Ask Brian is a weekly column by Real Estate Expert Brian Kline. If you have questions on real estate investing, DIY, home buying/selling, or other housing inquiries please email your questions to [email protected]realtybiznews.com.
Question from Shaun in CO. Hello Brian, Right after I rented a house 5 months ago, my landlord started piling on fees that I wasn’t expecting. The first one came before I even moved in. After I signed the lease and two days before I moved in, he demanded a ‘move-in’ fee that I wasn’t expecting. I had already paid a deposit and the first month's rent. I thought the deposit covered any possible damages from moving in and moving out. When I asked what was going on, he just told me to read the lease and walked away. I ended up paying the move-in fee before he would give me the key. But this nonsense didn’t stop there. The third month I was there, the landlord sent me a notice that he was adding a $100 fine to the next month's rent because I hadn’t mowed some grass that is a common utility tract between my house and the house next door that the landlord also owns. I tried calling to discuss this but my call wasn’t returned. Now, month 5, I mailed my rent on the 5th of the month as the lease requires but he sent me another letter saying the rent was late and added a late fee. I think I’ve hooked up with the landlord from hell. What can I do?
Answer: Hello Shaun. Before I share my thoughts with you, I need to put in this disclaimer that I’m not a lawyer, so this isn’t legal advice. Your landlord walking away without a full explanation doesn’t legally matter. What matters is what is in the lease you signed. You described three separate events but all of them are ultimately controlled by the lease and landlord/tenant laws in your state. One thing to know is that the law trumps lease clauses.
Unfortunately, too many tenants sign a lease without carefully reading or understanding it. Strangely, I see this happening more with experienced tenants that assume the lease they are signing is the same as leases they have signed in the past. You might be right that this is a landlord from hell and he has included every legally possible fee in the lease. And sometimes, fees that might not be legal are slipped in also.
Let’s start with the move-in fee. A deposit of some type is standard practice when leasing a property. The security deposit is almost universal but a move-in fee is discretionary (a choice of individual landlords). Generally, security deposits are refundable and move-in fees are not. Also, security deposits are regulated and move-in fees are usually not. If both are allowed where you are, you’re probably stuck paying them. However, if he keeps any of the deposit money when you move out, you can demand a strict accounting of what the fees are for. Unless you cause some excessive damage moving in or out, he will not be able to withhold anything from the security deposit for that reason.
As for mowing the common area, you can look to see what local regulations require the landlord to maintain. Something to look for is if common area responsibilities can be assigned to a tenant in the lease. Also, look to see if it is actually in your lease and described in a reasonably understandable way. He can’t just assign all maintenance because this would include things that he is legally required to maintain like the roof and furnace. I’d also talk to the person renting the house sharing the common area to find out if he/she was also required to pay an extra fee (possibly double-dipping).
The rent check being mailed on the 5th of the month is probably a problem for you. But it is an indication that your landlord is piling on the fees. The best solution for you is to pay the rent in person and demand a dated receipt. Alternatively, you could use certified mail with a dated receipt from the post office.
You need to know what is allowed in your state and sometimes your municipality. Knowing that tenants often don’t carefully read the lease, you should realize reading it becomes even more important when your new rental is in a jurisdiction that is new to you. I think it’s a good landlord practice to read the lease with new tenants and have the tenant initial clauses that can result in fees as well as rules that need to be followed. With that said, it’s not a common practice and ultimately it’s the tenant’s responsibility to understand the lease before signing. Shaun, even now, you can go back over the lease and read the landlord/tenant laws where you live. You might find your landlord from hell hasn’t followed the letter of the law. Possibly, he is responsible for maintaining common areas such as the lawn mowing of the shared utility track between the houses. You can also look to see if the postmark on the rent constitutes it being paid on time but that is less likely. My guess is a landlord with multiple properties knows the laws but he might be pushing the envelope a little too far.
What advice can you give Shaun and others dealing with hardnose landlords? Please comment.
Our weekly Ask Brian column welcomes questions from readers of all experience levels with residential real estate. Please email your questions or inquiries to [email protected].