The 4 Essential Elements of a Residential Lease Agreement

A clear, well-written residential lease or rental agreement is often the key to a successful landlord-tenant relationship. A good agreement outlines the rights and duties of both parties which, in turn, provides them with a measure of security and stability. It also helps to avoid sticky misunderstandings and bitter legal disputes.

On the other hand, a poorly written agreement (for example, one that leaves out important details or allows for flexible interpretation of its terms) may actually jeopardize the interests of either the landlord or the tenant. In this blog, we outline the 4 essential elements of a well-written residential lease agreement.

Terms of Tenancy and Personal Details of the Tenants

A lease agreement should clearly specify the beginning and the end of the tenancy. According to Florida law, early lease termination is possible only under specific circumstances. Therefore, your agreement should state the start and finish dates of the lease term (which typically lasts one year).

During this time, the landlord cannot force the tenant to move out (provided there is no breach of the agreement, such as nonpayment) or raise the rent (unless the agreement specifically provides for such change). On the other hand, the tenant is obligated to pay the full rent for the period specified whether or not they continue to occupy the property for the whole term.

An agreement should also mention personal information for all tenants and the limits on the number of occupants. This will protect the rights of the landlord in two ways. First, the landlord may try to evict the tenant if they allow more people to move in without the landlord’s permission. Second, having the names of all the tenants in writing will allow the landlord to seek payment of rent from any one of the other tenants if any one of them is unable to do so.

Security Deposit

The demands for money for the potential damage caused by the tenant are likely to end in bitter, unproductive arguments unless clear terms regarding a security deposit are included in the agreement. The clause relating to such deposits should clearly state its amount (in Florida, this amount is not specified by the law but landlords usually charge the equivalent of one to two month’s rent), its purpose and use, as well as the time and means of returning it to the tenant.

Terms of Landlord’s Access

The landlord should respect the tenant’s right to privacy. That’s why Florida laws require the landlord to give the tenant reasonable notice before entering the property and stipulate that they must do so only at a reasonable time—typically between 7:30 am and 8:00 pm (except in the event of emergencies). Both the landlord and the tenant may wish to further specify the details of how the landlord will exercise its right to enter the property as well as any potential restrictions on this right.

Other Restrictions

The landlord may have other wishes with regard to the use of the property by the tenant. The landlord may specify whether or not the tenant is allowed to have pets or the extent of changes and modifications to the property, including additions, paint colors, and landscaping. The agreement should contain other specific clauses restricting certain kinds of behavior that could disturb other residents and neighbors. It should also explicitly prohibit any illegal activity.

In the Case of a Dispute, Contact the Landlord’s Advocate

Even with the best lease agreement in place, legal disputes between the landlord and the tenant may still arise. If you are facing a legal issue relating to a tenant’s violation of the lease agreement, or a similar one that concerns the landlord-tenant relationship, you should contact a dedicated Florida eviction attorney.

Attorney Brian Chase has extensive experience in dealing with landlord/tenant disputes and handles eviction cases across all jurisdictions and counties in Florida. Contact Atlas Law without delay and see what the best course of action would be in your case.

 

An Easy-to-Understand Guide to Jurisdiction in Eviction Cases

The word “jurisdiction” gets thrown around a lot in just about every legal discussion, but what does it really mean? And, when it comes to eviction cases, why is it important? Here’s a brief but easy to understand guide on the definition of jurisdiction and why it matters in all cases, especially eviction cases.

Overall, jurisdiction is the right of an entity to make laws and judgments for people and corporations living within the control of the entity. In our system of government, there are multiple layers of jurisdictions. For example, starting at one of the lowest levels, a city is a jurisdiction in that the city is allowed to make laws governing the citizens who live within the city. Counties and states are jurisdictions for residents within their boundaries, just like the United States is for all of its citizens.

In legal cases, jurisdiction is extremely important because this will determine what laws are applicable to a particular person, a piece of property, or court action. A familiar example of this is the debate over whether a piece of property is located within the jurisdiction of the city or of the county. If the city has different laws regarding usage of property than the county, it is extremely important to determine in which jurisdiction the property is located so the appropriate law can be applied to the issue.

