Avoid legal trouble when terminating tenant's lease

Nonrenewal must be based on legitimate business reasons

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Nov. 4, 2011

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Nonrenewal must be based on legitimate business reasons

Robert Griswold
Inman News™

Q: We have an unmarried couple renting a one-bedroom apartment for the past 4 1/2 years. We have always had trouble collecting rent in a timely fashion, and every time we have been there for a repair we found the apartment was dirty and messy. It doesn't seem like they have any system for keeping the unit clean, as they both seem to be always at work.

My wife and I decided that at the end of their current lease we are not going to renew it, and we are going to give them a written notice that they will need to find a new place. So, naturally, this year they have paid on time. I gave them a six-week notice that I am not going to renew their lease. They say they will not move! What can I do?

A: You certainly have the right to not renew the lease based on legitimate business reasons. So the fact that the tenant consistently pays the rent late or fails to properly maintain the apartment would be proper reasons to advise the tenant that you are not renewing their lease. But you also mention that they are an unmarried couple and constantly at work. Now you certainly rented to them in the first place so it would seem that you do not have any policies against unmarried couples. But the fact that you mention this in your question leads me to feel it is important to discuss this further.

The fact that they are unmarried may or may not be the reason that the apartment is messy and constantly dirty, but I want to remind you that under federal fair housing laws that would not be an appropriate basis upon which to not renew their lease, as marital status is a protected class.

In my experience, there is no correlation between marital status and the cleanliness and housekeeping standards of my tenants. I find good examples and bad examples of tidiness and apartment hygiene regardless of any specific factor other than some people just don't seem to care. If the tenants don't enjoy doing their own cleaning or just don't have time (whether it is due to work or any other reason), there are services that can do this work for them.

So at this point I would suggest you send them a written letter following up your notice and their response outlining that you will not accept any rent past the end of the lease and that you will move forward quickly with an eviction and seek the cost of the legal fees.

Of course, if their only fault is poor housekeeping, you could renew their lease and raise the rent by an amount that would cover a biweekly or monthly cleaning service. In many areas, it is not easy to find good tenants that will stay nearly five years so you might actually want to consider this or at least explain to them your reasons and give them a short-term extension of the lease to see if they can keep the property clean.

I will also tell you that you are not being unreasonable in asking that the tenant properly clean and maintain the property, as often it is poor housekeeping that later leads tenants to complain about the habitability of the rental unit and blame you as the landlord when it was at least partially the fault of the tenant. Also, when a rental unit is filthy it may be more difficult for the tenant (or even repairmen or workers) to identify legitimate maintenance issues. A messy or dirty apartment can also attract pests, which the tenant may expect you to eradicate. So, all in all, you are certainly justified in terminating the lease of this tenant, but you may want to explore some other alternatives with them short of an eviction.

Q: Last winter, my car was parked at the house that my brother rents. He does not have renters insurance. Ice and snow fell off the roof and shattered my back window. While I have basic liability and collision car insurance, I do not have glass coverage. The cost to replace this back window was nearly $1,000. At the time, I went ahead and just paid for it. But recently I was talking to a friend in the property management field and he thinks the property owner is responsible and I should sue the owner before the one-year statute of limitations expires in a few months. Who do you think is responsible for paying for my new rear window damaged by ice and snow?

A: As a longtime rental property owner and manager, it is my opinion that you would be responsible unless the landlord was somehow negligent. Ice and snow during the winter is certainly a natural occurrence, and the landlord cannot be responsible for such incidents. In the insurance field, these types of claims are often denied as being "acts of God." But I am a property manager and not an insurance expert. So I would suggest that you talk with your auto insurance agent.

Just because you don't have coverage under your auto policy for this type of damage doesn't mean that your insurance agent won't be able to help you. You don't indicate whether you are a renter or a homeowner, but maybe there is coverage under a homeowners policy if you have one. Your insurance agent may be able to get more details about exactly what happened and the coverage that the property owner carries and can creatively find a way to find coverage. The coverage may be on one of your policies or it may be the property owner's policy, or your insurance company may pay for your loss and then possibly subrogate the claim. In simple terms, subrogation is when your insurance company pays you on your claim directly and then seeks reimbursement from another insurance company. In this case, it would be the insurance carrier for the property owner.

This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold, author of "Property Management for Dummies" and "Property Management Kit for Dummies" and co-author of "Real Estate Investing for Dummies."

Email your questions to Rental Q&A at rgriswold.inman@retodayradio.com. Questions should be brief and cannot be answered individually.

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