While renting to disabled tenants is common for many landlords and property managers, some have never had a disabled person submit a rental application. This post will clear up what might be some unknowns.
It’s important to know that disabled persons are protected by law. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) protects people with physical or mental disabilities that substantially limit one or more major life activities. These disabilities include mobility, hearing and visual impairments, chronic alcoholism, mental illness, HIV/AIDS and mental retardation. Landlords may not discriminate against these people, nor against those who have a history of such disabilities or are regarded by others as though they have such a disability (in other words, have no formal diagnosis).
- Landlords are not allowed to request medical records or ask prospective tenants if they are disabled.
- Landlords must not assume a prospective tenant cannot live in certain housing. For example, an applicant in a wheelchair cannot be told there are no vacancies if a third-floor apartment is available.
- Landlords may not turn down mentally disabled applicants on the basis of their condition alone. If they have threatened or harmed others in the past, then that could be grounds for rejection.
At their expense, landlords must accommodate disabled tenants within reason. This means adjusting rules such as where garbage must be placed or allowing a close-by parking space. Each of these would fall under the “reasonable” category. Installing an elevator so a tenant who uses crutches can reach an upstairs unit would not.
Disabled tenants must be allowed to make reasonable modifications to their rental units or common areas in order to live comfortably and safely. For example, a tenant with a wheelchair-bound child must be allowed to widen the doorway to the bathroom and install bars around the tub and toilet at their own expense. Furthermore, the landlord may not require the tenant to return the doorway to its original condition (since it does not interfere with the next tenant’s use and enjoyment of the premises) but may require the tenant to remove the grab bars and return the walls to their original condition.
Other examples of reasonable accommodations include lowering countertops in the kitchen for a tenant using wheelchairs, installing an extra-loud doorbell for a hearing-impaired tenant or altering appliances so a visually impaired tenant can use them. All of these modifications must be requested verbally or in writing, approved by the landlord and paid for by the tenant. Landlords may ask for the unit to be returned to its original condition upon termination of the lease.
Landlords are permitted to ask for a description of proposed modifications, along with proof they will be done according to the law and in a workman-like manner.
Have questions? Learn more with the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Housing and Urban Development’s joint statement on the subject, which can be found here.
No matter if you’re a long-time landlord or new to the business, you’ll likely encounter a wide mix of tenants. Some will be easier to deal with than others. They pay their rent on time, follow your rules and cause no problems. Other tenants can only be described as problem tenants. Most landlords would probably agree that if they could turn back the clock, they would not have agreed to lease to these tenants in the first place.
Trouble is, you can’t always know if a tenant will be a problem. Experienced landlords know that even those with good jobs, good credit scores and sparkling references can later turn out to be duds—or worse. But there are warning signs that every landlord should know.
Five Warning Signs of Problem Tenants
- They gripe about the application fee. Good tenants realize that running background checks and tenant credit checks, calling references and processing paperwork take time and money. They pay the application fee without complaint. A lease applicant who can’t pay the fee, or complains about it, is a red flag.
- They ask for more time to pay the first month’s rent and security deposit. Sure, it can be tough to come up with that much money at once. But remember, you’re running a business, not a charity. If a tenant cannot pay all of the rent and security deposit up front, you may want to pass on him or her and wait for someone who can. It’s a matter of choice. Let another landlord deal with it.
- They are new at their job. This isn’t always a bad thing. Plenty of people switch jobs because they’re offered better positions that pay more, and they can afford more rent. But if a prospective tenant has had several jobs in the past two or three years, the new job might not last for long. And soon, the excuses for paying rent late will begin.
- They mention relationship problems. Keep in mind that according to the Fair Housing Act, landlords may not discriminate against applicants based on marital status. It’s illegal to refuse to rent to a divorced person, a single person or a married person because of their status alone. But if an applicant mentions boyfriend or girlfriend problems, or that he or she is trying to get away from someone, consider these red flags. Trouble typically follows people around. If you don’t want an upset estranged husband or troubled ex-girlfriend on your hands, pass on this tenant.
- They ask too many questions. There’s a fine line between having a healthy interest in your rental property and showing warning signs of being a problem tenant. Be on alert if a prospective tenant asks about things like:
- The racial makeup of your building or the neighborhood.
- Exactly what the electric, sewer or gas bills will be.
- How to file complaints or repair requests.
- Where they can smoke (if you have a non-smoking property).
- How often you’ll be inspecting the property, and how much warning you’ll be giving.
- The type of questions, the number of them, or the way they are asked can tell you a great deal about the person who’s applying to live in your property.
As a landlord, you get to decide with whom you enter into a lease agreement. Keep your eyes and ears open, trust your gut instinct and always verify everything a prospective tenant tells you.
No matter how competitive your rents are, you need to protect your rental property and assets with tenant background checks. Proper tenant screening will ensure you are leasing to the best possible tenants.
