Top Five Landlord Mistakes
Laws governing the responsibilities and obligations of both landlords and tenants have grown over several decades and now impact the landlord/tenant relationship from the time the property is shown to a potential renter, to the removal of the last box of stuff when a renter leaves. From her experience helping people on both sides of landlord/tenant altercations, LRIS attorney Sheilah McLaughlin offers this “Top Five” list for landlords.
TOP FIVE MISTAKES LANDLORDS MAKE
- ILLEGAL REFUSAL TO RENT
It is considered discrimination, and is illegal, for landlords to refuse to rent to someone because he or she:
- has children,
- is gay,
- has a handicap,
- is religious,
- receives public assistance, or
- is of any particular race or ethnicity.
A landlord may legally refuse to allow pets unless the pet qualifies as an assistance animal. Beware of jumping to conclusions – believe it or not, a ferret, for example, may qualify as an assistance animal! The landlord may require a pet deposit in addition to the regular security deposit, however.
A landlord may refuse to rent to someone because they smoke, or for that matter for any reason at all, as long as the prospective tenant is not in a protected category, as listed above. Many landlords in college areas refuse to rent to college kids, fearing wild parties and damage. Though regarding any particular student, this fear may be unfounded, the concern is plausible, and refusing to rent is legal. It is good practice for a landlord to request references and to follow through with these reference checks. A landlord may also require the tenant to agree to a credit check.
2. ABUSE OF SECURITY DEPOSIT
Landlords are required to handle security deposits in accordance with the law and may forfeit the security deposit if they do not handle them appropriately.
- charging more than 2 month’s rent as a security deposit;
- failing to place the security deposit in a separate bank account from the landlord’s personal account (note that the law now requires that a landlord have documentation that the security deposit is in a separate account and provide such documentation to the tenant if asked);
- retaining the security deposit where there is no damage beyond “normal wear and tear,” such as routine painting or cleaning;
- failing to notify a tenant in writing after the tenant vacates the premises that the landlord is retaining the security deposit, including an itemized list of damages and costs of repair; and
- failing to make a reasonable effort to re-rent a property when a tenant moves out before the lease is up, and trying instead to collect rent for entire remaining lease time from the tenant who broke the lease.
- ILLEGAL CHARGES
A landlord can’t require tenants to share the cost of electricity in common rooms, stairwells or other shared spaces, unless the tenant specifically agrees to do so and the rent payment is reduced accordingly.
- ILLEGAL EVICTION
A landlord must follow the legal protocol set down in Maine law to evict a tenant, and may not evict for illegal reasons, such as:
- because a tenant has filed a complaint with the Maine State Housing Authority regarding unsafe or unfit conditions;
- because of a tenant’s sexual orientation, family status, religion; or
- because a tenant receives public assistance.
However, even if a tenant is in a protected category, he or she may be evicted for disturbing other tenants in the building.
It is also illegal for a landlord to try to induce a tenant to leave by doing things like:
- shutting off the utilities so that the tenant lacks heat, hot water, or electricity; or
- changing the locks to prevent the tenant from accessing the apartment.
5. MISHANDLING OF ABANDONED PROPERTY
A landlord may not keep or dispose of property abandoned by a tenant without following the process set by Maine law. The following actions by a landlord would be illegal and carry consequences.
- Taking or moving a tenant’s property before a 14-day grace period after the tenant has moved out is up.
- Taking or moving a tenant’s property without first sending the tenant a written notice of intent to do so.
- Taking or moving a tenant’s property after the 14-day grace period and notice of intent have transpired without first sending the tenant an itemized list of all the property in question and giving the tenant an additional 14 days to retrieve them.
- Refusing to release the property to the tenant within 7 days if the tenant responds to such notices, even if the tenant still has not paid back rent.
- Putting the property on the curb or in a common hallway or otherwise unsafe or unsecure location. If the property is still not claimed 7 days after the tenant has conveyed the intent to remove it, the landlord may sell the property, reimburse himself for money he was owed by the tenant, and then send the balance of the proceeds to the secretary of state as revenue from abandoned property.
Following the law to the letter, and keeping a calendar and complete records of all payments and correspondence are a landlord’s best defense against legal actions. When in doubt about how to proceed, consult with an attorney: you will almost always save yourself money and aggravation.
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This information is presented as a public service by the Lawyer Referral & Information Service of the Maine State Bar Association. Contact LRIS at 800-860-1460 for referral to an appropriate attorney in private practice, or for information regarding other resources.
LEGAL DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this article is a general response to the question and does not constitute legal advice. If you require legal assessment of a situation, advice, or representation, consult an attorney who practices in the area of law involved. For more legal information, go to www.mainebar.org/lawyer_need.asp. © 2012 Maine State Bar Association