Eviction cases are an excellent example of where jurisdiction plays a major role in both the expense of bringing the case and the potential outcome. This is because eviction laws are occasionally set by the local governmental entity—that is, either the city or the county in which the property is located. Evictions must be heard in the jurisdiction in which the property is located.

You see where this is going, right? That means that if you have multiple properties across multiple jurisdictions with a legal issue, you cannot consolidate them or have them all heard in one place. And, if that’s not enough, some jurisdictions have some rules for landlord-tenant situations that could be different than a neighboring jurisdiction. For example, one jurisdiction may require mediation prior to entry of a final judgment, while other jurisdictions may allow you to bypass mediation.

Since you cannot clone yourself to attend all of these hearings or learn all of the different laws applicable in the different jurisdictions, you would need to hire multiple lawyers and law firms, (one from each jurisdiction!) to be able to advise you as to that particular jurisdiction’s rules.

It does not have to be this way. Attorney Brian Chase with Atlas Law provides legal services for landlords in all counties in Florida. Atlas Law offers a “one-stop shop” for clients ranging from those with multiple properties in multiple jurisdictions to small clients with one or two properties in one or two jurisdictions. Atlas Law can advise you no matter the jurisdiction within Florida and can provide representation in tenant situations as needed. Contact us today to get started.   

6 Tips for Cost-Effective Property Management

Property can be a great investment and return vehicle, but managing and maintaining the property can also eat up a lot of the profit margin. This does not have to be the case, however, if you know where to look and what to change.

1) Use your utilities wisely. Of course, as a landlord, you are required to provide your tenants with functioning utilities that are consistent and reliable. Within that obligation, however, you can still implement some cost-saving measures such as switching out incandescent lights with LEDs that use less energy and last longer. Consider putting outdoor lights on timers so that they only come on when needed or during dark hours. Look into installing insulation to prevent heat and cold from escaping or getting in, depending on the season. Also, keep an eye on your bills and make sure you are actually using all that you are being charged for.

2) Outsource when possible. Outsourcing is a fancy way of saying you’re hiring someone else to handle the problem. While this measure involves spending money, the savings in the long run may very well justify the move. For example, outsourcing tenant calls or service complaints, or billing to a property management company can free up your time for other duties or problems that need attention.

3) Maximize your taxes. A tax specialist may be a very wise investment with a large return in tax savings. Even just having a review of your property tax situation can mean a reduction in your overall tax burden.

4) Give your tenants incentive to stay. Changes in tenants are a giant hassle not only in costs associated with preparing the apartment for the next tenant, but in screening and finding new tenants. Then, there is the lost income if the apartment remains unrented for more than a month. If possible, have tenants sign onto extended leases or at least give them incentives to stay longer as the less turnover there is, the less cost there will be for you.

5) Scrutinize your bills and try to renegotiate if possible. Always be aware of what services or goods associated with your properties you are paying for. If you feel that a service or commodity has become overpriced, you may have some leverage with the vendor to negotiate a new and better rate. Most vendors will be happy to negotiate rather than lose a customer altogether.

6) Consider long-term cost-saving investments. Going green is great for the environment, but if done right, it can also mean substantial long-term savings for you as well. Solar panels, solar-powered hot water heaters, and solar-powered lights can all help to reduce electricity costs. You may even be able to get tax rebates for using solar power.

One of the easiest and least stressful methods of cost saving is to have a qualified, experienced, and knowledgeable attorney assisting you in the management of your property. Attorney Brian Chase is uniquely suited to provide these services to landlords and property managers all over Florida. Contact us today to get started.    

Avoid Evictions by Vetting Tenants: 5 Steps to Reduce Evictions

A great way to avoid evictions is to do some work on the front end to secure quality tenants who will pay on time and not destroy your property. This is not as daunting of a task as it might seem, however. It just requires that you take some time to outline and prioritize in the beginning and then put a screening process in place.

1) Require an application from your prospective tenant. At a minimum, a rental application will give you information about your tenant, including the name of their employer, salary, prior landlord, and reason for leaving (if applicable), and the names of any other occupants who might be inhabiting the premises. You can ask if they have ever filed for bankruptcy or have criminal convictions. You can also find out if they have pets, what kinds, and sizes.

2) Insist on a “no blanks” policy. One easy way to screen prospective tenants is to require that they complete all portions of the application. Of course, it should be clearly indicated on the application that all blanks must be completed or the application will not be considered. Provided the prospective tenant knows this, if they leave any portion of the application blank, you are free to discard the application.