If you’re thinking about investing in rental property, particularly as demand for rentals is increasing and housing prices are at the low point in many markets, there is a lot you’ll need to learn. Some aspects of landlording can only be learned through experience, but others are important to understand from the very beginning, to ensure you’re in compliance with property and tenant regulations.
Even if you’ve been a landlord in the past, you’ll need to brush up on new laws. For example, in many states, certain disclosures are required to protect tenant health. You may be required to reveal exposure to floods, mold or radon. Some states require indoor air tests or other environmental testing. Federal laws require landlords to disclose lead-based paint hazards in buildings built prior to 1978. You may be required to provide smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, or both.
The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in renting property based on a person’s race, color, religion, national origin, gender, marital status or disability. Landlords may not prohibit children in rental property, unless it is a senior-only community.
Landlords are required to provide safe and habitable units for tenants, according to local and state housing and health codes. All utilities must be operational. Necessary repairs must be made promptly. Lighting, locks and grounds should be maintained to prevent crime and injuries. Landlords cannot force tenants to move by turning off heat, lights, or water, by changing locks or removing the tenant’s property. Check local statutes for the guidelines and proper process for evicting tenants.
In many states, security deposits are strictly regulated, including the amount that may be charged, where the funds are kept (such as in a separate bank account from rents or in an interest-earning account) and how they are disbursed to former tenants. You may also be limited as to what the security deposit can cover. Some states allow deposits to cover unpaid rent, while others limit their use to just damages. Landlords may be required to refund a security deposit in a certain number of days.
The proper handling of a tenant’s property is another potentially sticky area. When a tenant leaves property behind, you may be required to prepare an inventory and have a law enforcement officer sign off on it. Depending on where you live, a landlord may be prohibited from moving a tenant’s property off the premises; or they may be allowed to dispose of it after a set period of time. Check your local laws to ensure compliance.
Becoming a landlord can be a profitable venture. Just be sure you’re in compliance with local, state and federal laws, or you may have legal fees that can wipe out your potential gain.
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) requires owners of rental properties to make reasonable exceptions in policies and operations to provide equal housing opportunities to persons with disabilities. If you don’t normally allow pets, you may be required to make an exception to accommodate a service or companion animal for any tenants with disabilities.
But what if the companion animal poses a threat to your other tenants—or to you? Do you have to accommodate an aggressive animal under the FHA?
Probably not. While you must make reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities, they have responsibilities, too. If you request it, tenants with disabilities must provide documentation that the service animal is required from a physician or other healthcare professional. However, as a landlord, you are within your rights to require that every service animal be vaccinated, trained and non-threatening to other residents and the public.
The FHA does not protect tenants who create a nuisance or direct threat to the health and safety of others. If a tenant’s aggressive dog creates a direct threat, then you could be justified in requiring the tenant to take corrective action or remove it.
However, taking action based on speculation about a dog’s breed or appearance is not advisable. Rather, make an objective evaluation based on observation and available data. Does the dog have a history of aggression? Has it ever bitten or harmed anyone? Does it bark excessively? Could putting a muzzle on the dog when it’s outside the rental unit solve the problem?
If you have a tenant with disabilities who has a companion or service animal that is noisy, aggressive or a nuisance, keep the communication open and look for ways to come to a solution.
A recent case in Florida shows the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has little tolerance for racial discrimination against tenants. In this case, HUD charged the owners of a single-family home in Gibsonton, FL, with violating the Fair Housing Act (FHA). The charges include engaging in discriminatory housing practices for reneging on an agreement to rent the house to a woman and her children because they are African American. It also includes charges that the owners used racial slurs when referring to and addressing the family.
Most landlords are very familiar with the FHA, which bars discrimination against persons based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status (including children under the age of 18 living with parents or legal custodians), pregnant women (and people securing custody of children under the age of 18), and handicap (disability).
In the Florida case, the suit alleges that the owners initially agreed to rent the home to an African American woman and her three children. Two days after they moved in, the owner refused their rent payment. He then ordered the children out of the house while their mother was at work, and changed the locks. A relative found the kids about a quarter mile from the house, under a highway underpass.
Subsequent interactions between landlord and tenant included several uses of a racial slur, according to the tenant. The owners by then had rented the house to another tenant.
The case will be heard by an administrative law judge, who may award damages if he or she finds discrimination has occurred. The judge may impose punitive damages to deter further discrimination, as well.
The lesson here is nothing new: discriminating against a current or potential tenant on the basis of race is illegal. Landlords must be blind to race, disability, country of origin, religion, family status and color. And those who aren’t will face the consequences.
Margaret is a landlord who’s trying to do her best to make all of her tenants happy—in hopes that they’ll renew their leases and save her the time and effort of finding new tenants. But she’s discovering that keeping one group of tenants happy could be putting her in legal hot water.
