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35.2 Rights and Duties of Landlords and Tenants

Learning Objectives

  1. Itemize and explain the rights and duties of landlords.
  2. List and describe the rights and duties of tenants.
  3. Understand the available remedies for tenants when a landlord is in breach of his or her duties.

Rights and Duties of Landlords

The law imposes a number of duties on the landlord and gives the tenant a number of corresponding rights. These include (1) possession, (2) habitable condition, and (3) noninterference with use.

Possession

The landlord must give the tenant the right of possession of the property. This duty is breached if, at the time the tenant is entitled to take possession, a third party has paramount title to the property and the assertion of this title would deprive the tenant of the use contemplated by the parties. Paramount titleSuperior title. means any legal interest in the premises that is not terminable at the will of the landlord or at the time the tenant is entitled to take possession.

If the tenant has already taken possession and then discovers the paramount title, or if the paramount title only then comes into existence, the landlord is not automatically in breach. However, if the tenant thereafter is evicted from the premises and thus deprived of the property, then the landlord is in breach. Suppose the landlord rents a house to a doctor for ten years, knowing that the doctor intends to open a medical office in part of the home and knowing also that the lot is restricted to residential uses only. The doctor moves in. The landlord is not yet in default. The landlord will be in default if a neighbor obtains an injunction against maintaining the office. But if the landlord did not know (and could not reasonably have known) that the doctor intended to use his home for an office, then the landlord would not be in default under the lease, since the property could have been put to normal—that is, residential—use without jeopardizing the tenant’s right to possession.

Warranty of Habitability

As applied to leases, the old common-law doctrine of caveat emptor“Let the buyer beware.” At common law, once the tenant has signed the lease, she must take the premises as she finds them. said that once the tenant has signed the lease, she must take the premises as she finds them. Since she could inspect them before signing the lease, she should not complain later. Moreover, if hidden defects come to light, they ought to be easy enough for the tenant herself to fix. Today this rule no longer applies, at least to residential rentals. Unless the parties specifically agree otherwise, the landlord is in breach of his lease if the conditions are unsuitable for residential use when the tenant is due to move in. The landlord is held to an implied warranty of habitabilityThe landlord’s duty to provide conditions suitable for residential use..

The change in the rule is due in part to the conditions of the modern urban setting: tenants have little or no power to walk away from an available apartment in areas where housing is scarce. It is also due to modem construction and technology: few tenants are capable of fixing most types of defects. A US court of appeals has said the following:

Today’s urban tenants, the vast majority of whom live in multiple dwelling houses, are interested not in the land, but solely in “a house suitable for occupation.” Furthermore, today’s city dweller usually has a single, specialized skill unrelated to maintenance work; he is unable to make repairs like the “jack-of-all-trades” farmer who was the common law’s model of the lessee. Further, unlike his agrarian predecessor who often remained on one piece of land for his entire life, urban tenants today are more mobile than ever before. A tenant’s tenure in a specific apartment will often not be sufficient to justify efforts at repairs. In addition, the increasing complexity of today’s dwellings renders them much more difficult to repair than the structures of earlier times. In a multiple dwelling, repairs may require access to equipment and areas in control of the landlord. Low and middle income tenants, even if they were interested in making repairs, would be unable to obtain financing for major repairs since they have no long-term interest in the property.Javins v. First National Realty Corp., 428 F.2d 1071, 1078-79 (D.C. Cir.), cert. denied, 400 U.S. 925 (1970).

At common law, the landlord was not responsible if the premises became unsuitable once the tenant moved in. This rule was often harshly applied, even for unsuitable conditions caused by a sudden act of God, such as a tornado. Even if the premises collapsed, the tenant would be liable to pay the rent for the duration of the lease. Today, however, many states have statutorily abolished the tenant’s obligation to pay the rent if a non-man-made force renders the premises unsuitable. Moreover, most states today impose on the landlord, after the tenant has moved in, the responsibility for maintaining the premises in a safe, livable condition, consistent with the safety, health, and housing codes of the jurisdiction.

These rules apply only in the absence of an express agreement between the parties. The landlord and tenant may allocate in the lease the responsibility for repairs and maintenance. But it is unlikely that any court would enforce a lease provision waiving the landlord’s implied warranty of habitability for residential apartments, especially in areas where housing is relatively scarce.

Noninterference with Use

In addition to maintaining the premises in a physically suitable manner, the landlord has an obligation to the tenant not to interfere with a permissible use of the premises. Suppose Simone moves into a building with several apartments. One of the other tenants consistently plays music late in the evening, causing Simone to lose sleep. She complains to the landlord, who has a provision in the lease permitting him to terminate the lease of any tenant who persists in disturbing other tenants. If the landlord does nothing after Simone has notified him of the disturbance, he will be in breach. This right to be free of interference with permissible uses is sometimes said to arise from the landlord’s implied covenant of quiet enjoymentAn implied right in most leases—the right to be free of interference with permissible uses..

