Struggling to Sell? Consider Becoming a Landlord

As we near 2023, we’re learning that the booming housing market of early 2022 and all of 2021 is behind us. With interest rates rising, more families are deciding to sit out on the housing market and instead deferring to renting or other alternatives. So, if you’re trying to sell your home and not having any luck – should you consider renting? Here’s why that may not be the worst idea.

You Don’t Have to “Concede”

The first move for many sellers in a buyer’s market is to make serious concessions on the home they’re selling. This can include lowering the price, offering to do additional work to the home, including additional amenities, and more. This is less than ideal because you may end up feeling like you’re not getting out what you put into the home.

As a landlord, you don’t have to make these concessions. Instead, you will be able to look at the market and set a rental price that matches the value of your property on a monthly basis. This allows you to recoup all of the monthly mortgage payments and then some. That money can then be put into your own home or other needs. You can always put the home back on the market at a future date and get the value you actually want out of your property.

Steady Second-Source of Income

Everybody is about the “side hustle” these days. It’s popular to have a second income stream, and rental income is maybe the best example of this. You will want to be an attentive and accessible landlord (unless you hire a property management company to handle your property), but otherwise, you won’t have to put nearly as much effort into your side hustle as those who are working two-to-six hours a night in the rideshare industry trying to make ends meet.

There are numerous families who are actually able to pay for their own homes through the income they receive from rental properties, and while this may be your first rental property, you may learn a lot in the process and decide to become an investor with multiple rental properties in the future.

A Diminished Housing Market Means More Potential Tenants

You already tried to sell your home and have decided now is not the time to sell a home because there simply aren’t enough buyers for your liking. So, what are those people doing? They’re renting! This means you will have a wider customer base to choose from than you would in a booming housing market.

At Atlas Law, we are landlord advocates. We believe you deserve fair and respectful representation. Contact our firm if you’ve decided to become a Florida landlord.

What Happens If An Evicted Tenant Refuses To Leave?

Evictions are never an easy process. Ultimately, you are dealing with someone who has done something to warrant an extreme action that removes them from your property through legal action. These decisions can weigh heavily on a landlord/property owner and are often met with a strong reaction.

One such reaction is when a tenant simply refuses to vacate the property. Upfront, you’re dealing with a tenant who warranted eviction in the first place so there’s already been some issue that brought you to this moment. It’s important to go about this process properly before taking the next steps that involve law enforcement.

Find a Mutual Agreement With the Tenant

Evictions are a last resort. These actions require a provable reason and cannot violate the Fair Housing Act (we covered exceptions recently. When you take these steps, you’ll need to get a summons from the county the tenant is in and then the tenant will be given time to respond.

If the tenant decided to contest the eviction then they won’t have to vacate until a judgment is handed down one way or the other. During this time, or even after, you may consider finding mutually agreeable terms with the tenant. Consider possibilities such as:

  • Allowing them to stay and pay rent for a determined period of time
  • Settling any unpaid rent at a lower amount
  • Filing a “Seven Day Notice to Cure” which gives the tenant seven days to remedy any issues at the property

If you’ve already reached the decision to evict then it’s unlikely any of these options will suffice, but these are steps to consider before the eviction process begins or to negotiate while the eviction is being contested.

Getting the Authorities Involved

Short of a mutual agreement that settles the situation, you may need to get law enforcement involved. You do not have the right to forcibly remove a tenant nor are you permitted to turn off utilities or remove locks from the doors. Anything that puts the tenant at immediate risk can be considered a liability that you’re responsible for.

Once you’ve received an eviction judgment from the courts, it will be up to law enforcement to see the tenant out. The process will be relatively straightforward: the tenant will be given a date that they must be out of the property by. If the tenant is not out by that date then law enforcement officers will come to the property and remove the tenant.

Nobody wants it to get to this point. It’s often an ugly situation and tensions with law enforcement can create worse problems than you started with. If you have a problem tenant or need help navigating the eviction process, contact Atlas Law.

Exploring Exceptions to the Fair Housing Act

The Fair Housing Act is an important piece of legislation that protects individuals and their families, allowing them to secure housing regardless of their race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, religion, disability, and beyond. We don’t want to give the impression that these protections aren’t fair or necessary, because they are.

