ma landlord tenant law

eviction-notBill Would Curb Tenant Abuses of Eviction Process | State House Hearing Set For Feb. 25

For the last decade, Massachusetts landlords have been lobbying for a tenant rent escrow bill which would prevent tenants from using the infamous “free rent trick” in evictions. This may finally be the year that the Legislature passes this much needed reform to curb tenant abuses of the eviction process. Two bills, H.B. 1131 and H.B. 1110, have made their way to public hearing at the State House for a February 25th hearing before the Joint Committee on Housing. Landlords are urged to come and testify before the committee and otherwise support the bill by contacting their local representatives and senators.

The bills are designed to reform tenant abuses of the rent withholding law, including the infamous “free rent trick.” The free rent trick works like this:  Tenant stops paying rent for various reasons, such as economic hardship or by design. After receiving a 14 day notice to quit for non-payment of rent, the tenant will immediately call the board of health to get the owner cited for minor or cosmetic code violations such as a hole in a window screen. Under current Massachusetts law, any code violation cited, however minor, allows the tenant to withhold rent until the eviction case is resolved. What usually happens is that the tenant skips out of town or agrees to a move out but never pays the months of accrued unpaid rent, leaving the landlord stuck with thousands of lost income to pay their mortgage and expenses.

Unlike most other states, there is no requirement in Massachusetts that the tenant post the withheld rent into some form of escrow account. There have been many instances where tenants have intentionally inflicted property damage to claim code violations or just made them up altogether.

A mandatory rent escrow law would require any tenant who exercises their right of rent withholding to pay the withheld rent into an escrow account until the unsafe conditions or code violations are repaired. After repairs are done, either the landlord and tenant agree on how the escrowed rent should be divided, or a judge orders a fair settlement. In most cases, the owner will get back most of the withheld escrowed rent. But the most important impact of a mandatory rent escrow law is that those nonpaying tenants who do not escrow can be promptly evicted for nonpayment of rent. Although nonpayment evictions will still take on average three months to resolve, much-longer-delayed evictions and the free rent trick will be stopped.

The bills will most benefit small landlords and owners-occupants of multi-family residences who rent out apartments. These property owners are typically on strict budgets, and any lost rent and attorneys’  fees will prevent them from paying their mortgages, real estate taxes and property expenses, potentially leading to default and foreclosure.

For more information on how you can support these bills, please contact the Massachusetts Rental Housing Association and the Massachusetts Small Property Owner’s Association.

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100316_photo_vetstein (2)-1Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a vocal advocate for Massachusetts landlord rights and can be reached at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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Rent Deposits: To Take Or Not To Take?

With the students invading Boston any minute now, it’s a good idea to review last month’s rent and security deposits – one of the most heavily regulated aspects of Massachusetts landlord-tenant law and fraught with pitfalls and penalties for the unwary, careless landlord. In my experience, landlords who handle rent deposits correctly are the exception, rather than the norm.

If you don’t really know the rules for handling last month’s and security deposits, DON’T TAKE THEM. The reason is that any misstep, however innocent, under the complex Massachusetts last month’s rent and security deposit law can subject a landlord to far greater liability than the deposit, including penalties up to triple the amount of the deposit and payment of the tenant’s attorneys’ fees.

Read More: Landlord Prevented From Evicting Tenant Over $3.26 In Interest

If a deposit is necessary, take a last month’s deposit, the requirements of which are less strict than security deposits. Here is an overview of the security deposit law:

Requirements For Holding A Security Deposit

The following steps must be followed when a landlord holds a security deposit:

  1. When the deposit is tendered, the landlord must give the tenant a written receipt which provides:
    • the amount of the deposit
    • the name of the landlord/agent
    • the date of receipt
    • the property address.
  2. Within 30 days of the money being deposited, the landlord must provide the tenant with a receipt identifying the bank where the deposit is held, the amount and account number.
  3. Within 10 days after the tenancy begins, the landlord must provide the tenant with a written “statement of condition” of the premises detailing its condition and any damage with a required disclosure statement;
  4. The tenant has an opportunity to note any other damage to the premises, and the landlord must agree or disagree with the final statement of condition and provide it to the tenant.
  5. The security deposit must be held in a separate interest bearing account in a Massachusetts  financial institution protected from the landlord’s creditors.
  6. The landlord must pay the tenant interest on the security deposit annually if held for more than one year.
  7. The security deposit may only be used to reimburse the landlord for unpaid rent, reasonable damage to the unit or unpaid tax increases if part of the lease. Security deposits cannot be used for general eviction costs or attorneys’ fees. Within 30 days of the tenant’s leaving, the landlord must return the deposit plus any unpaid interest or provide a sworn, itemized list of deductions for damage with estimates for the work. Only then can the landlord retain the security deposit.

