5 Things You Cannot Legally Enforce in Your Rental Lease Agreements

As a Florida landlord, you have a lot of legal responsibilities that govern every aspect of your business, from how you select applicants and maintain the property to when you can enter the unit and how you must deal with non-paying renters. Most of these details are outlined in your rental agreement.

While some landlords deliberately take advantage of their tenants, others are genuinely unfamiliar with some aspects of landlord-tenant law or may be dealing with older lease agreements. 

Below is a list of five clauses that are legally unenforceable in Florida. If any of them are included in your tenancy agreement, see an attorney about making it legally compliant with state and federal housing laws.

1. Waiver of landlord responsibility to keep the premises habitable

A rule called the implied warranty of habitability obligates landlords to keep rental properties in safe and liveable condition. If you don’t take care of necessary repairs, such as replacing a broken-down heater or damaged lock, your tenant has options available, including the right to withhold rent. 

2. Waiving right to return of security deposit

Although security deposits are not required in Florida, if you do take them, state law specifies how you have to hold it and when it must be returned. Under Florida Statute 83.49(1), you must hold it in a separate bank account and return it within 15 days of the tenant moving out unless you intend to make a claim against it to pay for damage to the unit. In that case, you have 30 days to send written notice to the tenant via certified mail. You cannot simply keep it.

3. Unrestricted access

Except in cases of emergency, Florida landlords must generally give their tenants reasonable notice (usually 12 hours) before entering a rented unit. If you are entering to make repairs, you must do so between 7:30 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. You cannot enter the property at will and with a frequency that could be perceived as harassing.

4. Punitive actions for nonpayment of rent

If your tenant fails to pay their rent on time or unreasonably withholds payments, you are allowed to take steps to legally evict them. What you cannot do is take constructive eviction measures, such as shut off utilities or change the locks. Doing so can make you liable to the tenant for the cost of their damages or three months’ rent, whichever is greater.

5. Restricting tenancies of people with children

Some landlords don’t want to rent to people with children and set unreasonable occupancy limits, such as only two people in a two-bedroom home or apartment. Others restrict families to certain floors or areas of the building. Some of these rules discriminate against families and cannot be enforced.

Lack of familiarity with tenant rights can cost you a lot if a tenant complains to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, so it’s important to have your rental lease agreements reviewed by an attorney. At Atlas Law, we support and represent landlords and property managers across the entire state, so no matter where your property is located, we can help. Contact us today at (813) 241-8269.

5 Types of Damages That Could Be Awarded in a Tenant’s Rights Case

As a landlord, one of the most important things you should do is stay abreast of tenant rights laws in Florida and in your specific municipality. Landlord-tenant disputes can be extremely costly, particularly if the court rules in favor of the tenant and orders you to pay damages plus attorney fees. Knowing exactly what the law says helps you stay within legal limits at all times. Several types of damages can be awarded in a tenant’s rights case, increasing the financial risk of a lawsuit for landlords.

1. Breach of Implied Warranty of Habitability

Tenants have the right to quiet enjoyment of a safe and habitable living environment. If a tenant can demonstrate that you, in any way, failed to keep the property livable, they could be awarded damages in a court case. You may have to refund any money they spent trying to repair the home, make it safer, or keep family members safe. Additionally, a judge may award punitive damages if they believe you showed wanton neglect and disregard for the tenant’s rights.  This is a very rare case, but it can become a concern if a landlord is aware of a dangerous condition on the property and the landlord doesn’t take steps to remedy the situation.  

  • Return of rent paid
  • Attorney fees
  • Emotional distress damages(if the tenant successfully proves that the landlord’s negligence in providing habitability caused him or her emotional distress)
  • Tort damages(if the tenant proves that the landlord’s negligence was a cause of the tenant’s injury, the tenant may file a personal injury claim and recover financial compensation for his or her injuries and related expenses)

2. Wrongful Eviction

Wrongful eviction is a common complaint in landlord-tenant cases. It is absolutely crucial to follow state and local laws to the letter when evicting a tenant. It does not matter how clear it is that they have no intention of paying rent or that they have otherwise violated the lease—you must still follow proper eviction procedures. Even if your reason for evicting is legally sound, going about it the wrong way can lead to serious financial consequences. The court may award the tenant money for moving expenses, lost income if they took time off to move, and refunded rent payments.  The most common claim for wrongful eviction occurs when a landlord simply changes the locks due to nonpayment. A landlord should never simply lock a tenant out of the property, as this will almost certainly lead to a wrongful eviction lawsuit. 