Tenant’s Remedies

When the landlord breaches one of the foregoing duties, the tenant has a choice of three basic remedies: terminationA remedy for a tenant, but requiring notice to the landlord and compliance with previously agreed on terms or statutory requirements for terminating the leasehold estate., damages, or rent adjustment.

In virtually all cases where the landlord breaches, the tenant may terminate the lease, thus ending her obligation to continue to pay rent. To terminate, the tenant must (1) actually vacate the premises during the time that she is entitled to terminate and (2) either comply with lease provisions governing the method of terminating or else take reasonable steps to ensure that the landlord knows she has terminated and why.

When the landlord physically deprives the tenant of possession, he has evicted the tenant; wrongful eviction permits the tenant to terminate the lease. Even if the landlord’s conduct falls short of actual eviction, it may interfere substantially enough with the tenant’s permissible use so that they are tantamount to eviction. This is known as constructive evictionConditions that interfere substantially enough with the tenant’s permissible use that it is tantamount to eviction., and it covers a wide variety of actions by both the landlord and those whose conduct is attributable to him, as illustrated by Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Co. v Kaminsky, (see Section 35.5.1 "Constructive Eviction").

Damages

Another traditional remedy is money damages, available whenever termination is an appropriate remedy. Damages may be sought after termination or as an alternative to termination. Suppose that after the landlord had refused Simone’s request to repair the electrical system, Simone hired a contractor to do the job. The cost of the repair work would be recoverable from the landlord. Other recoverable costs can include the expense of relocating if the lease is terminated, moving costs, expenses connected with finding new premises, and any increase in rent over the period of the terminated lease for comparable new space. A business may recover the loss of anticipated business profits, but only if the extent of the loss is established with reasonable certainty. In the case of most new businesses, it would be almost impossible to prove loss of profits.

In all cases, the tenant’s recovery will be limited to damages that would have been incurred by a tenant who took all reasonable steps to mitigate losses. That is, the tenant must take reasonable steps to prevent losses attributable to the landlord’s breach, to find new space if terminating, to move efficiently, and so on.

Rent Remedies

Under an old common-law rule, the landlord’s obligation to provide the tenant with habitable space and the tenant’s obligation to pay rent were independent covenantsUnder an old common-law rule, the landlord’s obligation to provide the tenant with habitable space and the tenant’s obligation to pay rent.. If the landlord breached, the tenant was still legally bound to pay the rent; her only remedies were termination and suit for damages. But these are often difficult remedies for the tenant. Termination means the aggravation of moving, assuming that new quarters can be found, and a suit for damages is time consuming, uncertain, and expensive. The obvious solution is to permit the tenant to withhold rent, or what we here call rent adjustmentOne remedy among several for tenants where the landlord has breached one or more duties. Rent adjustment may involve withholding the rent until the landlord complies, depositing payments in escrow, or applying withheld rent to the problem that the landlord has not fixed.. The modern rule, adopted in several states (but not yet in most), holds that the mutual obligations of landlord and tenant are dependent. States following this approach have developed three types of remedies: rent withholding, rent application, and rent abatement.

The simplest approach is for the tenant to withhold the rent until the landlord remedies the defect. In some states, the tenant may keep the money. In other states, the rent must be paid each month into an escrow account or to the court, and the money in the escrow account becomes payable to the landlord when the default is cured.

Several state statutes permit the tenant to apply the rent money directly to remedy the defect or otherwise satisfy the landlord’s performance. Thus Simone might have deducted from her rent the reasonable cost of hiring an electrician to repair the electrical system.

In some states, the rent may be reduced or even eliminated if the landlord fails to cure specific types of defects, such as violations of the housing code. The abatement will continue until the default is eliminated or the lease is terminated.

Rights and Duties of Tenants

In addition to the duties of the tenant set forth in the lease itself, the common law imposes three other obligations: (1) to pay the rent reserved (stated) in the lease, (2) to refrain from committing waste (damage), and (3) not to use the premises for an illegal purpose.

Duty to Pay Rent

What constitutes rent is not necessarily limited to the stated periodic payment usually denominated “rent.” The tenant may also be responsible for such assessments as taxes and utilities, payable to the landlord as rent. Simone’s lease calls for her to pay taxes of $500 per year, payable in quarterly installments. She pays the rent on the first of each month and the first tax bill on January 1. On April 1, she pays the rent but defaults on the next tax bill. She has failed to pay the rent reserved in the lease.

The landlord in the majority of states is not obligated to mitigate his losses should the tenant abandon the property and fail thereafter to pay the rent. As a practical matter, this means that the landlord need not try to rent out the property but instead can let it sit vacant and sue the defaulting tenant for the balance of the rent as it becomes due. However, the tenant might notify the landlord that she has abandoned the property or is about to abandon it and offer to surrender it. If the landlord accepts the surrender, the lease then terminates. Unless the lease specifically provides for it, a landlord who accepts the surrender will not be able to recover from the tenant the difference between the amount of her rent obligation and the new tenant’s rent obligation.