3) Run a background check – but get consent first! As a landlord, you are allowed to run a background check on a prospective tenant to confirm what they have told you and to ensure that there are no surprises such as convictions or bankruptcies that they may have conveniently forgotten to include. In Florida, however, you cannot run a background check on an applicant unless they consent to the background check first. The best way to do this is to include a provision in the rental application indicating that a background check may be run and to have the applicant sign to give their consent. This consent should also cover credit report checks since a regular background check may not cover credit reporting agencies.

4) Charge an application fee. Florida law allows you to charge an application fee and does not limit the amount that can be charged. However, the conventional wisdom is to only charge a fee that would be no more than a normal expense. Normally, the application fee is non-refundable presumably because you will be using at least some of the money to run the background checks. You can make the fee refundable if you would like, but if you do make it non-refundable, make sure that this is stated clearly in the rental application. Also note that application fees and deposits cannot be commingled in one account. They must be kept separate.

5) Be consistent and unbiased. Your screening process, including the rental application, and application of your requirements for acceptable tenants should be applied consistently and fairly to all prospective tenants. The federal Fair Housing Act mandates that there should be no questions or screening criteria that discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, disability, religion, and children. Do not make exceptions to your rules for prospective tenants. If you require tenants to have a 600 or higher credit score, then keep to that requirement. You get into trouble when you apply your rules unevenly.

Screening tenants, preparing rental agreements, and running background checks can be time-consuming especially for landlords with multiple properties, or who have other primary occupations. If you are a landlord and want to have your tenant screening done right, including a well-crafted rental agreement and selection criteria, contact Atlas Law. We can help draft your standard rental agreement, determine appropriate criteria for tenants, and assist with overall screening. Contact us today to get started.

Where to Start with the Eviction Process

As a landlord, the process of removing a tenant from your property (aka eviction) is governed by numerous rules and regulations which are designed to protect the tenant from being improperly evicted as well as the right of the landlord to lawfully remove tenants. The burden in the eviction process, however, is on the landlord and so it is critical to understand how the process works.

1) Are there proper grounds for evicting the tenant? Failure to pay rent is a prime example of a legitimate ground for eviction. Other grounds include where a person who is not listed on the rental agreement is found to be living on the premises, violation of the no-pets policy if there is one, and the tenant(s) are engaging in certain crimes such as selling drugs that threaten the living environment of other tenants. Improper grounds for eviction include evicting the tenant because they reported problems with the leased premises, and as a result, the tenant withholds payment due to identified and legitimate problems with the premises. Of course, eviction on the grounds of gender, race, religion, or disability, and other protected characteristics is absolutely prohibited.

2) Ensure that you as the landlord are in compliance. If there are code violations or other problems with the property, and those problems especially impact the tenant you are seeking to evict, it is best to get the code violations and other problems fixed prior to instigating the eviction. In some cases, the tenant’s failure to pay rent is directly due to the code violations or significant problems such as lack of heat or water. A landlord who attempts to evict on the grounds of non-payment who then turns out to be violating their own obligations under the lease will not likely get the relief they are seeking. Ensure that there are no grounds for the tenant to argue back that the eviction is improper due to the living conditions you are providing.

3) Let the tenant know there is a problem. Documentation is a big part of any eviction process, including that the violation occurred and that the tenant was notified of the problem. It is entirely possible to resolve the situation before the eviction process even gets started by notifying the tenant of the problem and giving them an opportunity to fix it. In fact, your lease may require that you give this notice and opportunity to cure the problem before escalating the matter to the court system. In the letter, identify the problem, point out the specific provision of the lease that is being violated, and give the tenant a certain amount of time to fix the problem. Send the letter via certified mail return receipt requested to be able to prove later on that the tenant received the letter, especially if nothing happens or is fixed in the time period given.

4) Consider meeting with an attorney who practices in the area of tenant law. Before heading into the eviction process, you should bring your concerns to an attorney who is well-versed in tenant law and evictions. An eviction attorney can review your documentation, your lease, and your evidence to determine if there are any potential problems or hindrances to a smooth eviction process.