3. Medical Expenses

If a tenant’s primary complaint is the presence of mold, asbestos, lead paint, or other issues that either require landlord disclosure or make a unit uninhabitable, you could find yourself on the hook for medical expenses. These add up quickly, particularly if there are elderly residents or children living in the unit.  Moreover, due to Florida’s climate, landlords in Florida have to be ever vigilant regarding mold complaints or water intrusion in a unit. Repairing a leak without also remediating the water damage is a concern, as this increases the potential for a mold infestation Be sure to make sure your properties are leak free, and if you find a leak be sure to replace any wet or damaged materials.  

4. Destroyed Belongings

If an uninhabitable unit causes damage to a tenant’s belongings—for example, if mold ruins their entire wardrobe or a faulty refrigerator causes them to lose a week’s worth of groceries—you may be responsible for paying repair or replacement costs.
It’s important to take preventative steps to protect your rights and your property. Courts often tend to favor tenants, which makes it even more important that you do everything right when renting out a property, signing contracts, maintaining property, and evicting tenants. Consulting a lawyer who works in landlord advocacy can help you prevent problems and avoid court. Get personalized assistance by calling Atlas Law at 813-241-8269.

5. Damages for Wrongfully Withholding Security Deposit

According to Florida landlord-tenant law, a landlord may retain security deposit either in part or in full only under very specific circumstances. For example, a landlord may use the deposit to cover unpaid rent. The deposit can also be withheld for damage to the property that is in excess of ordinary wear and tear.

However, if a landlord withholds the deposit using damage to the property as a mere pretext, a tenant may choose to pursue a lawsuit. If the court decides that withholding security deposit was unreasonable, the tenant may be awarded the following kind of damages:

  • Security deposit with interest: The judge may order the landlord to return the security deposit to the tenant in part or in full along with corresponding interest
  • Triple damages: In certain cases, the judge may find that the landlord’s action was completely unwarranted and unreasonable and order the tenant to pay the tenant three times the value of security deposit as compensation
  • Attorneys’ Fees:  If the tenant hired an attorney and prevails on his/her claim for the security deposit, the judge may declare that the tenant is the “prevailing party.”  The prevailing party would be entitled to his/her attorneys’ fees and costs associated with the lawsuit. Additionally, if the attorney takes the matter on a contingency fee basis, the judge could award a contingency fee multiplier, which multiplies the attorneys’ fees by 1.5 to 3 times the actual amount of the attorneys’ fees incurred.  

Providing a Livable Space: 6 Ways a Landlord Must Ensure Habitability

Under Florida law, landlords are obliged to provide habitable housing to their tenants. The term “implied warranty of habitability” indicates that landlords implicitly promise a safe, livable home by renting to tenants. In general, this refers to major repair needs that can affect a tenant’s safety, health, or ability to remain in their home. If a landlord does not fulfill their end of this agreement, a tenant may choose to sue the landlord, break their lease without penalty, or withhold rent. These are five of the most important ways in which a landlord must provide a safe and habitable home.

1. Maintain Common Areas

All common areas must be kept safe and clean by the landlord. This includes hallways, entryways, elevators, stairs, and laundry rooms. If the landlord hires a property manager to fulfill this obligation, it is ultimately their responsibility if the property manager fails to follow through.

2. Keep Structural Elements Safe

Core structural elements of a property include the foundation, walls, roof, and stairs. All structural components must be safe. In Florida, roof leaks are a common habitability concern, as the humidity can cause the rapid spread of mildew and mold.

3. Provide Water and Heat

Residents have a right to usable water and heat. Water—both cold and hot—and heating must be available at appropriate times and in reasonable amounts. A broken furnace during a cold snap, for example, is considered a major habitability issue.   

4. Prevent and Exterminate Rodent and Insect Infestations

Landlords are expected to take reasonable steps to prevent rodent and vermin infestations. Additionally, they must exterminate all infestations as soon as they occur.

5. Reasonably Prevent Intrusions

Tenants have the right to a home that is safe from intrusions and criminal activity. Generally, landlords simply have to take common sense safety measures, such as maintaining door locks and keeping outdoor areas well-lit. Additional safety needs, such as home protection cameras or alarms, are optional and typically are the responsibility of the tenant.

6. Protect Residents from Environmental Hazards

Residents should be protected from hazards like deteriorating lead paint and asbestos. Mold is a significant issue in Florida, which means that landlords must protect against this hazard with sufficient ventilation. 