With that said, there are circumstances where landlords face discrimination lawsuits – even when the claim has no standing. It’s important to understand when there are outright exceptions to the Fair Housing Act so Florida landlords can run their businesses with peace of mind.

Owner-occupied buildings with no more than four units

If you live in your building and are renting out the other units, you may not have to follow the Federal Housing Act. This exemption applies to buildings where there are two to four units and the owner of the building lives in one of them.

In this case, you are permitted to make your own decisions about who can live in those other units without restriction. Obviously, it might not be great for business to discriminate against others in any circumstance, but you will be protected from litigation covered under the FHA.

Single-family housing sold or rented without the use of a broker

As long as the owner of the single-family home is a private citizen and doesn’t own more than three homes, they are exempt from the FHA when a broker is not used. This applies if you directly enter into an agreement with a tenant or buyer of your own volition without the help of a broker.

Religious organizations

When religious organizations rent out properties that aren’t used for commercial purposes, they are generally exempt from the protections provided by the FHA. U.S. Code § 3607 allows these organizations to restrict tenancy exclusively to members of their religion which means members of the religion still cannot be discriminated against.

There’s an exception to this exception, though. If the religion itself is deemed to restrict membership based on race, color, or national origin then the religion cannot restrict tenancy to members.

Housing operated by certain organizations and private clubs

This one is similar to religious organizations. If a private club limits occupancy to members only then the private club may prevent anyone else from living on the property.

The same U.S. code as mentioned above says that no limits can be imposed on private clubs “from limiting the rental or occupancy of such lodgings to its members or from giving preference to its members.”

At Atlas Law, we stand by the FHA and the exemptions that were carefully considered and applied to the law. If you think you’re being targeted by a current or past tenant or applicant despite not having to abide by the Fair Housing Act, contact our team.

Landlord Checklist In Between Tenants

Florida landlords know the time and effort that goes into the upkeep of rental properties. It’s a year-round effort, both when tenants are renting the properties and when the properties are vacant. In an ideal world, the gap between tenants would remain short to keep the cash flow coming instead of missing out on rent payments.

It can be beneficial to have a small gap between tenants, however, so you have the opportunity to make sure the property is in order. This not only allows you to ensure tenant satisfaction but it can also alleviate some of your work, as well. It’s important to take advantage of the time you have in between tenants – here are some tasks you should consider when you’ve got an opportunity.

Deep cleaning and repairs

A portion of this list is the typical steps any landlord will take in between tenants, but it’s worth noting regardless. This is obviously necessary to make sure the property is ready for the next tenant, but it also protects you should legal situations arise either now or in the future.

When you deep clean and repair any issues within the property it draws a line between past and future tenants. This way should you discover significant damage now or later then you’ll know definitively who the responsible tenant is.

Inspect all plumbing fixtures

One of the most expensive fixes for any landlord will be plumbing issues. These can arise quickly and create serious liability should the plumbing issue do significant damage not only to your property but also to any other connected properties or rooms.

An inspection of the plumbing should go beyond just checking that all toilets are clean and working and that all faucets are operating as normal. A professional plumber can do a thorough review of all plumbing fixtures, taking a proactive approach to any future problems.

Change the locks/codes or rekey the property

The dream tenant is one who is considerate of the property and on time with all payments. However, even the perfect tenant doesn’t mean you should skip this step.

Future tenants should be able to rest assured knowing there are no safety risks in their homes. Even if they’re renting, the property is meant to be a safe haven for them.

If there are physical keys then it’s easy for tenants to make duplicates and there’s no way of knowing definitively that a tenant didn’t keep a key or two for themselves. Many modern locks are code-based and can be updated by simply changing the code. Whatever process you must take it’s worth taking the time to protect your property and your tenants.

Return the security deposit on time

We started this list with an obvious step and we’ll wrap it up with another one. It’s important to know what Florida law says about security deposits.

If you have done a thorough inspection and have no claims against the former tenant’s security deposit then you have 15 days to return the money. If you do have a claim, then you have 30 days from the date the tenant vacated to notify them by certified mail. If the tenant does not dispute this claim then you have 15 days from the date the tenant received the notice to return the deposit.

