What types of emergencies justify landlord entry?

Rent it Right

Q: Last week the city was working on replacing gas lines in our neighborhood, which required turning off the gas. When they were done, they went house to house, turning the gas on and then going inside to relight pilot lights. They explained that this was a necessary safety precaution. We gave them permission to enter, but our tenants were upset when they found out. Were we in the wrong? –Donna and Mike

A: Many states regulate the reasons for which landlords may enter unannounced and without permission from the tenants. Shared by all of them is entry in order to deal with an emergency, such as to address a suspected gas or water leak, to respond to sounds of distress inside, and so on. The common thread is that landlords may enter to stop serious property damage or personal injury.

Your situation is an interesting wrinkle on the "emergency" nature of your entry. As I understand it, once the gas was shut off at the street, any remaining gas in the house lines was quickly used up by the pilots. Relighting pilots can be tricky, especially when you’re dealing with empty gas lines that have just been reopened. In addition, many pilots are in hard-to-reach places, such as under stoves and in furnaces located in attics.

I suspect that the plumbers come inside to relight the pilots to avert the possibility of any nasty surprises. In other words, they’re coming in so that they can avoid an emergency.

I can’t recall seeing "in order to avoid an emergency" on any state’s list of approved reasons for unannounced entries. But here is where we must get real: If there’s solid engineering or scientific reasons for having a professional relight the pilots, few judges are going to say that you should have kept the pro out of the house, especially when there’s no allegation of misconduct on the part of the plumber.

True, you could have asked them to come back later, after you had either posted appropriate notice (one or two days, in most states) or obtained permission from the tenants. But in the meantime, the gas appliances would have been nonfunctional, and you’d run the risk that the tenants, frustrated with no hot water, heat or stove, would have taken matters into their own hands. That would have been dangerous.

Q: My sister has a physically abusive relationship with her husband. He has threatened to harm their young children if she does not comply with his demands. Can she get out of the lease and move? –Lucy G.

A: Your sister’s best hope is that she lives in one of the 20 or so states that have laws enabling victims of domestic violence to terminate their leases before the terms expire. In addition, several states are considering legislation that would do the same.

States provide tenants with rights when they experience "domestic violence," "intrafamily violence," and so on. In a couple of states, termination rights exist when there has been sexual assault or stalking. But who must be the target of these actions?

In a few states, termination rights apply only when the tenant is the victim or intended victim. If your sister lives in one of these states, she may not be able to take advantage of the law. But isn’t the child a tenant too, you ask? A judge may say no, in the sense that a child doesn’t sign the lease and isn’t responsible for paying rent. But, on the other hand, the child is entitled to the benefit of many tenant-protection laws, such as the ban on illegal discrimination, and in the broader sense, could qualify as a tenant.

Perhaps in order to avoid this rather technical problem, many states have taken a common sense approach and have extended protection to the tenant and the tenant’s child or another member of the tenant’s household. Such laws would cover your sister’s situation.

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 janet@inman.com.

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