Every landlord knows that the lease controls when it comes to managing properties and settling tenant disputes.
But did you know there are two hidden rules inherent to every lease agreement, even if these rules are not written in the lease?
In every leasing situation, verbal or written, long-term or short, good or bad, a landlord has a duty to provide habitable premises. This is true if the lease is silent on the issue, and remains true even in cases where the landlord has shifted the responsibility to the tenant or attempted to limit this duty in some way.
While there may be language in a local statute and ordinance on habitability, this rule comes from simple contract law, and that makes it very flexible. The duty of habitability covers all the day-to-day necessities, including hot and cold running water, heat, and in some cases air conditioning, safe access, reasonable security from intruders, and compliance with zoning, building and fire codes.
The gray area: the tenant’s own actions. While the landlord has the duty to keep the property habitable at all times, a tenant may be liable for costs of repairs or remediation caused by their deliberate or negligent actions, including the actions of their guests.
The biggest beef tenants have against landlords is intrusion on the right to quiet enjoyment, which exists whether or not it is mentioned in a lease agreement. Quiet enjoyment, the right to live without intrusion or nuisance, encompasses everything from excessive or unannounced landlord visits to noisy neighbors.
Despite the label, it’s not just noise that violates this covenant. Secondhand smoke is a common culprit.
When either of these hidden duties is violated, tenants have a number of possible remedies, including withholding rent (constructive eviction), or breaking the lease entirely, with no ramifications.
In a worst case scenario, the tenant can sue for damages that may go far beyond the actual rent paid under the lease agreement, so it’s important to keep these rules in mind when making property management decisions.
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