If your tenant disputes the claim in court and wins then you will be responsible for court and attorney fees. If the tenant disputes the claim in court and loses then they will be responsible for your court and attorney fees and will receive the deposit minus the claim you filed against it.

Each of these steps will set you up to avoid issues in the future. It’s important to use the time in between tenants to make sure the property doesn’t have lingering issues and won’t have issues when future tenants move in. If you find that there are major issues during this time and need an attorney to defend your hard work and your property, contact Atlas Law. We advocate for Florida landlords and their right to earn an honest living.

Considerations for a Landlord Bill of Rights

Right now, landlords are facing heavy criticism and being forced into agreements or circumstances against their wishes because of mounting political pressure to provide housing. We recently wrote about the cancel rent/rent control movements which expect landlords across the country to forgive millions in past-due rent along with limiting the rental value landlords can place on properties. These movements likely aren’t going to just go away as a legitimate need for affordable housing continues, but should all landlords be forced into unfavorable agreements? This goes against most fair market practices in our country – so maybe it’s time for a Landlord Bill of Rights in Florida?

Tenant Bill of Rights

We’re seeing certain regions implement a “Tenant Bill of Rights.” Miami-Dade County recently implemented one, which includes:

  • Allowing tenants to deduct costs of neglected repairs from their rent
  • Banning landlords from asking about prior evictions
  • Establishing an office for housing advocacy
  • Requiring landlords to notify tenants of any ownership changes
  • Protecting tenants from retaliation when they seek government help against their landlord
  • Requiring landlords to give 60-day notice when rent is increased by more than 5%

Most of these new rules are reasonable and shouldn’t have too large of an impact on the landlord-tenant relationship, though there’s plenty of reason to be concerned about bad actors attempting to take advantage of the changes.

Landlord Bill of Rights

So, with changes heavily favoring tenants what would a Landlord Bill of Rights look like? There are no current regulations for such a bill. It’s not just about the lack of a bill of rights, however. Some landlords are being forced to accept Section 8 despite the administrative code specifically stating the program is VOLUNTARY. There’s nothing voluntary about requiring landlords to accept these vouchers and claiming they are a form of “Source of Income” discrimination.

“Testers” have recently been attempting to trap landlords and housing offices into exposing themselves to liability by seeing if they’re in violation of certain codes and programs. A Landlord Bill of Rights would protect against calls like this and other issues.

Florida already has several laws and regulations supporting landlords, and it’d make sense to include them in a Bill of Rights to reaffirm those regulations. They include:

  • Holding “holdover” tenants who are no longer legally permitted to stay in a property liable for double the rental price
  • Filing criminal or civil charges against a tenant who damages the landlord’s property
  • Allowing landlords access to tenant funds deposited into the court’s registry when the landlord is facing personal hardship due to the loss of rental income

Florida landlords are in need of these protections and others to prevent voluntary programs from being involuntary, require tenants to cover missed rent and/or vacate immediately, ensure tenants don’t skirt certain regulations through flimsy excuses, and more.

Right now, the best avenue to protect yourself from predatory tenants who are trying to take advantage of public and political messaging against your livelihood is to talk to an attorney. Atlas Law is a landlord’s advocate with experience protecting and reaffirming the rights of Florida landlords. Contact our offices today.

Understanding the Affordable Connectivity Program in the Infrastructure Act

When politicians push for and pass new legislation, it can be hard to keep up with every little detail embedded in the hundreds of pages of documents. The Infrastructure Act passed by congress in 2021 is a great example of this, and one of the details many people missed has a major impact on landlords across the country. Landlords need to be aware of the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) and how it impacts their properties.

What the program does

Essentially, the ACP allows qualifying low-income households to get a $30 reduction on their monthly internet bill for high-speed internet. Congress deems high-speed internet to be a necessity in the modern world and is opening a gateway to allow more families access to the services. This won’t impact many landlords as most tenants need to go directly through their internet service provider to sign up and pay their internet bills.

Low-income households who qualify and already have an ongoing contract with an internet service provider still qualify. This means active contracts can be altered to reflect the new $30 reduction on the monthly bill. So, what does that mean for landlords?

