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The Most Common Apartment Lawsuits… and How to Prevent Them

As a landlord, you have certain responsibilities toward your tenants. According to the Florida Bar, the landlord is required to provide a residence that is fit to live in, and the tenant is entitled to the right of private, peaceful possession of the apartment. That means the apartment must have a sound structure, working plumbing, hot water and heating, and reasonable security. The apartment also must be free of pests. But even though you try to do the right thing for your tenants, you will sometimes run into an unhappy renter who is ready to file a lawsuit against you.

One of the best things you can do to prevent a lawsuit from your tenant is to foster a friendly, professional relationship.  Many lawsuits involve property maintenance. The tenant should feel that his or her concerns are addressed in a timely manner. This is where you or your professional property manager can help prevent lawsuits by making sure your apartment building up to code, by keeping up with routine maintenance and by responding quickly to tenant complaints.

  1. The Promise of Habitability – Maintaining the Apartment

Almost all states mandate an “implied warranty of habitability.” That is, it is assumed that the apartments you are offering for rent will be a suitable condition. The landlord is required to comply with building codes and make any repairs to the apartments that are necessary. Minor and temporary problems do not excuse your tenant from paying the rent, but if you receive a written letter from your tenant regarding needed repairs or if the local building inspector contacts you about the apartment, you may have a problem. In serious situations, your tenant can have the option of filing a lawsuit or withholding rent by placing it in a separate bank account.

What you Can Do:

The best way to prevent a lawsuit due to habitability or property maintenance issues is to install low-maintenance items to begin with and keep up with routine maintenance. Problems may occur from time to time, but tenants are more likely to be understanding if you respond to their request for repairs quickly and keep them posted on the progress. Your property manager can supervise professional contractors to get maintenance work done right.

  1. Your Tenant’s Quiet Enjoyment

Your renters are entitled to “quiet enjoyment” of the apartment, and lack thereof is another common reason that tenants sue landlords. Yet the term “quiet enjoyment” as it applies to leases is a term that is often misinterpreted. Quiet enjoyment means more than a lack of noise in the apartment. What it can also mean is that the landlord must have title to the premises and has the right to offer the apartment for rent, and that the landlord cannot interfere with the tenant’s right to enjoy the apartment.

Some issues underlying a lawsuit due to lack of quiet enjoyment include:

  • Entry into the apartment without giving proper notice
  • Allowing another person into the apartment without consent of the tenant or proper notice
  • Interruption of water or electricity
  • Discussing the tenant with others, thereby violating his or her right to privacy
  • Discussing tenant or property issues at the renters work environment

What you Can Do:

To avoid a lawsuit based on quiet enjoyment, make sure your title to the property is in good order, and do not discuss tenant issues with others. Find out how much notice is needed if you need to enter the apartment, and always give tenants proper notice ahead of time. The same holds true for allowing others, even maintenance people, to enter the apartment. You must get consent from the tenant and give proper notice. Make sure you pay the utility and water bills on time, if that is your arrangement, and never go to your tenant’s work to discuss any issue about the apartment.

  1. Return of the Security Deposit and Selling a Tenant’s Property

As you may imagine, returning the full amount of the security deposit can become an issue resulting in a lawsuit filed by the tenant. Every state is different, so know the law in your state. You may be required to keep the security deposit in a separate bank account, and you might have to inform the tenant of the bank information. In some states, you may have to put the deposit in an interest bearing account and return all or a portion of the interest to the tenant upon the termination of the lease.

In any case, you will have a time limit to return the security deposit. If you inspect the apartment and make deductions from the security deposit, you must itemize, in writing, why you are deducting the money. You may want to give the tenant the opportunity to correct any problems before you make the deduction. In any case, reasonable wear and tear such as replacing a dishwasher that wore out is not the tenant’s responsibility.

What you Can Do:

Always return a tenant’s security deposit in accordance with your state’s tenant and landlord laws. Notify the tenant of the bank account information if necessary, and find out if you need to place the funds in an interest bearing account. If so, you may be required to give the interest to the tenant. Be clear about why you are withholding some or all of the security deposit if you need to cover unpaid rent or make repairs caused by the tenant. Make sure to return the deposit on time to prevent a lawsuit. According to the Florida Bar, it is unlawful to lock the tenant out, shut the utilities or remove the tenant’s property to recoup back rent or repair damages unless the property has been abandoned. In that case, an attorney can explain your rights as a landlord.

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