Landlord-Tenant Laws: What Can And Can't A Landlord Do?

Understanding what landlords can and cannot do when managing rentals and dealing with tenants is essential if you want to stay on the right side of the law.

Landlord-tenant laws can be quite complex when you get down to the details. Although some general rules can become guidelines as landlords, there are things landlords can and cannot do to tenants, deposits and security fees, agreements, abandoned property, and many other things.

To complicate matters, state laws vary widely, and some new legislation crops up now and then. It is, therefore, crucial to know what we can and cannot do to preserve good standing in the community as a responsible and desirable property landlord.

Please note that the following list is not comprehensive and may vary according to state and newer legislation—always consult a professional lawyer before you make important decisions. 

What Landlords Can (and Should) Do

In general, landlords can (meaning they are legally protected) and should do the following. 

Asking a tenant to move to another unit

Landlords can do this, but it depends on the lease agreement; if the lease specifies the unit and lacks relocation language, the landlord cannot force it.

If the lease allows relocation to a comparable unit, the landlord can request it (often with compensation).

  • If the tenant agrees to move, a new written agreement with adjusted terms (e.g., lower rent) is required. 
  • Consult a lawyer if unsure as laws vary by location.

Background Checks

Landlords can conduct background checks on tenants, but they should not automatically disqualify someone based solely on a criminal record. They can legally ask potential tenants questions about their criminal history, if any, to understand the context—perhaps he/she was wrongfully convicted or has served time and let off with parole for good behavior.

Comply with Fair Housing Laws

Discrimination against tenants based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or disability is punishable by law. The Fair Housing Act is enforced by the Department of Justice by bringing lawsuits against housing providers who discriminate according to the above criteria.

Denial of Tenancy

Landlords can deny tenancy  based on reasonable, non-discriminatory criteria such as:

  • Credit History: You can set minimum credit score requirements to assess a tenant's financial responsibility.
  • Income Verification: You can require proof of income to ensure the tenant can afford the rent.
  • Rental History: You can verify past rental history to check for previous evictions or history of property damage.

Landlords can use these criteria as part of risk assessment tools to deny a potential tenant’s application. This makes financial sense and ensures you are operating within your legal rights as a landlord. You may also consult the tenant screening for landlords guide for more detailed information.

Make sure you keep all relevant documentation as proof if some applicant decides to sue you unfairly for discrimination. 

Keep proper documentation of everything 

Landlords should have the following documents always available and backed up in the cloud:

  • co-signer agreements
  • eviction notices
  • lease agreements
  • lease non-renewal notices
  • LLC documentation and operating agreements
  • notices to enter
  • past due rent notices
  • rental application forms
  • rental inspection reports
  • room rental agreements
  • lease renewal letters
  • and sub-leasing agreements.

You can learn more about them in this 12 must-have renting documents for landlords guide.

Provide Required Disclosures and Notices

In addition to federal disclosures, you are required to disclose information about some or all of the following, depending on your state:

  • Lead Paint Disclosure: Disclose any known information concerning potential lead-based paint hazards, provide purchasers and lessees with a lead hazard information pamphlet, and include specific language in the lease or contract related to lead.
  • Environmental Hazards: Disclose information about environmental hazards, such as mold, asbestos, bedbugs, methamphetamine contamination, and periodic pest control requirements.
  • Flood Zone Location or Flooding Liability: Inform tenants if the property is located in a flood zone and any associated flooding liabilities.
  • Additional Fees: Disclose any additional and non-refundable fees, such as pet fees (where such fees are allowed).
  • Smoking Policy: Clearly outline your smoking policy in the lease agreement.
  • Smoke Detector Information: Disclose the location of smoke detectors and their maintenance requirements.
  • Nearby Military Installations: Inform tenants if the property is located near military installations that may have specific noise or activity levels and potential ordinance dangers.

Consult with a Lawyer

Seek legal advice to stay informed about landlord-tenant laws, including fair housing regulations and required disclosures in your state. 

Consult Rental Property Associations

Contact your local or state rental property association (search online) or national organizations like the National Apartment Association or National Multifamily Housing Council for advice on handling abandoned tenant belongings.

Handle Security Deposits According to State Law 

Return the deposit within the required timeframe with proper deductions documented.

Related: The Complete State-By-State Guide To Security Deposit Laws

Maintain Accurate Records

Keep all documents related to the tenancy organized, accurate, and easily accessible. This will help you, especially in cases when crimes are committed by your tenant and a court order requires you to furnish all relevant documents. 

Provide a Safe Living Environment

The unit must be structurally sound, free of hazards, and have working utilities. Lawsuits for accidents can be very expensive and will tarnish your image as a property owner/landlord.

Respect Tenant Privacy

Provide proper notice (written notice specifying the date and time) before entering the unit except in emergencies.