Who it impacts

As we mentioned above, landlords whose tenants go through internet service providers on their own likely won’t have to worry about the program. Florida landlords who have bulk cable agreements, however, need to be aware of this. That’s because the ACP prevents landlords with bulk cable agreements from forcing qualifying low-income tenants to pay full fees, even if the tenants are already under a lease agreement that states the total monthly payment.

Options for landlords with bulk agreements

Landlords who have these agreements have two options essentially:

  • Fulfill the $30 discount from the previously agreed price under the bulk agreement; or
  • Allow qualifying tenants to forego the monthly fee and seek their own internet services to which they would apply the $30 discount

If you go with the first option, the internet service provider that you have a bulk agreement with will need to file for reimbursement from the government for the loss. The program is meant to prevent anyone from taking a loss on bulk agreements already in place, but it’s important for you and the provider to document which households are taking the discount and how much reimbursement is owed.

If you choose the second option, you run the risk of taking a loss on each qualifying household for the bulk agreement.

At Atlas Law, we advocate for landlords in Florida and want to make sure you have the tools and information to run your business. It’s important to stay up-to-date on changes like this that impact your tenants and your bottom line. If you need a law firm that is willing to stand by you and keep you in the loop on important changes to the law, contact Atlas Law today.

Understanding Emotional Support Animal Laws and Guidelines

As a landlord, it’s important to take steps to protect your own property and preserve your long-term financial stability. For some, this could include restricting the type, number, breed, and size of animals permitted on your properties.

Many landlords ban pets entirely because of the potential liability issues. Liability arises when the animal cause damage to the property, injures another tenant or exhibits behavioral issues that put others at risk. However, regardless of your restrictions, it’s common for tenants to claim an animal is an Emotional Support Animal (commonly referred to as an ESA). When done legally, landlords are left with few options to prevent the animal from living and staying on the premises. However, many tenants abuse this angle and attempt to go through illegitimate channels to “register” an animal to get around restrictions, fees, and insurance costs.

It’s important to prepare for these conversations because tens of thousands of animals have been “registered” on illegitimate websites that provide no real valid documentation of an emotional support animal. To understand how those conversations will go, it’s important to first understand how the law applies when someone LEGALLY registered their animal.

Legitimate emotional support animal registrations

Landlords are limited when a tenant provides valid proof of an emotional support registration. Tenants are protected by the Fair Housing Act which prevents discrimination against tenants for a disability. The Fair Housing Act provides this protection for people who genuinely have a diagnosis that is stabilized, improved, or assisted in some fashion by the presence of an animal. These registrations can only come from qualified medical professionals and do not need to provide a specific diagnosis and instead can just give general information confirming the need for one.

Animals do NOT need to have any sort of official training to qualify as emotional support animals. This means the registered animal very well may exceed any weight restrictions you’ve implemented or even be a breed you’ve banned from your property due to insurance reasons.

When a tenant legally registers their animal you are not permitted to raise rent, charge additional fees, or attempt to evict the tenant. The only time a landlord may take action against a tenant is when a registered animal causes damage to the property, injured another tenant, or exhibits threatening behaviors that place risk upon other tenants.

Illegitimate emotional support animal registrations

Where things get tricky is when a tenant claims they’ve registered their animal but have actually just paid any number of websites to send them a fake letter. These are growing in popularity, with some services saying they’ve received more than 200,000 requests in a single year.

Unfortunately, the law isn’t cracking down on these fake registrations, leaving it up to landlords to sift through what’s real and what’s fake. What’s important to understand is you have no duty to expose your property or your other tenants to risk by an animal that’s not legally registered as an emotional support animal. 

These fake registrations expose you to unnecessary liability, but it’s a tricky situation to navigate. Your best bet is to contact your attorney before approaching the tenant to enforce the terms of the lease. Your attorney should be able to review any claimed documentation of the ESA registration and confirm whether or not it follows the legal standards in place.

At Atlas Law, we know your rights and will always be a landlord’s advocate. If you’re ever confronted with what you believe to be a fake registration or need help exploring your options, contact our team.

