Being a landlord is a considerable responsibility, and on the whole, most of your tenants will be law-abiding and considerate ones. However, very occasionally, you may find yourself with a tenant that is less than desirable. It can be quite a worry, and many people find themselves thinking, “Can a landlord be held liable for nuisance tenants?”
Let’s first put your mind at rest and say that, in general, a landlord is not liable for the acts of a tenant, although there are exceptions. We’ll look at those exceptions a little later.
If you’re worried about your tenants, keep reading for some helpful advice on what you can do and how to prevent this situation in the future.
What is Considered a Nuisance Tenant?
To answer the question, “Are landlords responsible for nuisance tenants?” we must first explain precisely what a nuisance tenant is.
The legal definition for a nuisance tenant is someone who causes problems with neighbors, creates excessive noise, conducts illegal activities on the property, or inflicts property damage.
The most common of these are typically complaints about excessive or unreasonable noise. For example, the tenant might be hosting loud parties or gatherings, playing loud music at all hours of the day or night, having renovation or construction work done at inconvenient hours, or engaging in loud conversations.
A tenant can also be considered a nuisance if they’re indiscriminately dumping rubbish that attracts pests and rodents. In addition, conducting activities that release smoke, gas, and other toxic fumes might also be deemed nuisance behavior.
Tenants also fall under the category of nuisance tenants if they display disruptive, inappropriate, offensive, or indecent behavior.
Can a Landlord be Held Liable for Nuisance Tenants?
Generally, the answer is no, but there are exceptions to the rule. If you ever find yourself in court because of nuisance tenants, the outcome could depend on several things.
Most courts aren’t going to expect you to know everything about how your tenant behaves. However, you could be penalized if you learned something and didn’t take any action to remedy the situation. In some cases, you could be more liable than if you knew nothing.
Should Have Known
A slightly gray area is the question of whether you “should” have known about a problem. Imagine this scenario: You’re aware that your tenant has served jail time. In this case, the law is unclear as to whether you should automatically assume they are dangerous. Another unclear situation is when neighbors complain about the tenant. Does that mean you’re obliged to investigate, and how deep should you dig?
As a general rule of thumb, if there were no warning signs before a problem blew up, the chances are that you’re not liable.
It could simply be that you knew about the problem but were powerless to help. If your tenant hasn’t broken the terms of their lease, you’re not generally held responsible. However, if they broke their lease and you have grounds for eviction, not doing anything about it could leave you in hot water.
For any landlord, the best course of action is to be proactive. Act before any trouble starts. Start by screening potential tenants carefully.
Should the neighbors complain, make sure you investigate thoroughly.
When drawing up a lease, include clauses that give you the power to evict tenants for violence or illegal activity. However, be very careful about following all laws against discrimination.
What is the Best Way for a Landlord to Deal with Nuisance Behavior?
We’ve already mentioned including a nuisance provision in your rental agreements, but even when one of these is in place, you could still find yourself dealing with nuisance tenants. Knowing what to do is going to be a weight off your mind.
Evicting Nuisance Tenants
When a landlord is liable for acts of a tenant, there’s a simple step-by-step approach when dealing with it.
Try to avoid jumping to conclusions or being too quick to judge. Don’t just take a complaining neighbor or tenant’s word for it. Ask for times, duration, and how often the offending behavior is occurring. Talk to your tenant, even though this might feel uncomfortable, and explain that neighbors are making complaints about their behavior.
Your tenant may be completely unaware that their behavior is causing a problem and happily correct it as soon as they know.
It’s also a good idea to check with other tenants on the property and whether they have any views on the issue.
Always be polite and keep calm when discussing such issues with the people involved.
2. Provide Reminders
A warning is often sufficient for many first-time offenders, but those who repeatedly cause a nuisance could need more regular reminders. If you find they’re not taking any notice, you’ll have to move to step #3, which could be a penalty, or in extreme cases, evicting nuisance tenants for violating the terms of the lease.
3. Provide a Cure or Quit Notice
If your tenant’s nuisance behavior is ongoing and they’re making no attempt to change their ways, you may need to service a “cure or quit” notice. You’ll give the tenant a date by which they have to quit or correct their behavior. If they fail to do so, you have the right to evict the tenant from the property or unit lawfully.
Laws About Evictions
If you want to evict a tenant, there is a legal process you have to follow. Every state has laws that regulate the eviction process. As a landlord, you can evict a tenant for several reasons, including:
- Nonpayment of rent
- Failure to vacate the premises after a lease agreement has expired
- Violation of a provision in the rental contract
- If the tenant causes damage to the property that results in a substantial decrease in the property’s value
Before evicting a tenant, you must follow the legal eviction process. Every state has different guidelines, but most require issuing a termination notice to the tenant before filing an eviction lawsuit. If you try to remove the tenant without a court order, they could recover damages for your actions.
