Q: Our landlords have just announced that they’re selling the building, and advised us we’ll be seeing brokers and interested buyers on the property — and looking at our apartments. We think the owners should have some consideration for our privacy, by giving us lots of notice and consulting us when scheduling visits. Eighty percent of the tenants in the building feel like we do. Do we have some legal rights in this situation? –Marcia H.
A: Putting up with applicants looking over your rental when you’re moving or buyers eyeing the property during a sale are hassles every tenant encounters eventually. Fortunately, most states give you some protections — more than half have laws that specify how much notice a landlord must give before entering a tenant’s apartment. If you’re lucky, your state specifies common periods such as two days or 24 hours. Some state laws are less useful, requiring “reasonable notice,” whatever that means. Notice requirements don’t apply to common areas such as the lobby, hallways and recreation areas. In these places, owners are free to bring visitors at any time and without notice.
Aside from your legal rights to adequate notice, let’s think about how those 80 percent can use their considerable strength. Consider asking the owner to meet with a delegation from your group, to discuss how this transition time can be made easier for the residents. Have a list of reasonable requests, such as showings at specified times and days, or modest rent reductions to compensate tenants for the disruption caused by the sale. A savvy owner will work with you, realizing that cooperation by building residents is essential to his marketing efforts and eventual sale — no seller wants to try to navigate a sea of resentful, gloomy residents, and no buyer wants to inherit a building full of angry people.
Q: When we moved into our single-family rental, the landlord told us we could do what we wanted with the backyard. I planted several roses that I’d like to transplant to the house we just bought. The landlord says no way — he claims they belong to him now! I can take my portable dishwasher so why can’t I transplant the roses? –John S.
A: You’ve stumbled into the arcane law of “fixtures,” which says that anything a tenant attaches to the building, fences or ground — by means of screws, nails or other means — belongs to the landlord unless the landlord has specifically agreed otherwise. Your portable dishwasher, attached by snapping a coupling onto the kitchen faucet, isn’t affixed in this way, and you can safely detach it and take it away. But your roses have been placed into the ground, and if you go ahead and remove them, your landlord might deduct their value from your deposit, on the theory that you have taken his property. To get that money back, you’ll need to challenge the deduction in small claims court.
A judge will look at a number of factors when considering your claim. The fact that you had the landlord’s permission to plant the roses is in your favor. Next, what did the two of you intend when the landlord gave his OK? Consider what the yard looked like when you moved in. If it was an untended dirt patch, you might argue that the landlord had no particular interest in preserving that yard and probably had no expectation that you’d permanently improve it. But if you removed existing plants in a landscaped yard, your landlord could argue that he’s entitled to replace them (new plants that he’ll purchase with the money he deducted from your deposit). Importantly, what is the effect of your removal? Did it disrupt sprinkler lines, or create a yawning bare patch or a series of big holes? The more damage you leave when removing your roses, the more likely it is that you’ll end up paying for it.
Q: We’ve moved into a well-run building, but our problem is the neighbors next door. They are renters, and, with their friends, spend most evenings and every weekend working on muffler-less motorcycles in the driveway between us, sending fumes and a racket our way. We can’t open the windows or even hear ourselves talk. Our courteous requests for peace and quiet have been ignored, and our landlord says it’s been going on for years and he can’t do anything because they aren’t his tenants. Is there anything we can do about this intolerable situation? –Margie P.
A: While it’s true that your landlord has no direct leverage over these inconsiderate neighbors, that’s not the end of it. You and your landlord need to get creative and consider taking one or more of these steps:
- Try having your landlord talk to their landlord. Start simple; see if a landlord-to-landlord chat makes a difference. The neighbors’ landlord may have no idea what his tenants are up to, and might be horrified to learn.
- Check local laws for noise ordinances. Many cities specify permissible levels, depending on the time of day or night. Local police will enforce these laws, which carry fines for repeated violations. If your city has an ordinance that the neighbors are violating, ask the police to send the citation to their landlord. That might get results.
- Check your local “private nuisance“ laws. A private nuisance is behavior that unreasonably interferes with an individual’s ability to use and enjoy his property. Your neighbors’ motorcycle repair activities might qualify. You and the other members of you building — including your own landlord — may want to join together in a small claims lawsuit, asking the judge to order the neighbors to stop.
- Consider moving. As a last resort, consider moving. If you have to break a lease and are worried about responsibility for future rent, point out to your landlord that he has failed to deliver the “quiet enjoyment” that every tenant is entitled to, which justifies your leaving early without liability for rent.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.