Protecting Your Livelihood During the Cancel Rent and Rent Control Movements

The conversations around canceling or controlling rent have been prevalent both locally and nationally as people and politicians look for ways to alleviate some of the financial stress brought on by the pandemic. Unfortunately, there are many people looking to take advantage of the situation by skirting eviction laws and hoping the government will bail them out of the significant debt they owe to landlords.

At the end of the day, landlords are people doing a job just like everybody else, and they have a right to be paid for their services just like everybody else. But, as a landlord, what can you do about these movements?

Understand what rent control and rent cancellation is

Rent control and cancellation are sometimes used interchangeably, but there’s a sizable difference in how each works.

With rent control, the government would play a large role in controlling the prices of rental properties. This would mean limiting the amount rent can go up year over year along with likely controlling the price for certain amenities and square footage. In Tampa Bay, lawmakers attempted but failed to execute rent control through a “loophole” that allows lawmakers to implement rent control ONLY during a housing crisis. The legal requirements to prove a housing crisis exists and necessitates rent control are significant.

For rent cancellation, the idea is to forgive all overdue rent tenants incurred over the course of the last several years. This concept would cost landlords a massive amount of money and put their livelihoods at risk. Some landlords, especially those with fewer properties, would likely never recover.

Stay informed

You should stay connected to the latest conversations. Both discussions are evolving at both the local and federal levels. This doesn’t mean you have to sit down and watch the news every night or check online news stories every day, but you should at least be aware of what the latest information is.

Right now, multiple efforts for rent control in Florida have failed. Some of those conversations have shifted more towards rental assistance which should benefit both the tenant and the landlord.

Get involved

There are several ways to get involved and protect your livelihood against the movements. You can attend and engage with politicians are local meetings when available to the public. This is a way to make sure your voice isn’t completely drowned out but a loud section of the public pushing for rent cancellation and control.

Another option could be to join industry and lobbying groups to make sure there is more prevalent messaging surrounding landlord rights and the need for tenants to pay what is owed. These groups are comprised of industry professionals who know how to craft timely and useful campaigns to ensure rent and other payments are never put on the backburner by politicians.

Be reasonable

This one is important. While these movements do put landlords at risk, there is a reason so many people are pushing for them. Costs across the board are up right now and many people are drowning in debt, often of no fault of their own. Be willing to help your tenants and refer them to programs that can help them overcome these debts, such as the “Our Florida” program.

While there are some people with bad intentions trying to take advantage of these movements, there are also people who genuinely need your help. It’s imperative that we all do what we can to support those in need. If you’re able to provide support to those people, the rent control and cancellation movements are far less likely to gain steam. If you refuse to help and instead kick or lock people out of their homes, you’re only going to add fuel to the fire.

You should always be prepared for these conversations. The best way to make sure you don’t put yourself in any compromising situations is to work with an attorney. At Atlas Law, we know real estate in Florida and we advocate day in and day out for landlords. Contact us today.

What To Do When a “Tester” Calls Your Offices

We’re hearing from clients about a troubling trend in Florida. So-called “testers” are contacting various housing offices, trying to take advantage of your hard work by catching you up in a line of questioning and threatening to turn the short conversation into an expensive lawsuit.  While some of these testers are government agencies, the majority are individuals who are encouraged by attorneys to contact housing providers.  These individuals and attorneys can be more interested in turning a profit than policing the housing industry.  

A tester will call a housing provider posing as a potential renter.  The tester will ask specific questions about whether or not felons qualify for housing, whether the housing provider accepts Section 8 housing vouchers, as well as similar scenarios. Because of the conflicting political landscape between state and local governments, numerous local jurisdictions are passing ordinances that directly affect your answers to these questions.  These local ordinances are often passed without much notice, and you might be completely unaware of their existence.  The caller knows this, and an incorrect answer can result in you facing a demand for attorneys’ fees. We want to prepare you for those calls and make sure you don’t get caught up in these unfortunate situations.

Don’t provide specific responses

Your best defense is to familiarize yourself with your legal requirements at the local, state, and Federal level.  If you are uncertain about your legal obligations, you should not provide a definite response. If someone calls your offices asking about whether you accept Section 8 vouchers or felons and you’re unsure of the answer, just tell them that.