As a landlord, you want to do what is right for your tenants while protecting yourself from legal liability and disputes. That’s why you need Atlas Law—we advocate for our landlord clients and help them meet local and state standards. Contact us at 813-241-8269 to get started.

Providing a Livable Space: 10 Ways a Landlord Must Ensure Habitability

There is no doubt that managing a portfolio of rental properties can be a challenge even for the most conscientious landlord. The issues that need to be taken care of on a regular basis are numerous. Solving each and every one of them effectively and in a timely manner requires good planning, strategic thinking, and excellent management skills. However, no matter how many issues you need to handle as a landlord, property maintenance should always be at the top of your priority list. 

The consequences of leaving a leaking roof, faulty heating, or plumbing issues can ruin your reputation as a landlord. If you fail to resolve these problems promptly and effectively, your tenant may decide to take legal action against you for breaching the warranty of habitability. In Florida, the warranty of habitability is a common name for a set of housing statutes that protect the right of a tenant to a decent standard of living. In this article, you’ll learn what habitability means and what landlords are legally required to do to ensure habitable conditions of the property they are renting.

What Is Habitability?

Habitability is a broad legal concept. In general terms, it can be defined as the conformity of rental property with the basic living and safety standards. The warranty of habitability is an implied requirement which means that it doesn’t have to be stated explicitly in the rental or lease agreement. Additionally, a contract clause attempting to waive the warranty of habitability would be deemed against public policy and such unenforceable in most states.

While Florida Statutes do not contain the phrase “warranty of habitability,” the obligation of a landlord to ensure an appropriate standard of living is clearly defined in Section 83.51 of the Florida Statutes. According to s. 83.51, the landlord must comply with “. . . the requirements of applicable building, housing, and health codes.” Additionally, the landlord must ensure that the structural components of a rental property such as roofs, windows, doors, floors, steps, porches, etc. are in good repair and that the plumbing is in “reasonable working condition.”

Ways to Ensure Habitability

In practical terms, the above-mentioned requirements mean that a landlord should comply with the warranty of habitability in the following ways:

  1. Ensuring that the roof doesn’t leak.
  2. Providing windows and doors that are weather-tight and water-tight, and maintaining them in such condition.
  3. Maintaining the stairs in the safe-to-use condition.
  4. Ensuring that the house is reasonably rodent-proof.
  5. Ensuring hot water connection to the kitchen and the bathroom.
  6. Providing a flush toilet and maintaining it in good working condition.
  7. Providing a sufficient number of working electric outlets.
  8. Maintaining the electrical systems in working and safe condition.
  9. Taking appropriate care to ensure pest and rodent control and eliminating rats, mice, roaches, wood-destroying pests such as ants and termites, and bedbugs.
  10. Installing a working smoke detection device.

Facing a Lawsuit? Atlas Law Can Help

At times, even the most conscientious landlords face lawsuits from their disgruntled tenants. In some cases, such lawsuits are frivolous and unsubstantiated. As a landlord, you have every right to protect your reputation and interests by choosing a skillful lawyer to represent and protect you in a court of law. If you’re facing any legal issues coming from a dissatisfied tenant, do not hesitate to contact us. Our attorneys at Atlas Law will gladly review the issue you’re facing and advise with regards to the most advantageous solution available in your case. Please contact us to schedule a free consultation with a member of our legal team.

Landlord/Tenant Law 101: The Covenant of Quiet Enjoyment

As a landlord, your are entitled to visiting your property – after all, you are the owner. But, on the other hand, are you truly allowed to step onto your rented property whenever you want regardless of whether or not the tenant is home?

Not respecting a tenant’s boundaries is a serious violation of an important Florida housing principle. This principle is called the Covenant of Quiet Enjoyment. Read on to learn what this covenant exactly stipulates, how it protects a tenant’s rights, and what a tenant can do if they feel those rights are being violated.

What is the Covenant of Quiet Enjoyment?

The Covenant of Quiet Enjoyment is a duty that Florida law imposes on landlords whether or not it is explicitly stated in the residential lease or contract. This covenant gives a tenant the right to enjoy his or her rented property without substantial interference from the landlord and without infringing on his or her privacy. Additionally, if a landlord wants to visit his or her property, he or she must give the tenant reasonable notice at least 12 hours in advance. Moreover, the tenant must give consent to the visit. However, a landlord is generally entitled to visiting the property in the following circumstances:

  • if the tenant unreasonably withholds the consent
  • in case of emergency
  • if the tenant is absent from the property for a period of time that is equal to one-half of the rental payment term

Violations of Quiet Enjoyment

The following list contains the most common examples of violations of the Covenant; while it is by no means complete, it may give you a good idea of what a violation of Quiet Enjoyment looks like:

  • Visiting too frequently
  • Entering the property without permission or notice
  • Refusing to give a tenant access to common areas or spaces on the residential premises
  • Preventing a tenant from having guests under reasonable circumstances

What You Can Do?