Attorney Brian Chase has the extensive experience and knowledge of Florida landlord/tenant law that can cut landlords’ costs and court time. If you are looking to evict a tenant, contact Brian Chase for a consultation to learn your rights and responsibilities. Let’s make sure that you have all that you need to ensure a smooth eviction. We handle cases all over the state of Florida.

Dot Your “i’s” and Cross Your “t’s”: Why It’s Critical to Get the Details Right During an Eviction

Just about any proceeding using a specific detailed law requires exact compliance with the letter of the law for it to work correctly. Like following complicated instructions for assembling furniture, if you miss one step, the end result is destined for failure. Evictions in Florida are no different and are a veritable minefield for the unwary. Here’s why.

1) The process can become very long and involved. Tenants have access to instant information on proper eviction procedure and many are very capable of pushing back against your attempt to evict them. Blunders in the notice, dates, and other details are open doors to having an eviction thrown out, meaning you will have to start all over again. Indeed, just about any error in the process used by the landlord to evict the tenant can be grounds for having the eviction process declared invalid and the landlord will need to start the entire process, including wait times, all over again.

2) The overall cost will go up. Again, more time equals more money, especially if you are forced to start over, even in situations of non-payment. And, during the time that you are having to start over, the tenant will continue to be able to live in the unit. If a landlord partakes in so-called “self-help” tactics to force an eviction, such as changing locks or shutting off utilities, this becomes even more expensive in the form of damages to the tenant in the amount of three months’ rent.  

3) Other issues can become major problems. If you start an eviction and it turns out that the tenant has been complaining in writing to you about sub-standard maintenance of the property, your attempt to evict the tenant for non-payment or other violation may not hold much water. This is because the landlord owes a duty to a tenant to make the premises habitable, and if they are unable or unwilling to fulfill that duty and the tenant withholds rent payments as a result (and notifies the landlord of the problems in writing), then the tenant will likely be declared the winner. The moral of this story is to ensure that there are no other problems lurking in the background before you begin eviction proceedings that can give a tenant the necessary standing to push back on the eviction, and potentially win.

4) Lawyers will need to be more involved. The best way to handle evictions from the start is to have legal counsel who is very familiar with the requirements of eviction in Florida advising and assisting you at every step of the process. If you don’t get a lawyer involved until the eviction has been rejected, the attorney will have that much larger of a problem to fix, which will take more time and, yes, more money.

The best way to save yourself time and money is to have qualified, experienced, and knowledgeable counsel assisting you every step of the way. Brian Chase can be that attorney who can either handle the entire process for you, assist you, or advise you on your options and the steps you need to take. Contact him today and get started.  

5 Ways to Speed Up the Eviction Process in Florida

For landlords, evictions are a necessary part of the business. They are also one of the more complicated parts of the business and can take up an extraordinary amount of time and energy. There are some strategies, however, to make things go a little faster.

1) Follow the rules correctly. Failure to follow the requirements of the eviction laws will result in tenants being able to stall evictions and the landlord continuing to lose income as well as having to expend funds to rectify the mistakes. One the best ways to prevent this is to limit the technical mistakes both in the paperwork and in the notice provisions to ensure that you are not handing your tenant an extra month’s delay on a plate.

2) Do your homework. Ensure that you have the names of all of the adult residents listed on your notice. This includes not only those adults who were listed on the lease but also those who have established a tenancy since the lease was signed. Figure out the amount owed and if it is more than the rental amount listed in the lease, figure out why and be prepared to explain it. Keep an eye out for a payment from your tenant, which, in some cases, may stop the process right there.

3) Get your dates right. If you are using the three-day notice, remember that the three days does NOT include Saturday, Sunday, legal holidays, AND the day that you serve the notice.

4) Know your rights. The amount of notice required and the ability of the landlord to evict the tenant relatively quickly depends in large part upon the violation of the tenant. In cases where the tenant intentionally destroys the rental property or property of other tenants, commits the same lease violation two times in a 12 month period, or creates an unreasonable disturbance, the landlord is allowed under Florida law to give an unconditional quit notice in which the tenancy is terminated at the end of a seven-day period, regardless of whether the tenant cures the violation or not.

If the violation is failure to pay rent, the landlord has the option to issue a three-day notice to pay or quit. If the tenant fails to pay at the end of the three days, the landlord can file the eviction. Of course, this is the three-day period that must be calculated so very carefully because failure to follow the requirements of the rule will result in the landlord having to start the process over again and the tenant being allowed to remain.