What Do I Do If A Tenant Claims I Violated The Security Deposit?

First, talk with the tenant about the situation. Most issues can be resolved amicably, usually with the return of the deposit with interest. That’s always my advice to landlords. If that doesn’t work, call me.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts residential landlord – tenant attorney. You can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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In a few weeks, the *quiet* streets of Allston, Brighton, Cambridge, Boston and other Massachusetts tenant friendly cities will turn into the zoo that is known as student moving week. So it’s time to review frequently asked questions for Massachusetts landlord tenant rental law.

Screening Prospective Tenants

Landlords can legally ask about a tenant’s income, current employment, prior landlord references, credit history, and criminal history. Your rental application should include a full release of all credit history and CORI (Criminal Offender Registry Information).  Use CORI information with a great deal of caution, however, and offer the tenant an opportunity to explain any issues. Landlords should also check the Sex Offender Registry to ascertain whether a potential tenant could be a safety risk to others nearby. Use the rental application and other forms from the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.

Under Massachusetts discrimination laws, a landlord cannot refuse to rent to a tenant on the basis of the tenant’s race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, sexual orientation, age, marital status, religion, military/veteran status, disability, receipt of public assistance, and children. It’s best to stay away from asking about these topics.

The Boston Undergraduate Rule

Update: Dec. 2011Renting To 4 or More College Students Considered Illegal Lodging House. Click Here to Read More.

Under a two year old Boston zoning ordinance, no more than four (4) full time undergraduate students may live together in a single apartment.  The rule does not apply to graduate students or fraternity/sorority houses. The fines for violating this ordinance are stiff; don’t do it.

While on this topic, landlords should ensure that all roommates are signatories to the lease and are “jointly and severally” liable for rent. That way, if one tenant skips out, the remaining tenants remain liable for the full rent.

Students often create problems for landlords. Meet with students personally before signing the lease and firmly explain a “no tolerance” policy against excessive noise, parties and misbehavior. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure here.

Pets

Subject to some restrictions, landlords may prohibit pets altogether or use reasonable rules to control them on rental property. Under federal law, a landlord cannot prohibit a qualified disabled tenant from using a service pet such as a seeing eye dog. There are also restrictions on prohibiting household pets for federally subsidized elderly and disabled housing project.

More topics, including last month/security deposits and illegal lease clauses, to follow next!

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The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled last week that a landlord was liable for breaching the implied warranty of habitability when a tenant’s guest seriously injured himself falling from a defective porch. The case is Scott v. Garfield, and can be found here.

What’s the Implied Warranty of Habitability?

The implied warranty of habitability is a multi-faceted legal concept that encompasses contract and tort principles, as well as the State building and sanitary codes. It imposes a legal duty on a residential landlord, in the form of an implied agreement, to ensure that a rental unit complies with the State building and sanitary codes throughout the term of the lease. If a tenant is injured due to the premises being in violation of code, the landlord can be held liable under the implied warranty of habitability. The implied warranty cannot be waived by a lease provision.

The Decision: Extending the Doctrine

In Scott v. Garfield, the SJC extended the reach of the doctrine from tenants to the guests and lawful visitors of any tenant. The injured victim in the Scott case was a friend of the tenant helping out with a move when a defective second story porch railing gave way, sending him falling and seriously injuring his shoulder. The Court upheld a $450,000 jury verdict in the victim’s favor. The Court reasoned:

Our conclusion that lawful visitors, like tenants, may recover for personal injuries caused by breach of the implied warranty of habitability rests, in part, on the expectation that a tenant might invite a guest into his home, and the concomitant expectation that the tenant’s home must be safe for a guest to visit — which together go to the very heart of the landlord’s contractual obligation to deliver and maintain habitable premises that comply with the building and sanitary codes.

OK, So What?

Whether the implied warranty of habitability is in play in a personal injury case makes a huge difference. Personal injury attorneys love the implied warranty of habitability because the defense of comparative negligence is unavailable, unlike a straight-forward claim for negligence. The comparative negligence defense enables a jury to attribute fault to each party in a personal injury case and reduce liability accordingly. This was a factor in the Scott case as the injured guest had been drinking a few beers during the move, and the jury found him 20% at fault, which would have reduced his verdict by $90,000. (How a couple beers impacted the rotting porch is beyond me, I guess he leaned to hard–juries never cease to amaze me). The verdict remained intact, however, because the jury also found that the landlord had violated the implied warranty of habitability. Thus, in cases where the implied warranty is in play, landlords have one hand tied behind their backs as they can’t point the finger at the plaintiff.