If you are dealing with situations that may constitute a violation of the Covenant of Quiet Enjoyment, it is usually best to contact a qualified lawyer to ask for advice on what the best way to proceed would be given the circumstances. Our attorneys at Atlas Law can provide you with some basic guidelines during a free phone consultation. We will also advise whether legal action against your tenant may be warranted and be happy to represent your interests in a dispute that may ensue.

4 Common Security Deposit Disputes

Even though largely unwanted and inconvenient, legal disputes about money are a frequent part of everyday life – both for business and individuals. One of the most common disputes we see involves tenants suing their landlords for the return of their security deposit. As a landlord, having basic knowledge about such disputes can help you both avoid unnecessary legal battles and effectively protect your rights if you find yourself in the middle of one. In this article, we will briefly analyze 4 common security deposit disputes.

1. Landlord Decides to Keep the Deposit for Wrong Reasons

According to Florida state law, landlords may have valid reasons to withhold the security deposit. Such reasons include:

  • Non-payment of rent (the deposit will be kept to cover the unpaid rent)
  • Certain violations of the lease agreement (depending on the wording of the lease)
  • Damage to the property in excess of normal wear and tear (the deposit will be kept to cover the costs of repairs)
  • Unpaid utilities (the deposit will be kept to cover the unpaid bills)

If a landlord tries to keep the deposit for reasons that aren’t lawful, the tenant may sue to recover the deposit, as well as legal fees.

2. Landlord Doesn’t Comply with Rules for Returning Deposits

Florida state law also clearly specifies the correct procedure a landlord must follow if they have valid reasons to withhold the deposit. Most importantly, a landlord must meet a strict deadline for returning the deposit or providing notice that the landlord intends to keep all or a portion of the deposit. If the landlord decides to keep a part of the deposit, the landlord must provide the tenant with advanced notice and itemize the intended deductions. If the landlord fails to meet the deadlines or to follow the procedure stipulated by the law, the tenant may sue the landlord with a high chance of winning the dispute.

3. Tenant Doesn’t Agree with the Deductions

As mentioned, a landlord may decide to make a deduction and withhold a part of the deposit to balance out the expenses related to the damage caused by the tenant or to cover abnormal cleaning costs. However, a tenant may dispute the amount of such a deduction. For example, the tenant may argue that the damage to the property is due to normal everyday use or that the claimed deduction is much higher than the reasonable costs of the repairs. In any case, if the sides don’t manage to work out an agreement, the matter may go to court.

4. Security Deposit Doesn’t Cover the Damage or Unpaid Rent

If the amount of the security deposit transferred by the tenant to the landlord at the time of the initial move-in isn’t sufficient to cover the expenses related to back rent, cleaning, or repairs, the landlord must provide the tenant with a demand letter. This letter should itemize the costs, state the amount the landlord is claiming, and mention a clear deadline to pay the outstanding amount. The demand should also inform the tenant that he or she will face legal action upon failure to comply with the demand. If the letter isn’t met with the expected action on the part of the tenant, the landlord may decide to take the matter to a small claims court.

Contact Atlas Law With Regards to Your Security Deposit Dispute

The attorneys at Atlas Law represent landlords in their security deposit disputes and claims. If you are currently facing such a dispute and you feel that your legal rights are being violated, please contact us without delay. We will schedule a consultation with you where an experienced attorney will analyze your case and inform you about your legal options.

What You Can and Cannot Use Security Deposits For in Florida

A security deposit is a part of virtually every lease agreement and one of the key requirements for the tenant if they want to rent a unit in your community. It serves as a measure of protection for the landlord’s property in case of unintentional damage on the part of the tenant and thus gives both parties some peace of mind. Florida’s landlord-tenant law precisely describes how security deposits must be handled, so in this post, we will explore what security deposits can and cannot be used for in Florida.

Investments

According to Florida landlord-tenant law, the money from security deposits cannot be freely used or invested. Rather, it must be stored in a bank account or posted as a surety bond. The information about the way the money is stored and other pertaining details must be disclosed to the tenant in writing within 30 days of receiving the deposit. While the landlord may place the money in either an interest or a non-interest bearing account, any interest must be paid back to the tenant either annually or at the end of the lease.