Many leases require the tenant to make a security depositA payment of a specific sum of money to secure the tenant’s performance of duties under the lease.—a payment of a specific sum of money to secure the tenant’s performance of duties under the lease. If the tenant fails to pay the rent or otherwise defaults, the landlord may use the money to make good the tenant’s performance. Whatever portion of the money is not used to satisfy the tenant’s obligations must be repaid to the tenant at the end of the lease. In the absence of an agreement to the contrary, the landlord must pay interest on the security deposit when he returns the sum to the tenant at the end of the lease.

Alteration and Restoration of the Premises

In the absence of a specific agreement in the lease, the tenant is entitled to physically change the premises in order to make the best possible permissible use of the property, but she may not make structural alterations or damage (waste) the property. A residential tenant may add telephone lines, put up pictures, and affix bookshelves to the walls, but she may not remove a wall in order to enlarge a room.

The tenant must restore the property to its original condition when the lease ends, but this requirement does not include normal wear and tear. Simone rents an apartment with newly polished wooden floors. Because she likes the look of oak, she decides against covering the floors with rugs. In a few months’ time, the floors lose their polish and become scuffed. Simone is not obligated to refinish the floors, because the scuffing came from normal walking, which is ordinary wear and tear.

Use of the Property for an Illegal Purpose

It is a breach of the tenant’s obligation to use the property for an illegal purpose. A landlord who found a tenant running a numbers racket, for example, or making and selling moonshine whisky could rightfully evict her.

Landlord’s Remedies

In general, when the tenant breaches any of the three duties imposed by the common law, the landlord may terminate the lease and seek damages. One common situation deserves special mention: the holdover tenant. When a tenant improperly overstays her lease, she is said to be a tenant at sufferanceWhen a tenant improperly overstays his or her lease., meaning that she is liable to eviction. Some cultures, like the Japanese, exhibit a considerable bias toward the tenant, making it exceedingly difficult to move out holdover tenants who decide to stay. But in the United States, landlords may remove tenants through summary (speedy) proceedings available in every state or, in some cases, through self-helpEntering the premises to regain possession and remove a holdover tenant’s belongings—must be peaceful, must not cause physical harm or even convey the expectation of harm to the tenant or anyone on the premises with the tenant’s permission, and must not result in unreasonable damage to the tenant’s property.. Self-help is a statutory remedy for landlords or incoming tenants in some states and involves the peaceful removal of a holdover tenant’s belongings. If a state has a statute providing a summary procedure for removing a holdover tenant, neither the landlord nor the incoming tenant may resort to self-help, unless the statute specifically allows it. A provision in the lease permitting self-help in the absence of statutory authority is unenforceable. Self-help must be peaceful, must not cause physical harm or even the expectation of harm to the tenant or anyone on the premises with his permission, and must not result in unreasonable damage to the tenant’s property. Any clause in the lease attempting to waive these conditions is void.

Self-help can be risky, because some summary proceeding statutes declare it to be a criminal act and because it can subject the landlord to tort liability. Suppose that Simone improperly holds over in her apartment. With a new tenant scheduled to arrive in two days, the landlord knocks on her door the evening after her lease expires. When Simone opens the door, she sees the landlord standing between two 450-pound Sumo wrestlers with menacing expressions. He demands that she leave immediately. Fearing for her safety, she departs instantly. Since she had a reasonable expectation of harm had she not complied with the landlord’s demand, Simone would be entitled to recover damages in a tort suit against her landlord, although she would not be entitled to regain possession of the apartment.

Besides summary judicial proceedings and self-help, the landlord has another possible remedy against the holdover tenant: to impose another rental term. In order to extend the lease in this manner, the landlord need simply notify the holdover tenant that she is being held to another term, usually measured by the periodic nature of the rent payment. For example, if rent was paid each month, then imposition of a new term results in a month-to-month tenancy. One year is the maximum tenancy that the landlord can create by electing to hold the tenant to another term.

Key Takeaway

Both landlords and tenants have rights and duties. The primary duty of a landlord is to meet the implied warranty of habitability: that the premises are in a safe, livable condition. The tenant has various remedies available if the landlord fails to meet that duty, or if the landlord fails to meet the implied covenant of quiet enjoyment. These include termination, damages, and withholding of rent. The tenant has duties as well: to pay the rent, refrain from committing waste, and not use the property for an illegal purpose.

Exercises

  1. Consistent with the landlord’s implied warranty of habitability, can the landlord and tenant agree in a lease that the tenant bear any and all expenses to repair the refrigerator, the stove, and the microwave?
  2. Under what conditions is it proper for a tenant to withhold rent from the landlord?