Respond to Repair Requests Promptly 

Address maintenance issues promptly. This includes coordinating reasonable access for service technicians to enter the property accompanied by you. This property maintenance FAQ contains many useful tips.

Update Lease Agreements Regularly

Ensure your lease complies with current laws and includes all required disclosures for your state.

What Landlords Cannot Do

In general, landlords cannot do the following. Included are some suggestions and details to help you as a landlord.

Attempt to Evict a Tenant Illegally

Eviction must follow legal procedures. States vary in the details, but in general, consider the following:

  • Court process: Landlords cannot evict tenants without following the court process.
  • Grounds for Eviction & Notice: There must be a valid reason for eviction (e.g., lease expiration, non-payment of rent, or lease violations). The landlord must provide a written notice to the tenant specifying the reason and deadline to leave (which varies by state).
  • Tenant Response:  The tenant has a set timeframe (usually 5-15 days) to respond to the court after receiving the notice. Tenants may have the right to "cure" the violation (fix the problem) depending on the state.
  • Court Hearing:  If the tenant doesn't leave or fails to respond, the landlord can file an eviction lawsuit ("unlawful detainer").  A judge will hear evidence from both parties and decide whether the eviction is justified.
  • Eviction Order & Removal:  If the court rules for the landlord, a writ of possession is issued. This authorizes the sheriff or marshal to remove the tenant from the property. 

Note: This is very important—landlords cannot remove tenants themselves. Not only is this illegal, but it is also potentially dangerous and may damage your image as a landowner.

Denial of Tenancy Due to Suspicion of a Crime

Landlords cannot deny tenancy based on only suspected criminal activity. In rare exceptions or very limited circumstances, a landlord may be able to deny tenancy if they can demonstrate a specific and articulable risk to the safety and security of the property or other tenants. This requires clear evidence and would likely involve a recent, violent crime.

Discriminate Against Tenants

Decisions on the acceptance of tenants and what rent to charge are based on qualifications, not protected characteristics. Specifically, one cannot discriminate against tenants based on:

  • race or color
  • religion
  • sex
  • national origin
  • familial status, or
  • disability.

Related: What Landlords Need To Know About The Fair Housing Act

Dispose of Abandoned Property Improperly

Follow state procedures for handling abandoned tenant belongings. Although there is a lot of variation in these procedures among different states, keep yourself safe by doing the following:

  • Verify Abandonment: Check lease and state law to confirm abandonment (e.g., no contact, missed rent).
  • Inventory & Secure: Document the condition/quantity of belongings with photos/videos. Move them to a secure location on-site or consider off-site storage. Also, inform the tenant of costs and fees that he/she would incur as time passes.
  • Attempt Contact: Try to reach the tenant to reclaim their belongings (use certified letters or phone calls).
  • State Notice & Disposal: Follow state law for written notice to tenant with a deadline to claim belongings. Unclaimed items may be sold or donated according to state regulations (e.g., proceeds used to cover unpaid rent). 
  • Note: this does not apply to all states—consult a legal professional for more accurate information.
  • Disposal Based on Value: Some states allow landlords to dispose of abandoned property if storage or sale costs exceed a set value (e.g., a few hundred dollars) or the property's value.
  • Sale Procedures: In some states, landlords must inventory, store, and then sell abandoned property. This may involve public auctions with prior public notice.
  • Proceeds of Sale: Landlords may deduct storage and advertising costs from the sale proceeds. Some states allow using some of the proceeds to cover unpaid rent or damages. Any remaining balance may belong to the tenant or be remitted to a state agency (check your state's law).

After following all legal procedures and the tenant has not shown up or contacted you back on or before the set deadline to claim his/her property, the landowner has the right to keep some or all of the property left behind by the tenant.

Make sure you have complete documentation of all steps—keep them backed up on the cloud to provide easy access especially if lawsuits are filed against you.

Enter the Tenant's Unit Without Permission 

This includes: 

  • impromptu visits without proper notice in writing
  • using entry to harass a tenant
  • conducting inspections and other work outside of reasonable hours.

Related: Rental Property Inspection Laws: How Often Can You Inspect A Porperty

Allow others to enter the property unaccompanied.

Landlords must coordinate reasonable access for service technicians but do not allow them to enter the property unaccompanied by you.

Ignore Criminal Activity on Your Property 

Report any suspected criminal activity to the authorities. Here’s why:

  • Tenant Safety: Landlords have a responsibility to report criminal activity to ensure tenant safety.
  • Potential Legal Liability: Landlords may be held liable if they knowingly allow criminal activity to occur.
  • Decreased Property Value: Criminal activity can make it harder to rent and can decrease property value.
  • Improved Community Relations: Reporting crime contributes to a safer community and better relationships with neighbors and law enforcement.