Your best response is to say something like “I am unable to answer questions about your specific situation without viewing your application. We can better assess your qualifications after you submit one,” and then provide them with the application.

This protects you if the caller is trying to extract an incorrect answer out of your leasing staff. At the end of the day, your best defense is to not provide specific responses that could run afoul of local, state or Federal laws.  You should encourage anyone who is attempting to qualify for residency to use the application process – that is why you spent time and effort putting the application form, credit checks, and background checks together.  

Take advantage of your own application process

When these testers call, many are simply looking for a clear-cut violation that results in an immediate demand for attorneys’ fees. This means they’re not going to want to put any money in before trying to get money out of you, and they usually don’t want to put in a lot of effort.

So, when you use the suggested talking points provided above, mention to them that you have an application process that includes an application fee. Generally, testers are not going to be willing to contact housing providers and pay numerous application fees to see whether or not you decline their qualifications. Additionally, many testers won’t follow up by filling out an application form so that you can run a proper background or financial check.  

It’s important to be flexible and consider waiving your application fees whenever reasonable, but you should be wary if you’re unsure of a caller’s motives. Don’t commit to waiving the fee if you’re uncomfortable with the situation and there is no legal basis for waiving the application fee.

Don’t fall for threats

Most of these testers have no intention of ever going through the legal process. If they do catch you up and start to threaten a lawsuit you should end the call and contact your lawyer. You may never hear from them again after you hang up, but your best bet is to make sure your attorney is aware of the situation and prepared to defend your rights.

At Atlas Law, we are a landlord’s advocate. We will stand by your right to run your business unbothered by those trying to make a quick dollar at your expense. We operate in every county in Florida. Contact us today to protect your hard work.

Rent Control Could Be Coming to Florida

The real estate market in Florida is showing no signs of slowing down. Cities across the state ranked among the hottest markets in 2021, and Zillow projects Tampa Bay and Jacksonville to be the two hottest markets in the country in 2022.

A hot real estate market means good things for landlords looking to fill your rental properties, but it’s also going to add more fuel to the conversation surrounding rent control. Rent control has long been viewed as a tool for large cities like New York City, San Francisco, Oakland, and Washington, D.C., but we’re seeing more municipalities here in Florida consider the move.

So, what do you need to know about the conversation?

State law specifically addresses rent control

Lawmakers in certain parts of the state are questioning whether the state law allows for counties or cities to implement rent control. Chapter 125 Section 0103 of Florida lays out the very limited situations in which municipalities may implement rent control, but there remains debate over the process to prove the need for rent control and how to enforce it.

All of the following circumstances must be met to enact rent control:

  • Officials prove there is a “housing emergency so grave as to constitute a serious menace to the general public”
  • Officials prove rent control is the only means to eliminate the housing emergency
  • Proper public hearing laws are followed
  • Voters in the municipality (whether it be city or county) vote on the measure

The requirements to enact rent control are strict, and any such measure would only be active for 12 months before lawmakers would have to start the process all over again, proving every year the measure is necessary and the only means to ending a housing crisis.

Some cities are already discussing rent control

We’re seeing lawmakers push and even vote on rent control measures. In Tampa Bay, a vote recently failed which would establish a “tenant bill of rights,” but lawmakers say the conversation about rent control is likely to continue. In St. Petersburg, city attorneys concluded the legal pathway to rent control is too narrow and the execution of such a measure would be too expensive.

You can see these conversations are happening. Right now, lawmakers seem to be hesitant on pulling the trigger because the only legal option is to declare a housing state of emergency which carries a large burden of proof. The news is mostly good for landlords hoping to maintain current rent prices or even raise prices in high-demand areas. But you should understand these conversations are happening and are likely to continue. Some state lawmakers want to repeal the current measure and make it easier to impose rent control in Florida.

Prepare to defend your rights

State law seems pretty straightforward on rent control and the very limited avenues municipalities have to enact it. However, some lawmakers believe there are loopholes in current state law.

This is an ongoing conversation, so you should know your rights and be prepared to defend them. At Atlas Law, we are the landlord’s advocate. We have extensive experience fighting for landlords and are ready to fight against rent control. Contact us today! We are your partner in property management.