How to Have a Successful Open House — Virtually!

We are all slowly adjusting to live in the wake of coronavirus. Quarantining and stay-home orders have been a difficult adjustment for the real estate world, but we’re quickly finding ways to adapt. For example, some sellers and their real estate agents are now opting to host virtual open houses. In other words, they are using online platforms such as Zoom, Skype, and FaceTime to allow potential buyers to check out properties from the safety of their own homes. First impressions matter, even when they’re virtual. Read on to discover the Atlas Law team’s tips for a successful virtual open house.

1. Don’t forego cleaning. 

Just because buyers won’t physically be there to poke around doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make sure your house is spic and span before showing it off. If a potential buyer is curious about closet space you want to be able to open the closet door to show them without worrying about piles of dirty laundry tumbling out. Clutter is a bad look for any open house. 

2. Empty house? Try virtual furniture.

For in-person open houses it’s not unusual to rent furniture if the home is empty. This makes it much easier for buyers to envision themselves living in the space. Amazingly, you can save money when hosting a virtual open house by inserting computer-generated furniture! Check out Box Brownie online for some examples (but keep in mind that this is for still images, not video).

3. Good lighting.

If you show the house in poor lighting it can make it look like you’re hiding something. Make sure the lighting throughout the house is bright and consistent.

4. Get the word out. 

An amazing virtual open house is pointless if no one sees it, so you need to get the word out. There are lots of places you can promote including Zillow, Facebook, Nextdoor, Craigslist, and even LinkedIn. Your real estate agent or attorney can help you make sure your open house is widely promoted so people will know to attend.

Finally, keep in mind that any time you are buying or selling property, it is important to have an experienced real estate attorney by your side to guide you through the legal complexities of this process. An attorney can protect your best interests and make sure that the sale or purchase is handled in accordance with state and local laws. Atlas Law is here to help with all of your real estate needs. Contact us today.

Buyers: 4 Things You Should Do During the Due Diligence Period When Buying a Home

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the phrase “due diligence” as “the care that a reasonable person exercises to avoid harm to other persons or their property.” When it comes to real estate and buying or selling a home, you will find that there is a due diligence period (usually of 15 days in Florida contracts, but this can be negotiated) during which any investigations that could impact decision-making on the part of the buyer must be carried out. 

You’ll often hear people reminding you to “Do your due diligence,” but what does that mean exactly? How do you go about doing your due diligence? What are the steps? Read below to discover the Atlas Law team’s recommendations for things to take care of during your due diligence period.

1. If you haven’t already, get to know the market.

Some people fall in love with the first house they see and spring for it without seeing what else is out there. If you aren’t already familiar with the market, you should look at some other comparable houses in the area at this time to make sure that the home you are buying is fairly priced (and to make sure it’s really what you want).

2. Calculate prices of potential repairs.

You’ve probably already had the home inspected by this point. If you haven’t already, now is the time to go over the inspector’s notes in detail. Then, you should get down to the nitty gritty details of what any necessary repairs are going to cost you. This may require calling a contractor for an estimate or even taking a trip to the hardware store to look at the costs of materials.

3. Look into insurance options.

Some buyers don’t look into insurance options until it is too late. They find out their home can’t be insured because, for example, it’s in a hurricane-prone area, but by the time they learn this it is too late for them to back out of the purchase. Don’t let this happen to you. Talk to some insurance companies and get some bids during the due diligence period.

4. Review Homeowners Association documents.

Some homeowners associations are better than others and it can be a big mistake to buy into the wrong one. Take some time to review the Homeowners Association documents so that you will be sure you know what you are getting into.

If you are buying or selling real estate in Florida, contact Atlas Law today. Our firm is unique in that we handle cases across jurisdictions through the state of Florida. We are extremely experienced and committed to helping our clients make the best real estate decisions possible. We can’t wait to chat with you about how we can help you!

Can I be Sued for Using Criminal Background Check?

Potential Legal Claims Against Properties Based on Criminal Background Check Policies

April 16, 2020 | By Ryan J. Vatalaro, Esq. | Atlas Law

    As a part of the services Atlas Law provides to property ownership and management companies, we provide advice and defense for housing discrimination claims. Recently, a number of Atlas Law’s clients and other properties have been accused of discrimination for not renting to convicted felons. Frequently, the accusations are coming from an entity called “Florida Fair Housing Alliance.”

HUD Says Certain Criminal Background-Check Policies May Be Discriminatory

Over the years, housing discrimination claims have expanded from race and ethnicity to also include claims based on disabilities, ‘support animals,’ and criminal history, among other things. Discrimination claims based on criminal background check denials have increased due to a 2016 HUD opinion on the use of background checks for tenant applications. In the opinion, HUD states that a policy which automatically excludes everyone with a criminal record may have a discriminatory effect because minorities are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated compared to the general population. Therefore, according to HUD, certain background check policies could be deemed discriminatory even though the policy is based on criminal history, not race, and regardless of whether the landlord had any intent to discriminate. 