5) Consider a stipulation. This is an agreement between the landlord and tenant where the tenant agrees to pay certain amounts to the landlord but also agrees to vacate the property. It also sets forth what will happen if the tenant fails to make the necessary payment and/or vacate the property in the time period given. This has the benefit of becoming an order of the court upon being signed by the judge in the proceedings and can be a potent final judgment. A stipulation with the tenant can shave off considerable delay caused by tenant maneuvering and ensure the landlord a favorable outcome with some payment and an eviction.

If you are a landlord with an eviction issue, another great way to speed up the process is to get legal counsel involved from the start. Brian Chase is an attorney who can be there with you at every step and save you considerable time in securing a legal and enforceable eviction or stipulation. Call 813.241.8269 today to get started.

What Should I do as a Landlord if the Tenant Has Abandoned the Property?

You have a lot to deal with when it comes to tenants, and one of the more sticky situations is when a tenant abandons the property. When a tenant leaves the property and doesn’t return, what responsibilities do you as a Florida landlord have in this situation with regard to whatever the tenant leaves behind?

Is it abandoned according to Florida law?

The first question that needs to be answered is whether the dwelling is abandoned such that the property within it is also abandoned. This situation comes up when a tenant leaves without paying rent and leaves their property behind. Under Florida law, a dwelling is abandoned when the tenant is gone from the property for a period of time that is the equivalent of one-half of the rental payment period and has not paid the rent in advance. So for example, if rent is due the first of the month, and the tenant is gone on that day and still has not returned on the 15th of the same month, then under the law, the property can be considered abandoned.

What should I do then?

The first thing you should do in this situation is to not dispose of the property in any way until you have fulfilled the requirements of Florida Statute Section 715.104. Under this statute, the first thing the landlord must do is provide written notice to the tenant or anyone else whom the landlord believes to be the owner of the property. The notice must include a specific description of the property and must inform the tenant or owner that they have 10 days to retrieve the property, if the notice is hand delivered. If the notice is mailed, the tenant has 15 days in which to come get their property.

If no one comes to claim the property…

If no one comes to claim the property within these times periods, then the landlord has to decide what to do with the property. If the property is worth less than $500, then the landlord has three options:

1) The landlord can take ownership and possession of the property

2) The landlord can get rid of the property, or

3) The landlord can sell the property and keep the proceeds

Where the property is worth $500 or more, things become more complicated. In this case, the assumption is that the landlord will sell the property. In doing so, the landlord must advertise for two consecutive weeks in a general circulation newspaper that the property is being sold. After this process and assuming the property sells, the landlord can deduct their costs for storage, advertising, and selling the property, but must remit to the county treasury the rest of the proceeds that are not claimed by the abandoning tenant. To determine costs for storage, the landlord must use a fair market rental value for the space that was needed to store the property.

If you are a landlord facing this issue or any other involving tenants and need legal advice, contact Brian Chase, whose practice covers the entire state of Florida. No matter what Florida county or jurisdiction you are located in, he is an advocate for landlords everywhere. Call (813) 241-8269 today to get started.

Landlords: Understand What Your Legal Responsibilities are in Florida

Being a landlord in Florida is not a light undertaking. Besides the responsibilities usually assigned to a landlord, state law adds some additional ones, some of which are more obvious than others. To make matters more confusing, the responsibilities vary depending upon the type of rental involved. Here’s a short guide to help you figure it all out.

For all types of housing, be it single-family home, duplex, or apartment, there are certain rules that all landlords must follow:

  • Maintain the property. This means in accordance with the current building, housing, and health codes. In the event there are no applicable codes, at a bare minimum, the plumbing must be kept in reasonably good working condition. The structural components of the dwelling including the roof, floors, windows, foundations, exterior walls, steps, and porches must be maintained in good repair and be capable of withstanding the usual loads and forces.
  • Put the agreement in writing. Oral rental agreements are allowed, but they can be a recipe for litigation later on as two parties in dispute will inevitably have two different versions of the terms. The essential elements of an agreement include:
    • The price
    • The dates of occupancy and when the lease terminates
    • Deposits and how they will be collected and returned
    • How the lease may be terminated early
    • Prohibited conduct
  • Put notices regarding the lease in writing. This applies even if the parties have an oral rental agreement. Also another compelling reason to put the original agreement in writing.
  • Follow the rules on deposit and rents. Upon the tenant moving out, you as a landlord have the right to keep the deposit to cover the costs of damage to the unit. However, to legally take advantage of this option, the landlord must have given written notice to the tenant of the amount of the deposit that will be retained and why, within 30 days of the date the tenant moves out. The landlord must send the letter via certified mail to the last known address of the tenant. If this notice is not sent within the 30 days as required, the landlord forfeits any rights to the deposit. Similarly, if the landlord decides not to keep the deposit to cover damages, the landlord must return the deposit to the tenant within 15 days.
  • Know your entry rights. As landlord, you can enter the property at any time for the preservation or protection of the property. At all other times, however, the landlord must give reasonable notice to the tenant. This means 12 hours prior to the proposed entry—and the time proposed should be reasonable—during the hours from 7:30am to 8pm. The landlord can also enter the property upon consent of the tenant or if the tenant has been gone for at least one and a half rental periods unless the tenant is fully paid and has notified the landlord of their intended absence.

Apartments require additional responsibilities on the part of the landlord. Specifically, the landlord must provide for extermination of vermin, insects, and termites. The landlord must maintain the locks and keys, keep common areas safe and clean, provide garbage disposal receptacles, provide working plumbing (including running and hot water), and heat in winter.

One of the first things to know as a landlord is that the maze of regulations is not something you need to attack alone. Contact Brian Chase today, an attorney to landlords throughout the entire state of Florida. Atlas Law can advise you on your rights and responsibilities. Spare yourself from headaches and call our firm today.

6 Secrets to Being a Successful Property Manager

Property managers have a lot on their plate at any given time. There are the rental agreements to keep track of, the properties to market, the apartments to service, and the tenants to keep happy. And, that’s just in the morning. It is possible, however, to be a successful property manager with a few good tips.

1) Know what you’ve got. Understand and know your portfolio of properties inside and out. This means knowing both what they rent for but also the type of family or renter for whom they should be marketed. A high rise apartment in the city may not appeal to the family with small children just like the suburban apartment may not appeal to the Millennial. Also know the areas in which you have properties and what elements of those areas might be attractive for particular renters. Maybe one unit is near a commuter train station or another is in the heart of the arts district.

2) Provide great service. Nothing is more frustrating for a tenant with an emergency on a weekend who gets no response from their property manager. This does not mean that you need to be hooked to a phone 24/7, but it does mean that you need to have processes in place to ensure that issues are handled promptly and that residents are assured that you have heard their complaint and are working to fix it. Great service should not end once the tenant moves in. It should last for the entire relationship.

3) Use social media. Let social media work for you to help you find tenants, but also to help you maintain your good reputation. Keep tabs on the reviews of your business on social media and if you see problem areas, address them. You should also become familiar with SEO optimization, keywords, and other methods of getting your properties in front of eyes.

4) Maintain your properties. This will require investment on your part to maintain and in some cases, upgrade your properties. The flip side of this investment, however, is that it usually can command a higher rental price. Tenants want to live in safe, habitable places that have the usual modern conveniences and fit their lifestyle. If your properties are not meeting that requirement, it might be time to consider some investments. Similarly, it is always important to maintain properties up to the relevant code for your area. Failing to do so can create a huge liability later down the road.

5) Find and hire good people. Depending upon the number of properties that you have, you may not be able to wear all hats at the same time. If this is the case and you need to find additional help, screen very carefully for employees who share your vision of great customer service and who are ready to work with you. Often times, the person you hire may be the tenant’s only point of contact with your organization and you want it to be as positive as possible.

6) Retain good counsel. There are going to be issues that arise that are complex or can turn into potential liabilities that will require the advice and help of an attorney. It is inevitable and you should be prepared for it by retaining an attorney who understand the needs and issues facing property managers. It is also critical to have an attorney on your team to advise you of changes in regulations, state and federal laws, as well as tax code implications and similar legal issues.

Brian Chase has extensive experience representing and advising property managers through the various regulatory and liability issues that arise. He is ready to join your team and help make it as successful as possible. Contact him today to get started.