Here’s what happened: Margaret owns a four-plex rental property, with a shared carport, individual patios, and a common back yard. There are no fences or dividers, and each tenant uses the back yard as they please. Two of her tenants have children, and two do not. All are on one-year leases.
The basic lease that all four tenants signed stipulates that children are allowed to play in the front and back yard areas of the building, and on sidewalks that lead up to the unit they live in. They are not to play in the carport.
Stacy is one of the tenants without children. She complained to Margaret that her neighbors’ kids were playing too close to her patio, and too loudly. She threatened to move at the end of her lease, which was coming up in 60 days. Stacy is an ideal tenant—never late with her rent, respecting Margaret’s time and appreciative of her efforts to keep the rental unit well-maintained. She rarely complained about anything.
Margaret wanted to appease Stacy. Besides, she agreed with her that it was unfair for the neighbors’ kids to play near her patio, disturbing Stacy’s peace and quiet. So Margaret sent letters to the two tenants with children, informing them that effective immediately, the children’s play area would be limited to their own front sidewalks and patios.
The result? The parents responded negatively, and threatened legal action against Margaret. And they had a legitimate point—their leases, clearly stipulating where the children could play, were still in place. Additionally, the lease only mentioned quiet hours from 10:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. So, Stacy’s noise complaint had no basis.
All of Margaret’s tenants signed the same lease. If Stacy had an issue with the rules about where kids could play, she should have dealt with it before she signed the lease. And if Margaret wants to change the rules for her long-term lease tenants, she can only do so at lease renewal time.
Landlords are also obligated to comply with the Fair Housing Act, which forbids discrimination against tenants due to familial status. So her rule about where children can and cannot play should apply to all tenants, not just children—just to be safe.
Our last post contained a warning to landlords that what you say can come back to haunt you. In other every day activities, like accepting or rejecting new tenants, landlords must also take care to know and follow all applicable laws—because it protects you and your business from liability.
Take discrimination. The Fair Housing Act is very clear on what constitutes discrimination: denying housing to an applicant based on race, gender, family status, country of origin, religion, age, sexual orientation, or disability. Still, depending on how a rejection is handled, there is always a chance that a discrimination claim could be filed by a rejected tenant.
How can landlords avoid such claims? First, make absolutely sure that you have a rock-solid reason for the rejection—and back it up with paperwork. Second, communicate the reason to the applicant. Don’t just say, “I found a better tenant,” or “I rejected your application.” The tenant could make up his own reasons for the rejection, including his race or religion.
Establish your minimum standards for approving tenant applications, and apply them to every single applicant. Treating everyone equally is a cornerstone of good landlord practices. Accept the first qualified applicant for a rental unit, after applying your standards to each interested party.
Full disclosure to all applicants up front is a good idea. Your lease application should convey your standards, as in the following examples:
- That each adult who will live in the rental unit must fill out an application and be approved.
- That a minimum income level is required to rent the unit.
- Employment history will be checked, and a minimum of six months at the applicant’s employer is required.
- That previous rental history will be taken into consideration, including timely rent payments, keeping property in good condition, and fulfillment of previous leases.
- That a tenant credit check and criminal background screening will be conducted on all applicants.
If you have additional requirements, add them to the list. And of course, your application should state that you do not deny the right to rent or lease property based on race, gender, family status, country of origin, religion, age, sexual orientation, or disability.
With this information up front, applicants will know what basis they can be rejected on. When you do reject a tenant applicant, be sure to explain your reasons in writing, and supply a copy of the credit report, as required by law.
A real estate brokerage in Las Vegas, one of its agents, and the owners of a rental home were all recently sued in federal court for discrimination. Here’s what allegedly happened:
Back in 2008, a woman tried to rent a home the realty company listed. She says she was rejected because she told the agent she had applied to adopt three children, adding to the three she already had living with her. If true, this is a clear violation of the Fair Housing Act.
She alleges the agent replied that they were “hoping to rent to someone without children,” or something to that effect. The home was eventually rented to a family with one child.
What did the agent do wrong? Plenty: It is illegal to make rental housing unavailable or deny rental housing because of family status, under the Fair Housing Act. His statement, if true, violates the FHA.
The real estate company denies the allegations, and says there is no evidence to support them. Their side of the story is that the prospective tenant refused to pay the asking rent.
While there are always people who look for a lawsuit around every corner, and every suit has two sides, there is no doubt that being sued is no fun. It can cost landlords plenty of time and money. Even if you’re completely innocent, proving that is a big hassle. And what about the bad publicity? Innocent, defendants can suffer negative reactions for months or years to come.
The best way to avoid this type of lawsuit is to watch everything you say to prospective tenants. Don’t ask about their personal situation. Keep every conversation and interaction 100% professional. If they ask if the neighborhood is safe, have them look up local crime statistics online. If they ask if you like kids, tell them what you think about kids doesn’t matter, and that your job is to make sure the rental units are rented fairly no matter what the applicant’s family situation.