You May Receive Calls from Housing Discrimination Testers

Housing discrimination laws allow entities to call properties, pose as a prospective renter, and ask questions testing whether the person on the other side of the line says something which violates Fair Housing laws. These callers posing as renters are commonly referred to as ‘testers’ because they are testing whether a property is in compliance with Fair Housing guidelines.

Florida Fair Housing Alliance has been using a tester to call properties and ask questions about criminal background check policies. Here is what may happen to you: you receive a call from an unidentified prospective renter who asks whether you accept convicted felons. If you say no, in a few weeks you receive a letter from an attorney alleging that you have engaged in housing discrimination and should contact him about a settlement. This has already happened to a number of properties in Florida and federal lawsuits have already been filed against the properties which do not reach a settlement.

What You Should Do to Avoid Legal Liability

Properties should be reviewing or creating policies to ensure compliance with the Fair Housing Act. Properties should regularly train staff, especially those answering the phone, on Fair Housing compliance. Specifically, staff should not advise prospective renters over the phone whether or not they will pass a credit or background check. The policy should be that submitting an application is the only way to find out if you will be approved or denied because each application is considered on a case-by-case basis.

If you think you may have received a call about criminal background checks or if you have already received a letter from an attorney, you should immediately contact your attorney or retain an attorney if you do not already have one.

Attorney advertisement. Atlas Law, PLLC, office in Tampa, FL. Information in this article is intended for a wide audience. This information is not intended to provide legal advice, nor is it to be relied upon as legal advice. Readers should consult their own attorneys for advice specific to their situation before taking any action in response to information in this article. Questions about this article should be directed to Atlas Law, PLLC, (813) 241-8269 or to another licensed attorney. Atlas Law, PLLC, All Rights Reserved 2020 ©

Understanding Common Area Maintenance (CAM) Charges

If you’re the landlord of a commercial property, you’ve probably heard of CAM charges. These are additional charges beyond monthly rent that many landlords require their tenants to pay to cover costs associated with common area maintenance. Common areas include parking lots, lobbies, elevators, public restrooms, and anywhere else that multiple tenants or groups of tenants access, indoors or outdoors. 

How should CAM fees be handled in a lease?

Landlords should list precisely in the lease what CAM fees will be charged, how often they will be charged, and what they will cover. It is also wise to include a cap on how much they can be increased each year. If you are requiring your tenant to contribute to major renovation costs, such as repairs to the building’s roof, let them know in writing. The lease should state when these repairs were last made as well as the dates on which they are scheduled or expected to be made again in the future. An attorney can help you make sure you cover all your bases, with CAM and otherwise, when reviewing your lease.

How are CAM fees calculated and paid?

Property managers and/or landlords make estimates on how much common area maintenance will cost at the beginning of each year. This amount is divided among tenants, but regulated by the lease agreement. 

Typically, tenants will be allowed to pay CAM fees in small increments throughout the year. If common area maintenance costs end up being less than estimated, the property manager will be required to reimburse them. This reimbursement should be paid as a lump sum.

Who can I ask if I have more questions about CAM?

If you are a landlord and you have questions about CAM charges, the Atlas Law team is here to help. We are attorneys and landlords’ advocates with extensive experience in providing innovative solutions to landlords and property managers for all of their real estate related legal needs. We are a different kind of real estate law firm because our relationship with our clients is NOT defined by billable hours. If you want to learn more about CAM or have questions about what we can do and how we can help you, please give us a call at (813) 241-8269. We can help you determine what charges are appropriate and how to implement them in your leases. We look forward to partnering with you!

Attention to Detail: Three Reasons It’s Essential to Get it Right When Evicting a Tenant

When it comes to evicting a tenant, it is absolutely essential to get all the details right. Making a mistake can cost time and money, or even lead to unwanted legal action. From paperwork to compliance with the letter of the law, this is one process where you really, really don’t want to make any mistakes. Read on to find out why.

1. Emotions are running high.

Eviction is a sensitive process. Whether you have a commercial tenant or a residential tenant, nobody is happy when they have to vacate a property where they spend a significant amount of time either personally or professionally. Emotions run high during an eviction, and even when you are completely justified and within your rights to evict your tenant, you may find that tenants look for any reason they can find to accuse you of wrongdoing. 

2. Mistakes can make the process take longer.

When you’re evicting a tenant, time is money. The more swiftly the eviction takes place, the sooner you will be able to find a new tenant for the property — and you can stop losing money! If you make mistakes with the notices, dates, or other details, the entire eviction can be thrown out, which means you will have to start the process over again from the beginning. That includes all the wait times!

3. Errors are EXPENSIVE!

Many landlords try to handle the eviction process themselves, without the help of an attorney. This is almost always a bad idea. Typically, the landlord will make a mistake of some sort, and hiring a lawyer to fix the mistake and carry out the eviction ends up being considerably more expensive than just partnering with a lawyer and getting it right from the start. Not to mention the money you lose if your tenant isn’t paying rent.

