Q: I own a rental home in a very quiet suburban neighborhood. About six months ago I rented the home to a young newlywed couple and everything was fine for the first few months. But the honeymoon is over, and lately I have been getting calls about some very serious and loud disagreements that have led to numerous complaints from neighbors. I spoke to my tenants the first time and then I sent them a written warning. Last weekend I understand the police were called. I got a hold of the wife and she tells me it is all her husband’s fault and she wants me to change the locks and kick him out. I haven’t spoken to him so I don’t know his side of the story. What should I do?
A: You are not the first rental property owner that discovers that relationship counseling or mediation skills should be mandatory for landlords! Couples (or any combination of two or more individuals) who rent the premises together and have domestic disputes provide a tough challenge for rental property owners. As with disputes between neighbors or roommates, you need to avoid getting involved. You lack the authority to side with one party or the other, so stay neutral, encourage the couple to resolve their problems themselves, and continue treating all parties fairly and equally.
While apparently there are no allegations yet, unfortunately some disagreements between tenants involve domestic violence. In that case, you may receive a request from one occupant to change the locks or remove one of the co-tenants from the lease. While it can be tough to say "no," don’t agree to any such changes, regardless of the strength of the tenant’s argument, without first seeking legal advice and requiring a copy of a restraining order or other appropriate court order from the requesting tenant. I would advise you to insist on a verifiable letter or agreement and consent of the other party as well.
You need to be careful not to discriminate against the victim of domestic violence by evicting him or her, especially if the perpetrator is no longer in the rental unit and doesn’t return to the property. While this may not be applicable to your situation, some of our readers may want to know that The Violence Against Women Act of 2005 prohibits public housing agencies and rental properties that accept Section 8 vouchers from denying an applicant because she has been a victim of domestic violence or stalking. Some states have passed legislation protecting women in similar situations, so check with local legal counsel if you run into one.
Q: My neighbors upstairs are really noisy. I called and complained to the landlord, and she said she would look into it, but the noise is still a problem. I have six months to go on my lease but want to move right away due to the noise. Can I break my lease and leave without owing any more rent?
A: This is a tough question because "noise" is very subjective. In most cases, the local laws or ordinances will require that the loss of your quiet enjoyment is substantial, as a certain level of noise will exist in any multitenant housing or especially in an urban environment. If the noise persists, you should attempt to "document" the noise in case you need to prove it. This can be done with witnesses, a tape recorder and an inexpensive decibel meter that measures the loudness of the sound. I suggest that you contact your local code enforcement or building department and see what guidelines they can offer.
Before you contact the landlord again, I would suggest you try to obtain third-party verification of the date, time, type of noise and the length of time it occurs. Local municipal officials may do this or you may need to contact law enforcement.
You have already complained verbally to your landlord, but you really should always make any and all complaints in writing to document exactly what your concern is and so there is no question that you notified the landlord and gave him an opportunity to investigate your complaint. Hopefully, the noise issue will subside, but if it doesn’t the multiple written complaints and the third-party verification will be very helpful to convince your landlord that he should let you out of your remaining lease if the problem is not resolved. If you leave without the mutual agreement of the landlord, you run the risk of being liable for your rent for the balance of the lease. Your liability could be minimized, however, if the landlord successfully re-leases the premises to a qualified replacement tenant.
This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold, author of "Property Management for Dummies" and co-author of "Real Estate Investing for Dummies."
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