Take-Away: Check Your Porches and Your Liability Insurance

This case is yet another harsh reminder that all landlords must not only check their porches, stairways and railing for defects, but procure general liability insurance with sufficient coverage on rental property. I recommend at least $1 Million/person $2 Million/aggregate which would have covered this verdict entirely, plus paid for the attorneys. Another way to limit risk is to get title to residential rental property out of landlords’ personal names and into a new limited liability company or other corporate entity (not a nominee trust).

This decision is not a surprise in light of the court’s prior decisions eliminating old common law rules of liability for different types of people on property (i.e., tenants, guests, invitees, etc.–notably, trespassers remain a category not entitled to added protection). Given the significance of the case and the fact that it went up to the SJC, the landlord in Scott had liability insurance which covered this verdict and the appeal. But if you’re an uninsured landlord on the wrong side of one of these cases, you got a big check to write or a bankruptcy attorney to see.

As always, email me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com with any questions.

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istock_000008947813xsmall-300x223.jpgWith the impending influx of renters and students invading the Greater Boston area soon, let’s review some often asked questions concerning Massachusetts landlord tenant law to assist landlords in navigating the rental process.

Screening Prospective Tenants: What You Can and Cannot Ask?

Landlords can legally ask about a tenant’s income, current employment, prior landlord references, credit history, and criminal history. Your rental application should include a full release of all credit history and CORI (Criminal Offender Registry Information).  Use CORI information with a great deal of caution, however, and offer the tenant an opportunity to explain any issues. Landlords should also check the Sex Offender Registry as they can be held liable for renting to a known offender. Use the rental application and other forms from the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.

Under Massachusetts discrimination laws, a landlord cannot refuse to rent to a tenant on the basis of the tenant’s race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, sexual orientation, age, marital status, religion, military/veteran status, disability, receipt of public assistance, and children. It’s best to stay away from asking about these topics.

Students, especially undergraduates, often create problems for landlords. Meet with students personally before signing the lease and firmly explain a “no tolerance” policy against excessive noise, parties and misbehavior.

Careful screening of tenants is far less expensive than the cost of evicting a problem tenant.

Security And Last Month’s Rent Deposits:  Should I Take One?

I advise landlords not to take security deposits because any misstep, however innocent, under the complex Massachusetts security deposit law can subject the landlord to far greater liability than the deposit. Among other requirements, the security deposit law provides:

  • a landlord must give the tenant a written receipt with information as to where the deposit is being held;
  • a landlord must hold a security deposit in a separate interest bearing account, and pay interest to the tenant yearly;
  • at the beginning of the tenancy, a landlord must provide the tenant with a written “statement of condition” of the rental unit detailing its condition and any damage;
  • the tenant may note any damage on the statement of condition
  • At the end of the tenancy, if the landlord desires to deduct repair costs from the security deposit, it must provide the tenant with written notification and copies of all estimates within 30 days of the tenant’s move-out.

Under the law, any slip-up on these requirements can subject the landlord to liability for 3 times the deposit plus the tenant’s attorneys’ fees. That’s why I advise my landlord clients that security deposits aren’t worth the money. If you need a deposit, take a last month’s deposit, the requirements of which can be found here in the Massachusetts last month’s deposit law.

Due to the high interest in security deposits, I wrote a full post on the topic.  Click on Massachusetts Security Deposits to view the article.

My Property Has Lead Paint, What Do I Do?

Under the Massachusetts Lead Paint Law, landlords (and real estate agents) must disclose to tenants the presence of known lead paint for property built before 1978. The property must be de-leaded if a child under 6 will live there. That means if a young couple moves into a unit, then has a baby, the landlord must de-lead the property. There is no way around de-leading other than risking a discrimination claim for not renting to families with small children which is illegal. (Of course, many landlords unlawfully reject families with children). Exposing children to lead paint puts a landlord at huge legal risk.  Financial aid and tax credits for de-leading are available to qualified property owners. For all Massachusetts rental property built before 1978, landlords must provide all tenants regardless of family composition with a Massachusetts Tenant Notification and Certification form, and all lead inspection reports and testing information, if available.

Can I Take A Finder’s Fee?

Only a licensed real estate broker can lawfully collect a finder’s fee for bringing together a landlord and a tenant.  Landlords who don’t work with brokers cannot charge a finder’s fee.

For more information, I recommend reading the Landlord’s Guide To the Law by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts landlord tenant and eviction attorney. Please contact him with any questions.

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