Q: My mother was recently hospitalized with a serious illness. Hospital volunteers visited several times and brought along their dog, a mellow, friendly fellow that my mother loved to pet and talk to. Believe it or not, her blood pressure and pain level dropped and she felt better after these visits. Now that she’s been released, I’d like to look into finding her a similar canine companion, but her lease specifies no pets. Any suggestions on how I can convince the landlord to bend the rules? –James P.
A: It’s well known that animals have the ability to soothe our souls — and that there is often a corresponding physiological benefit, too. In hospital settings, dogs have been shown to reduce patient anxiety, distract patients from pain and loneliness, increase patients’ physical and social activity, and provide patients with nonjudgmental sources of affection. If your mother experienced even some of these benefits, no wonder you want to provide her with a canine companion who will offer more of the same.
Although your mother’s landlord has a right to exclude dogs from the rental property, that right is not absolute — it’s trumped by the Fair Housing Amendments Act. Under the Act, a disabled person can expect a landlord to change the house rules if doing so would not place an undue burden on the landlord and the change is needed to allow the tenant to live safely and comfortably in the rental. When a blind person asks to live with a service dog, for example, that tenant can expect the landlord to allow the dog based on the tenant’s rather obvious disability and need for the dog’s help.
In your mother’s case, if she’s not obviously disabled, you’ll need to give the landlord some credible information that she is legally disabled and needs a companion animal. Talk to her doctors and ask whether they would write a letter describing her as “disabled,” as that term is understood under the Fair Housing Act. If they state that she qualifies and that she needs a companion animal, that’s all they need convey to the landlord — it’s not necessary to go into detail as to her precise condition. Once you have a credible third party, such as a treating physician, attest to a person’s status as a disabled person and need for a specific accommodation, you’re well on your way.
Present the letter to the landlord, and assure the owner that you will not bring an unsuitable animal onto the property. The landlord is justified in insisting that the dog be healthy and vaccinated, supervised, walked, cleaned-up after, and generally well-behaved (the landlord is on thin ice if he asks for proof of specific training or certification). If the landlord balks, talk to a fair-housing agency in your area (start by contacting the regional office of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, at www.HUD.gov). The agency will investigate your situation and, if they decide that your position has merit, will try to work out a solution between you and the landlord.
Q: My lease has a clause called “Indemnification and Hold Harmless,” and it’s full of legal jargon. What does it mean? –Emily D.
A: It means that your landlord is trying to get you to agree, in advance, that you’ll be financially responsible for the consequences of his own screw-ups. For example, suppose he fails to fix the banister in your two-story apartment, and as a result, you fall and are injured. Under this clause, the landlord is off the hook. Or, suppose your guest falls and is hurt. If the guest sues both of you, and the landlord is held partly or wholly responsible, you’ll pay the judgment or settlement that’s attributed to the landlord.
Not so nice, right? Fortunately, in many states, these clauses won’t be enforced by a judge in a residential rental situation (in a commercial setting, the rules are different). But it’s risky to count on a judge bailing you out. Consider whether you should be doing business with someone who is attempting to pass the buck in this way. If you can, look elsewhere.
Q: We’re new landlords, and have been told by friends that we ought to form a limited liability company (an LLC) for our new landlording business, to protect our personal assets in case there’s a lawsuit involving our rental property. Is this good advice? –Tony M.
A: An LLC has lots going for it, but think carefully before taking this step. Your friends are right about the liability protection it gives you — if you form an LLC that owns your property, any judgments or settlements against you arising out of the operation of that property would have to be satisfied by the worth of that property. Your own home, other assets and bank account would be protected. But you can accomplish practically the same thing by having adequate insurance, assuming the policy covers the situation that formed the basis for the claim or lawsuit. With an umbrella policy (which kicks in when you reach the policy limit of your underlying policy), your rental property, let alone your personal property, is unlikely to be at risk.
LLC fans often also point to the protection it gives you if your business can’t pay its debts. Again, a creditor could go after the rental property, but not your personal property or home. However, creditors know this and often require small property owners who have formed LLCs to personally guarantee any loan, which destroys the protection the owners sought when they formed the LLC.
Lots of other considerations come into play when deciding whether to form an LLC (forming one may open doors to group insurance plans). Before taking this step, consult with an attorney who is familiar with real estate and tax law and, above all, the details of your business.
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.