Base decisions to accept or reject each tenant applicant on the same factors: proper income level, verified employment and income, acceptable credit history check, passing criminal background screening, and any other verification you require.
Don’t judge any books by their covers—the scariest-looking people sometimes make the most peaceful, easiest tenants. And Mr. and Mrs. Clean could be hiding some scary secrets behind their appearance. In the landlord business—you just never know.
Question 1 is about pet policies. Let’s say a landlord has five rental units. The tenants in four of them are neat and clean. The fifth tenants are not. They leave trash around their unit, and during inspections the landlord wonders if they ever clean the place. If both a “neat and clean” tenant and tenant number five want to adopt a dog, is it discriminatory to approve Mr. Clean’s request and turn down the other tenant?
Discrimination is defined by the Fair Housing Act (FHA). Pet policies have nothing to do with the FHA. The only tenants who are protected regarding pets are those who fall under the protection of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A service animal must be allowed, regardless of your pet policies. All other pets are completely at your discretion.
Question 2 is regarding appearance. A landlord has two applicants for the same apartment. The first arrives in a clean, well-maintained late-model car. She is nicely dressed, and wears expensive-looking jewelry. The second arrives on a bicycle, wearing baggy jeans, a baseball hat turned backwards, and a torn t-shirt. Is it discriminatory to decline the second prospective tenant’s application without going any further?
Yes. Landlords may not discriminate on the basis of appearance. Smart landlords are blind to appearance, using solid tenant background screening as the decision maker. In this case, the first applicant could be way overextended on her credit, have a bankruptcy in her credit history, and owe her previous landlord a few months’ rent. The second could have bicycled straight from work, where he is well-respected, earns a good salary, and has solid credit. Appearances can be deceiving.
Question 3 is regarding advertising. Landlord Jane wants to pre-screen tenants by describing her expectations in the “for rent” ads she places in the paper. Her ad reads as follows: “1BR 1BA apartment, clean building, safe neighborhood near church. No pets, no kids, no smokers, no drinkers, no bums. Background and credit checks. Ref req’d.” Is Jane’s ad discriminatory?
Could be. Describing the rental unit as “near church” could be interpreted to mean she desires tenants of that church’s denomination. “No kids” can be problematic. You cannot discriminate against people with children, although a one-bedroom apartment could be considered too small for more than one person. Parents or a parent and infant in most states are allowed to share a one-bedroom dwelling. Check your local and state laws. Landlords can prohibit smoking in rental units and alcohol consumption in common areas, but not a general “no drinking” or “no bums” rule. Jane’s definition of a “bum” is most probably discriminatory.
Remember, landlords must be very familiar with the Fair Housing Act, which bars discrimination against persons based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status (including children under the age of 18 living with parents or legal custodians), pregnant women, and people securing custody of children under the age of 18), and handicap (disability). Treating all of your tenants fairly and consistently is a smart way to avoid charges of discrimination.
The Fair Housing Act, also known as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, prohibits landlords from discriminating against applicants on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, family status and disability. Various Executive Orders cover more details, such as requiring federal agencies to promote and further fair housing in the programs and prohibiting discrimination in the sale or leasing of properties owned by the federal government or provided with federal funds.
The FHA covers most housing in this country, but there are certain exemptions in some circumstances. If you need to know if your circumstances qualify for an exemption, check with your attorney.
Specifically prohibited actions based on the definition of the FHA in leasing situations include:
- Refusing to rent housing
- Making housing unavailable
- Setting different terms, conditions, or privileges for rental of a dwelling
- Providing different housing services or facilities
- Falsely denying that housing is available for inspection or rental
It is also illegal to threaten, coerce, intimidate or interfere with anyone exercising or assisting others to exercise their rights under the FHA, and to advertise or make a statement that indicates any limitation to housing or preferential treatment in offering housing based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, family status, or disability.
In addition, the Fair Housing Act prohibits landlords from discriminating against tenants with physical and mental disabilities, and requires them to allow reasonable modifications to the dwelling unit to accommodate their disability. This can be done at the tenant’s expense, and, where reasonable, you may require that they return the unit back to its original condition when they move out. For example, allowing a disabled tenant special parking when requested is required.
Landlords are also required to make reasonable accommodations for disabled tenants who require service animals. Even if you have a “no pets” policy, you must allow service animals, which are not considered pets.
However, the FHA does not require that landlords make housing available to persons who are direct threats to the health and safety of others or who use illegal drugs.
Remember, you are within your rights when screening tenants prior to leasing. For more landlord resources
, including forms and information on tenant screening,
turn to E-Renter.com.
You’ll know that you have the best possible tenants when you prescreen tenants