Report to the authorities and seek legal advice - do NOT handle the situation yourself, and consult a lawyer if unsure about the best course of action.

Ignore Repair Requests

Address maintenance issues to keep the unit habitable, such as the following.

  • Management of Known Toxins: If there are known toxins in the property, such as lead or asbestos, it’s the landlord’s responsibility to manage them.
  • Appliances: If the rental property comes with appliances provided by the landlord, they are responsible for the repair and maintenance of these appliances.
  • Pest Control: Landlords are typically responsible for pest control unless the infestation was caused by the tenant’s living habits.
  • Landscaping and Common Areas: Landlords are usually responsible for maintaining common areas and landscaping.

Rent an Unsafe Unit 

The unit must meet basic standards of habitability, which are the minimum conditions for a rental unit to be considered safe and suitable. Some considerations:

  • Structural Safety: Sturdy walls, floors, and a roof that protects from weather.
  • Utilities: Reliable heat, hot water, functional plumbing, and electrical systems.
  • Environmental Safety: Free from lead, asbestos, and mold hazards.
  • Security: Reasonable protection from break-ins (deadbolt locks, secure windows).
  • Safety Systems: This includes sprinkler systems, fire alarms, and carbon monoxide detectors.
  • Sanitation: Free from health hazards, working sewage system, and garbage disposal.
  • Implied Warranty of Habitability: By offering a rental property, landlords guarantee it meets these standards.
  • Unit deemed "unsafe" or "uninhabitable": if it doesn't meet these standards.
  • Local variations: Laws may require additional amenities or higher standards.
  • Tenant responsibilities: Maintain cleanliness and report issues to the landlord.

Withhold Security Deposit Without Justification

Only deduct from the deposit for unpaid rent or damages beyond normal wear and tear. Some examples:

  • Normal Wear and Tear: Landlords cannot deduct for expected wear and tear (faded paint, worn carpets).
  • Pre-existing Damage: If the condition of the property at move-in is deemed as pre-existing damage and is subsequently fixed by the landlord, the costs cannot be charged to the tenant’s security deposit.
  • Improvements: Landlord upgrades (appliances, HVAC) are not chargeable to the security deposit.
  • Excessive Cleaning Costs: Landlords cannot charge for cleaning beyond normal wear and tear.
  • Unrelated Costs: Security deposits cannot be used for the landlord's personal expenses (legal fees, business costs).

How To Leverage Software For Streamlined Property Management

Feeling overwhelmed yet? There are many things to handle and tackle, with many of them preemptive steps. Remembering every small detail of your business is challenging, so why not get some assistance? If you own several large properties, it is best to consider some top property management software to help you.

Software likeLandlord Studio can help you manage every aspect of your portfolio, and here are only some of the many features you can make use of:

Find and manage tenants

  • Free rental listings: Create a free rental listings and syndicate it to top channels including Zillow and Zumper.
  • Collect and prescreen leads: Collect leads in a centralized location and use the in-built prescreener to quickly identify the best prospects.
  • Manage tenant applications: Streamline the application process and make finding the best tenants easy.
  • Screen tenants: Get a comprehensive tenant screening report with credit check, rental and eviction history, criminal background and more - free for landlords.
  • Manage tenants: Use the customizable email and SMS templates to streamline communications.

Collect rent online

  • Free for Landlords: There is a small $2.50 fee per transaction which can be charged to the tenant.
  • Automatic Income Tracking: Rent payments are automatically reconciled in the income expense tracker.
  • Fast & Secure: Rent is deposited directly into your bank account (3-5 business days).
  • Tenant Auto-pay: Tenants can log in any time via the tenant app or web portal to initiate payments or set up automatic recurring payments.
  • You're in Control: You set the rent amount, block partial payments, and collect tenant payable expenses and security deposits.
  • Reduce Late Rent: With automated rent reminder emails and late fees you can reduce the chances of missed and late rent.

Rental accounting 

  • Easy-to-Use App: Track income, expenses, and mileage on the go and in real-time.
  • Automated Features: Import up to two years of transactions and use our smart bank feeds features to quickly reconcile transactions.
  • Receipt Scanner: Scan receipts using the app. Our Smart Scan technology will automatically enter the details and store the receipt.
  • Customizable Financial Reports: Generate 15+ accountant-approved reports including a profit and loss and our purpose-built Schedule E report.
  • Mileage Tracking: Track mileage for tax deductions with GPS or manual entry.

And more!

These are just some of Landlord Studio's powerful property management and accounting features - making it perfect for small to medium size portfolios. Plus, with your first 3 properties completely free you have nothing to lose.

If you're an accountant and handle larger real estate projects, you can explore specialized bookkeeping software for accountants.

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