What Laws Should You Comply With as a Landlord?

There are a host of laws—State, local, and Federal—surrounding the landlord-tenant relationship. You are legally responsible for complying with all of them. Therefore, you should at least learn about them before you decide to rent one or more of your units.

If you find out that you are not meeting the legal requirements, you should take immediate action to remedy the noncompliance. If you fail to comply with the relevant laws, legal consequences may follow, such as government fines, lawsuits, and complaints filed with a Federal agency like the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or State or local housing agencies.

If you don’t understand a particular local, State, or Federal law or regulation, you should consult a lawyer. In many cases, it’s a good idea to seek legal advice as a preventative measure before anything bad happens. After all, you are still legally obligated to comply with the law even if you do not understand it.

If you decide to educate yourself about the legal requirements you need to fulfill as a landlord, you should take a look at the following:

  1. State Statutes: You should obtain a copy of your State statutes and review the sections related to housing laws. Landlord-tenant issues are generally governed by State laws, which will have specific requirements for security deposits, landlord’s right of entry, housing standards, rental rules, repairs and maintenance, and evictions. You may want to visit your State Consumer Protection Agency or Attorney General’s Office, who would usually have readily available brochures on State laws that affect property owners at little or no cost. Most public and law libraries will have copies of the laws and statutes in reserve. However, do not simply rely on a brochure that you received years ago, assuming that the laws will stay the same. You should check for updates periodically since the laws evolve from year to year.
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Many states have made their statutes available on the state’s website, which is a good starting point. However, not all statues are available online and some city ordinances may be hard to find without the specific section numbers. Make sure to also check the publication date, because some online materials may be outdated. In addition, some other websites are also helpful to find your State’s statutes, such as FindLaw. The Cornell University Website also provides free access to State statutes and links to other sites with State and Federal housing laws.

  1. Local Laws and Ordinances: You should also try to get a copy of local laws or ordinances that are applicable to the landlord-tenant relationship where you live. Every landlord needs to understand the local requirements. Are there certain building codes you must follow? Requirements for basic services such as plumbing and heat? You also need to adhere to the health and safety standards required by local housing regulators. In some places, local laws also require many of the same things covered by State law, such as how often you can increase the rent, when or how to evict a tenant, and how to handle margin.
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You can usually receive information on local rules from your local building or housing agency, health or fire department, city manager or mayor’s office, or public library.

  1. Federal Law: Although local and State laws are usually more comprehensive and detailed, you should also be somewhat familiar with the basic Federal laws that govern landlord-tenant relationships. The most important of area that is regulated by Federal laws is discrimination and environmental health hazards, such as asbestos and lead paint. To bring the building in compliance with these Federal laws will often require a significant cost. In fact, if you plan to apply for any Federal funding program from HUD, you will have to comply with Federal lead-paint regulations. Similarly, if you rent to a tenant who receives a Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8 Voucher), there are special Federal laws and regulations that apply to your relationship with that tenant.
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Federal laws are codified in the U.S. Code, which should be available in some public libraries. Most Federal regulations also are published in the Code of Federal regulations. You can also access the U.S. Code through the Cornell University Website.

  1. Court Decisions: After the laws are written by legislature, the interpretation of those laws is carried out in the Federal, State, county, and city courts. They decide what the law means and what the law is when the existing laws and regulations fail to address a specific issue. These court decisions, when made, become part of the law. The law created by cases is called "case law." When published, case law is not usually organized by subject matter, and it can be difficult to find all of the relevant case laws that might make a difference in how you conduct your business.
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You may want to consult with a lawyer who is an expert in landlord/tenant law to find out if there is any case law affecting how you should run your business.