Q: My local newspaper ran a story about a child who was blinded when he opened a duffel bag he discovered in a vacant lot near his home. Apparently, the bag held residue from a methamphetamine operation — going on right in his building! The landlord claimed he knew nothing about the meth-making tenant, who had mysteriously moved out the night before. I own and live in a small apartment building, and I want to know if there are warning signs I can look out for. –Naomi B.
A: Clandestine meth labs are an increasing problem for residential landlords. A rented apartment or house is the perfect place to set up shop for these extremely portable labs — operators hope to stay below the radar and quickly move on to the next location. Nice properties aren’t immune, nor will criminals necessarily hide out in rural areas. But if you’re vigilant, you can increase your chances of detecting them. Here are the warning signs:
Check the trash. It’s not a pleasant prospect, but now and then taking a look inside a dumpster or twisted plastic bag can quickly get you the information you need. Be on the lookout for large numbers of cold tablet containers, which contain ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, a necessary component in meth production; numerous cans of Coleman fuel, paint thinner, acetone, starting fluid, Red Devil Lye, drain cleaners and sulfuric acid or muriatic acid; excessive propane canisters, which may have valves that have turned blue or begun to corrode; coffee filters or glass jars containing white crystals, shiny purple crystals, or dark red sludge; and large amounts of lithium batteries, especially ones that have been stripped.
Notice the residents. Since you live on the premises, keep an eye out for unusual activity, such as residents or guests nervously going outside to smoke (meth labs often explode when exposed to a spark). Strong odors, which may resemble nail polish remover, ammonia, chlorine and model airplane glue, are also tell-tale signs. Be suspicious when your legitimate request to enter a resident’s unit is met with extreme resistance — this person may simply be noncooperative or extremely shy, or have something nefarious to hide.
If you suspect meth activity, do not confront your residents. Call the police right away. In the unhappy event that such an operation is discovered on your property, be sure to conduct a proper clean-up, which you’ll have to do even after the official cleaners have done the first sweep. Many states impose specific procedures, and because of the dangers posed by the residue of the chemicals used in production, you simply can’t be too careful. For detailed instructions on cleaning a meth lab, see the “Cleanup of Clandestine Methamphetamine Labs — Guidance Document” on the Web site of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, available at www.cdphe.state.co.us/ (type the document’s name into the Web site’s search box on the home page).
Q: After we signed our lease, my National Guard unit was activated and we received orders to go overseas. I need to get out of my lease, so that my wife can move into a more modest apartment down the block (which is much cheaper). I thought the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act gave me the right to terminate upon deployment (once I mail or deliver the notice to the landlord or manager, my tenancy should terminate 30 days after the day that rent is next due). But when I told my landlord, she reminded me that when I signed my lease, I signed a waiver of some of my rights. Sure enough, I found a paper called an “Addendum to the lease” that says, in fine print, that we’ll be considered “lease-breakers” if my spouse or I move into housing within 45 miles of our apartment during the remaining time on our lease. If that happens, we’ll be responsible for the rest of the rent (six more months). Is this waiver valid? –Matt P.
A: This is a pretty sorry example of the lengths some landlords’ attorneys will go (you can be sure a lawyer thought this one up). While it is true that servicemembers can waive some of the rights and protections of the Civil Relief Act, that waiver must satisfy several conditions. First, the waiver must be in a separate document from the obligation it refers to (the lease). An addendum may be physically separate from the lease, but language at the beginning specifically makes it part of the lease, so this waiver fails right there. Secondly, the waiver must be in at least 12-point type (from your description, it seems that it won’t pass on that score, either). And last but not least, the waiver will be upheld only if signed by the servicemember during or after the servicemember’s period of military service (in the case of National Guard members, this means during or after they’re called to active service). Since you signed it before your call-up, it’s not valid, period.
If your landlord persists in thinking that he’s got a legal waiver from you, get in touch with your commanding officer. The commanding officer should be able to refer you to a lawyer in the Guard or another military branch, who can explain things to your landlord. If the landlord perseveres (by keeping your security deposit to cover future rent), you’ll have to sue in small claims court to get it back, but your chances of winning will be high.
Q: I own and manage a 12-unit apartment building. Recently, a new tenant on the first floor approached me with a complaint about her neighbor upstairs, who is a morning-show television producer. He gets up at 3 a.m. and leaves for work and she says he makes too much noise (interestingly, he’s lived here for 10 years and no one’s complained). The neighbor says she’s constantly awakened by him, and claims I should have told her about the situation before she rented. She says if it continues, she’ll break her lease and will be justified in doing so. Is she right? –Danny D.
A: You’re asking several questions — first, should you have disclosed the situation to your tenant before she rented, and if so, can she break the lease now? And finally, if you had no duty to disclose, can she break the lease anyway?
Let’s look at the first question. As a general rule, landlords are required to disclose known, dangerous defects in or problems with the premises. For example, you must disclose the presence of lead-based paint hazards (by federal law, you must tell tenants what you know), and tell them about other issues, such as the tendency of the eucalyptus tree in the backyard to shed large sheets of bark in a windstorm. If you know that a neighbor is an unusually noisy fellow who has disturbed others, you may well have to disclose that, too, because it’s a defect (unusual, disturbing noise) that isn’t obvious to an applicant or par for the course when living in a multitenant building.
You must also come clean when prospects have voiced particular concerns, even if you wouldn’t normally describe the issue as a problem and it wouldn’t concern most renters. For instance, suppose a prospect tells you she’s considering your rental mainly because it’s next door to the municipal pool. If you know the pool is about to close, you must share that information. If you don’t share information on issues you know are important, you give tenants a valid legal ground to break their leases. Though it may sound extreme, you’ve fraudulently lead them along, by failing to give information that you knew was central to their decision to rent, and when this happens, the resulting lease can be invalidated by a judge.
Your upstairs tenant seems to have made it this far (ten years) without arousing the ire of his neighbors. This is pretty good evidence that although his activities are a bit unusual, they’re not extreme, and gave you no reason to disclose them to future neighbors. But this isn’t the end of the inquiry — think back to your interactions with this tenant when she visited the property. Did she have questions that should have alerted you to any special needs she might have? For example, did she stress her need for a quiet environment? Or did she appear to be like most tenants, ready to accept the usual inconveniences and petty annoyances that always come with multifamily living? If the latter, you have less to fear from her argument that you should have told her about her upstairs neighbor. But if she told you that she was one degree away from the heroine in “The Princess and the Pea,” you should have mentioned the upstairs neighbors’ schedule, and though you might have lost a tenant, you would not have found yourself in this situation.
Assuming your tenant gave you no reason to believe that she was particularly sensitive, you probably had no duty to tell her that the upstairs fellow gets up early. And if the man upstairs merely continues his normal morning routine, it’s doubtful that a judge would agree that his activities justify your tenant’s lease-breaking. But before you consign this lady to sleepless anger until she breaks the lease, consider investing in some soundproofing for the upstairs unit. Though it may not be the legally required thing to do, it may be the smart thing to do. You don’t want a dissatisfied resident poisoning the atmosphere of an otherwise convivial apartment house, and you certainly don’t want to risk losing your long-term tenant upstairs, who might leave if her anger makes him uncomfortable.
Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of “Every Landlord’s Legal Guide” and “Every Tenant’s Legal Guide.” She can be reached at [email protected].