However, if a tenant wrongfully terminates the tenancy, no interest will be due.

Deduction to Cover Nonpayment of Rent

In Florida, a deduction from the security deposit can be made to cover the lost rent. As it is a tenant’s contractual obligation to pay a monthly rent, a failure to pay is considered a breach of lease. This is a sufficient reason to deduct a portion of the security deposit to recover the unpaid rent.

Deduction to Cover Damage to the Property

The security deposit may be kept in part or in full if the tenant caused material damage to the property. The damage, however, must not be due to normal wear and tear.

Deduction to Cover Cleaning Costs

Cleaning costs can only be deducted from the security deposit if the necessary cleaning is excessive and the condition the apartment has been left in is worse than can be reasonably attributed to normal wear and tear.  The overwhelming majority of the time, cleaning costs cannot be deducted from the security deposit.

Deduction to Cover Unpaid Bills

If a tenant is required by the lease agreement to cover the cost of utilities, unpaid bills may justify the landlord keeping the security deposit in part or in full.  You should be sure that your lease specifically requires the tenant to cover utility costs before making any such deduction.

Is Your Claim on Security Deposit Disputed?

If you are a landlord and feel that you have valid, legally justified reasons to keep the security deposit, you must inform your tenant about it in writing. If you do not have a claim for the security deposit and you are returning the deposit to the tenant, you have 15 days to do so, starting from the termination of the lease. If you are going to retain all or a portion of the security deposit, you have 30 days to inform your tenant that you wish to keep all or a portion of the deposit. The tenant has 15 days after receiving your security deposit retention letter to respond to your claim.

If the tenant objects your claim on the security deposit, it is usually best to contact a dedicated Florida eviction attorney to have the circumstances of your case closely reviewed and advised on the options available to you.

Attorney Brian Chase has extensive experience in dealing with landlord/tenant disputes and handles eviction and security deposit cases across all jurisdictions and counties in Florida. Typically, other lawyers in the area will know the laws in just your jurisdiction. We can handle cases no matter where you are in Florida. We offer flat fee evictions, weekly progress updates at no cost, and no coverage counsel. Contact Atlas Law to see why we are called the landlord’s advocate and how we’ll be able to help in your case.

5 Reasons Why a Landlord Should Never Resort to “Self-Help” Practices

In Florida, many landlord/tenant agreements include wording that is there to allow ‘self-help’ practices. Most commonly, these are evictions due to non-payment, which the landlord can complete without ever involving the courts. While this type of wording is found in many contracts for both residential and commercial agreements, it is never actually in the best interest of the landlord to engage in this type of practice.

There are so many restrictions on the self-help requirements, and the courts so often look negatively on this practice, that it backfires on the landlords in most situations. The following are some of the most significant reasons why a landlord should never resort to self-help practices:

Can Delay an Eviction

Many landlords take steps like turning off utilities or changing locks as part of their self-help process. If the tenant files a complaint against you for this practice, and the courts determine that you didn’t have the right to do this, it can significantly delay the eviction process. Many tenants are very familiar with how to manipulate the system to stay in a property for extended periods of time without paying, so never take any actions like this, which could cause significant delays.

Exposes You to Risk of Countersuit

If your tenant feels intimidated or harassed because of actions you have taken, you are exposed to a countersuit. Depending on the actions you take, and the sympathies of the judge in your case, it could cost you a significant amount of money. At the very least, it can make it so you have no choice but to waste time and money just to work your way through the countersuit.

Can Give You a Bad Reputation

Most people looking to rent residential or commercial space really don’t understand what self-help practices are, and that they can in some cases be legal. Tenants often write reviews on popular websites about their experiences with landlords. If they write that you forced them out of their home without even going through the courts, it can make future tenants look to another property.

You Could Face Jail Time

Believe it or not, there have been landlords who have actually had to go to jail because of their actions. Even if you are very confident that you are justified in taking these types of actions, the courts rarely see it this way. If they feel you’ve taken things too far, you could end up spending several days or even weeks in jail!

Getting Legal Help is Very Affordable

Last, but certainly not least, is the fact that it is so affordable to have an attorney help you with any evictions that are necessary. Contact Atlas Law to get an estimate on the costs associated with an eviction based on your unique situation. We advocate for landlords in Florida, and would be honored to fight for your rights.