly thought out, it can save you from the high cost of defending yourself in court.

Proper Documentation

ALWAYS have everything in writing. Specific terms should spell out exactly what is expected from all parties involved. Have a lawyer draft your lease agreement to help avoid the pitfalls of cookie cutter online forms. Rental agreements are legally binding contracts, know the rights tenants have and familiarize yourself with the Federal Fair Housing Act.

Advertising, Showings & Applicant Screening

You must study, and pretty much memorize, the Fair Housing Act to avoid discrimination violations. Your advertising, how you handle inquiries, showings and applicant screenings must all conform. Make one mistake and you could wind up in court.

Don’t forget about the Fair Credit Reporting Act and what your required to do if you deny an application or an applicant disappears.

Once you figure out how to legally operate — be consistent! Avoid potential discrimination lawsuits by treating everyone the same and avoid shortcuts — even when you know what the outcome will be.

Deposits and Fees

Check your state and local requirements regarding application fees, pet fees, security deposits, etc. Decide what you’ll charge and again, be consistent to avoid discrimination claims.

Keep In mind a security deposit is just that, a deposit, so it technically still belongs to the tenant, you are just holding it. Don’t go out and spend it. You may want to keep it in a separate account to make it easier to keep track of and explain when needed. Remember, the security deposit is used as a guarantee against possible damages or unpaid bills, but even during an eviction proceeding, it still legally belongs to the tenant.

Required Disclosures

Federal law requires disclosure to a tenant about potential lead-based paint issues. Make sure this disclosure is included in your lease and that you also have the government required lead-based paint pamphlet to hand out.

Your tenants may also have the right to disclosures regarding building ownership, landlord, or management company that acts on behalf of the landlord. Provide them with proper contact information for rent collection, complaints, maintenance issues, etc.

There’s also required disclosures like the Move-In Checklist, specific tenant notifications required in a lease like; Truth-In-Renting Act, Security Deposit Rights, Domestic Violence and Senior Living clauses. All are another reason to engage an attorney to at least review your lease annually.

Property Maintenance

Check your local ordinances for landlord obligations regarding property maintenance. Many cities consider it illegal to collect rent if a property hasn’t passed a city inspection. In addition to issuing tickets, they may also arrest an owner who fails to comply.

Know Your Landlord Rights

When dealing with landlord-tenant issues, there is usually more focus on protecting the tenant. As we all know, there are two sides to every problem, and as a landlord, you have rights, as well. Though not a complete list, here a few biggies:

  • Eviction – Depending on your lease agreement and state & local laws, you have any number of valid reasons for choosing to evict a tenant.  Keep it legal here, abide by all local laws and ordinances to prevent making the situation any worse.
  • Home Entry – You certainly don’t have unlimited access to a tenant’s home, but with proper notification to complete repairs or an emergency the law allows entry as needed.
  • Rent Increases – Many states and cities are passing laws limiting rent increases. Be sure to check and conform as needed. If there are no laws, you can legally raise the rent as much as you want, as often as your lease allows.

Housing is a highly regulated industry and need to be clear on fair housing laws and other local ordinances that affect your business. Pleading ignorance will not keep you out of trouble. Of course, you want your real estate investments to be profitable, but ignoring the laws set in place to protect the landlord-tenant relationship, will only do more harm than good in the end.  Before making any legal missteps, consult your attorney for clarification for any landlord-tenant issue.