Partner with an experienced lawyer to minimize costs and evict your tenant swiftly.

At Atlas Law, we provide significant value to our clients through landlord advocacy. We invite you to rethink your relationship with your real estate attorney. We do not charge for client phone calls, client emails, or travel. We just charge a flat fee for evictions — that’s it. Are you ready to get started? If so, give us a call at (813) 241-8269. We can’t wait to hear from you!

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.

Understanding the Protected Classes Under the Fair Housing Act

The Fair Housing Act protects people from discrimination in all aspects of housing. It applies not only to renting and buying, but also to applying for a mortgage, seeking assistance, and more. The Fair Housing Act came as a part (Title VIII, to be exact) of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which was signed by President Lyndon Johnson just days after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This act protects several classes. In other words, no one can discriminate against you because of the following things:

  • Race
  • Color
  • National Origin
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • Familial Status 
  • Disability

Other than familial status, these classes are self-explanatory. “Familial status” refers to the presence of children in the family or a person’s pregnancy.  It can also refer to multiple generations living in the same home. 

The Fair Housing Act is enforced by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). To test that sellers and others are complying with the act, HUD (on both a national and local level) hires people to pose as buyers or renters. These individuals are commonly referred to in the industry as “testers.”  These people must report any discriminatory practices they observe. To avoid accusations of discrimination, those working in housing must be careful with their word choice not only in writing, but also in person and on the phone.

HUD also investigates claims of housing discrimination that are reported to them and can pursue legal action against those who are discriminating.

How to Recognize Discrimination

 The following are indicators that can suggest the presence of discrimination:

  • A prospective tenant was asked to provide more or different documents from other prospective tenants.
  • A prospective tenant was told they did not qualify, based on different qualifying standards from other prospective tenants.
  • The landlord or other person involved in the situation made disrespectful remarks.

What are legitimate reasons that someone may not qualify for housing?

While you can’t deny someone housing because of their race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or disability, it is still perfectly legal to turn someone away for other reasons. These include:

  • Poor credit
  • Not enough income to pay rent
  • Criminal history (although HUD put out a memorandum indicating that this may not be a valid reason for rejecting a tenant)

Who can help me with a Fair Housing issue?

If you are a landlord seeking better understanding of the Fair Housing Act, contact Atlas Law today. We provide counsel to help you handle your property properly. Our firm is unique because we can help you with your legal real estate needs across the entire state of Florida. 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.

Understanding the Protected Classes Under the Fair Housing Act

Landlords are subject to a wide range of regulations and laws, including federal, state, and local. The Fair Housing Act (“FHA”) is a federal law that strives to eliminate discrimination against tenants.

An Overview of the Fair Housing Act

Prior to the Fair Housing Act, discrimination was perceived as a rampant problem for those renting or purchasing a home. The goal of the Fair Housing Act is to prevent landlords from discriminating against current, future, or prospective tenants because of specific protected characteristics or attributes.

Protected Classes

Currently, the Fair Housing Act protects against discrimination based on seven different categories:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Color
  • Sex
  • National origin
  • Disability
  • Familial status (refers to having a child, being pregnant, or being in the process of adopting a child)

The FHA forbids discrimination against tenants based on characteristics included in the list above. This does not mean that a tenant cannot be turned away for other reasons. For example, a landlord cannot refuse to rent to a disabled individual who has an emotional support animal that exceeds the weight or breed restriction for the community. However, a housing provider can refuse to rent to a disabled person with an emotional support animal if the person does not have a steady source of income or has a criminal background that is unacceptable (please be sure your criminal background check policy is not in violation of the FHA before denying due to a criminal background).

Preventing Legal Issues

The key to avoiding lawsuits based on FHA discrimination is having a clear screening and tenant selection process. Having a documented screening process that you follow for every single tenant and every single vacancy can be strong evidence against claims of discrimination. You should be very careful about what you say in housing ads, as well as what you say to prospective tenants on the phone or in person. Anything that implies discrimination—even if it’s an unintentional implication—could put you at risk. Working with an attorney with experience in landlord/tenant issues is one way to ensure that your rental language and advertising is in compliance.

Avoid Overcompensating for the FHA

The consequences of an FHA violation can be substantial for a landlord, so it should come as no surprise that many overcompensate while trying to avoid discrimination claims. Consider, again, the example above. A landlord might choose to rent to a disabled person with a dog that exceeds the weight or breed restrictions even though that individual has an unacceptable credit rating or a criminal background. This, too, could result in a violation of the FHA. Courts have held that landlords are discriminating against other prospective tenants by favoring the tenant in question and ignoring information that would otherwise disqualify the tenant from renting.  This is why a uniform tenant screening process is so important.  

Prevention is the best way to avoid issues with tenants or prospective tenants. The team at Atlas Law has extensive experience litigating difficult Fair Housing Act cases throughout the state of Florida—call 813-241-8269 to discuss your legal needs.