Tips on How to Avoid Nuisance Tenants
One of the best ways to avoid nuisance tenants is conducting a thorough background check and screening every tenant application. You should be able to identify any possible areas of risk. You’ll also be able to limit your exposure to liability for the actions of your tenants.
However, a thorough background check is not the only way to reduce the risk. Here are a few more tips:
- Don’t accept cash payments for rent.
- Watch for and report suspicious activity on your property.
- Include provisions in the lease that clearly specify criminal acts will not be tolerated and are considered grounds for immediate eviction.
- Immediately and thoroughly investigate any complaints from neighbors and other tenants concerning criminal activity.
- Ban pets, but especially vicious breeds, from the premises. You may have to seek advice from your insurer to check which breeds are deemed vicious. It’s very likely that attacks by such breeds aren’t covered by your insurance policy, which further increases your liability.
Common Areas of Risk
Even when you take as many precautions as possible, some areas still pose a significant risk for landlords.
A considerable area of liability for landlords comes in the form of pets. For example, if a tenant’s pet attacks a neighbor or someone on the rental property, you could find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit, together with the dog’s owner.
You’re not automatically going to be held liable for any injuries because you’re not considered legally responsible for the pet. However, you could be held liable if you knew the animal was dangerous and did nothing about it.
Another widespread concern for landlords is the issue of unpaid utility bills. Are you, for example, held responsible if a tenant has unpaid bills? If the utility bills are in the tenant’s name, you cannot be held accountable for unpaid bills as you’re not named in the service contract.
However, if the utilities were set up in your name, and you simply pass the bills on to the tenant for payment, you’ll have more liability.
Criminal Acts and Activities
It is your responsibility, as a landlord, to keep the rental property in a reasonably safe condition and take action to protect the tenants from criminal acts. However, what if it is the tenant who is perpetrating the crime? Suppose the criminal acts were foreseeable, or you knew that the tenant was engaging in illegal activities and did nothing about it. In that case, you could be held liable for the tenant’s actions.
In most cases, you wouldn’t be held responsible for any injuries a tenant inflicts on other people unless you influenced the tenant to injure the other person.
On several occasions, courts have found landlords liable for the conduct of their tenants in certain situations.
Suppose you know of the tenant’s nuisance or unlawful behaviors. In that case, you must take the appropriate actions to protect tenants, neighbors, and others affected by your tenant’s behavior.
New York is one US city that is very tough on any landlord who allows nuisance behaviors. In many cases, you could be held liable for nuisances such as barking dogs, harassment of others, drugs and alcohol, loud music, litter, and many other things.
Always consider it in your best interest to evict nuisance tenants as soon as you become aware of any ongoing problems.
There have been instances where landlords have been found liable for damages caused by their tenant’s negligence. This could be because of leaks caused by a bathtub overflow, fire from overloading an outlet, and similar instances.
What is the Landlord Responsibility to Neighbors?
Part of understanding the question can a landlord be held liable for nuisance tenants includes understanding your landlord’s responsibility to neighbors. Technically, you can be held liable for a tenant that interferes with a neighbor’s comfortable enjoyment. It could be due to issues such as noise, criminal activity, or drug dealing. In some cities, the landlord can be held accountable and fined for any infractions.
Understand Quiet Hours
Rules and regulations relating to rental properties vary from state to state. It’s a good idea to check the quiet hours of the town or city where your rental is located.
When you know what these are, address this in your lease, just in case you do have issues. That way you’ll have the means to resolve the issue with your tenant.
Establish Good Relationships
It’s also a good idea to get to know the neighbors and even go so far as to provide your contact information. This means a neighbor can warn you of any issues and have the opportunity to approach you before filing a complaint to the city.
Final Thoughts on the Question Can a Landlord be Held Liable for Nuisance Tenants?
While your primary responsibility is your tenant, you do have a duty of care to neighbors as well. You might not be technically accountable for your tenant’s actions, but ultimately you could be liable if you allow or put up with a tenant’s nuisance behavior. Even if you know there’s a probability that such issues could occur, you could still be liable.
The law obligates landlords to provide a clean, livable, and safe rental property for their tenants. This obligation includes allowing them to enjoy the property without any disturbance, including not having to worry about their landlord constantly monitoring the property.
Because of the added responsibility you also have to any neighbors, you must make sure your tenants follow the lease terms and respect their neighbor’s equal right to quiet enjoyment.
Ultimately, you risk a citation, fine, or criminal charges if you know of your tenant’s nuisance behavior. It, therefore, makes sense to do everything you can to protect your own rights as a landlord and those of your tenants and neighbors.
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