“Florida has a lot of opportunities for landlords,” according to Rick Drew, market leader for the Miami division of the property management company Renters Warehouse. If you’re a landlord in central Florida, you already know those opportunities entail some considerable legal obligations. Failure to meet all of those obligations can land you in court – unnecessarily – and cost you significantly. Below, you’ll find ten important, general recommendations for staying out of court and avoiding legal trouble with tenants, but if you’re already involved in – or anticipate – a legal dispute with a tenant, obtain the legal help you need by speaking with an experienced Daytona Beach real estate attorney.
1. COMPLY WITH FEDERAL ANTI-DISCRIMINATION LAWS
Landlords in Florida are not required to rent to anyone and everyone. Applicants may be rejected on the basis of a bad credit history, bad references from previous landlords, or other factors that make them a bad risk. However, it’s imperative for landlords to understand fair housing laws. Any failure to comply could put you on the wrong end of a costly discrimination lawsuit. When renting apartments, landlords may not discriminate against prospective tenants based on their race, religion, gender, parental or marital status, national origin, or mental or physical disability – “protected categories” under the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968.
This includes the words you use when you advertise a rental, the questions you ask potential tenants, and how you deal with tenants on a continuing basis. There are several exceptions to federal anti-discrimination laws, including owner-occupied buildings with four or fewer units, and single-family houses, provided the landlord owns no more than three rental houses at a time. If you have questions or concerns regarding the details, an experienced real estate attorney can address those concerns.
2. USE A WRITTEN LEASE OR RENTAL AGREEMENT
Wayne Gathright has twenty years of experience in tenant-landlord relations. He’s the president of the property management software company TenantFile.com, and he advises, “Situations that would normally go to court can be better resolved once both parties realize that legal action is not a good option for either side. The disputes normally result from differing interpretations of the lease or a situation that is not covered, so it is the job of the landlord to have an air-tight, comprehensive lease and take the time to go over it in detail with the tenant ‘before’ they sign.”
The lease or rental agreement that you and your tenant sign specifies details such as how long the tenant can occupy the property, the amount of the rent, and other rules and provisions. It’s best to have a real estate attorney draft a lease agreement for you. Moshe Goykhman, the founder of Highrises Unlimited, an apartment rental company in Chicago, says “I have looked at many different kinds of leases and realized that leases can be very different.”
You may not include any illegal clauses in the lease, such as a waiver of your responsibility to make legally required disclosures or to keep the premises habitable. Florida landlords can avoid all kinds of difficulties – including potential legal disputes – with an effective and legal lease agreement that clearly spells out the responsibilities and rights of tenants. A rental or lease agreement should specify:
- the amount of rent
- when and where rent is due
- how rent should be paid
- the amount of notice the landlord must provide regarding rent increases
- the amount of any extra fee if a rent check bounces
- the penalty for paying rent late, including fees and termination of the tenancy
3. COMPLY WITH STATE LAWS REGARDING RENTS
If you need to raise a rent, or if you need to evict a tenant who hasn’t paid rent, you’ll want to be sure that you comply with the specific rules and procedures in Florida. State law regulates a number of rent-related issues. For example, tenants have three days to pay rent beyond the due date before a landlord can file for eviction. Unless the rental agreement says otherwise, the landlord must typically provide fifteen days of notice to raise the rent amount.
Brian Davis, a real estate investor and a co-founder of SparkRental.com, advocates annual rent increases. “Raise the rent every year, even if only by $15-20. Landlords should set the expectation that rent will always rise, just like inflation. Yearly rent hikes also prevent the landlord from waking up one day and realizing they’re charging $400 under the market rent, then hitting the tenant with a massive rent hike all at once. Annual rent increases can be anywhere from $15 up to 10% of the rent if justified by market demand, but never more than 10% of the rent – the tenant will likely move if they’re slapped with such a high rent hike all at once.”
4. COMPLY WITH STATE LAWS REGARDING SECURITY DEPOSITS
The most common disputes between tenants and landlords are disputes regarding security deposits. Be sure that you understand the legal regulations governing security deposits, when they must be returned, and when you are allowed to hold all or part of a deposit. Using an itemized checklist for moving in and moving out can be quite helpful in avoiding security deposit disputes.
5. COMPLY WITH STATE LAWS REGARDING DISCLOSURE
Florida landlords must make particular disclosures to tenants. These disclosures may be made in the lease or rental agreement, including details about the security deposit, radon gas, lead-based paint, fire protection, and whether an agent or manager is or will be acting on the landlord’s behalf. The particular disclosures required include:
- Owner or agent identity: The landlord or the landlord’s authorized agent must disclose in writing, at or before tenancy begins, the name and address of the landlord or a person authorized to receive notices and demands on the landlord’s behalf.
- Fire safety: In any Florida building over three stories tall, the landlord must tell new tenants about the availability of fire protection.
- Radon: In all leases in Florida, landlords must include this warning: “RADON GAS: Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that, when it has accumulated in a building in sufficient quantities, may present health risks to persons who are exposed to it over time. Levels of radon that exceed federal and state guidelines have been found in buildings in Florida. Additional information regarding radon and radon testing may be obtained from your county health department.”
- Security deposit: Landlords in Florida must disclose in writing, within thirty days of receiving a security deposit, whether the deposit will be held in an interest-bearing or non-interest-bearing account; the name of the institution holding the account; and the details regarding interest payments. Landlords who collect security deposits must include a copy of Florida Statutes § 83.49(3) in the lease.
- Lead-based paint: Under federal law, landlords must disclose any known lead-based paint on a property prior to signing or renewing a lease or rental agreement. Both landlord and tenant must sign an EPA-approved disclosure form to prove that the landlord made the disclosure. Landlords must give every tenant the EPA pamphlet titled, “Protect Your Family From Lead In Your Home” or a state-approved version of the pamphlet. A landlord who does not comply with EPA regulations may be fined, and a landlord found liable for tenant injuries due to lead paint may have to pay substantial punitive damages.
6. PROVIDE AND MAINTAIN HABITABLE RENTAL PREMISES
The legal doctrine of “implied warranty of habitability” requires landlords to maintain residential rental premises in a livable condition. When Florida landlords fail to make important basic repairs, residential tenants have legal recourse, including the right to withhold rent. It’s a good idea to establish a systematic repair and maintenance routine so that habitability is checked and maintained on a regular basis.
Rick Drew with Renters Warehouse says, “You should also consider any deferred maintenance that you might not think about when the home is ready to rent, i.e. the garage door stops working and you need to replace it. Or a faucet is leaking so you have to pay for a repair person to come out and fix it. A good rule of thumb is to calculate anywhere from 7 to 15% for these unforeseen repairs, depending on the age of the rental property. Plus, there’s general cleaning and make ready costs that you’ll need to factor in, as well.”
7. HONOR THE PRIVACY OF TENANTS
Tenants in the state of Florida have a number of strictly enforced legal rights, including a right to personal privacy. Thus, under Florida law, landlords must give twelve hours of notice prior to entering an occupied rental property to make repairs, to show the property to a potential new tenant, or for any other reason. Keep a written record of the requests you make to enter rental units. Still, it’s wise to maintain contact with tenants on a routine and regular basis.
Leasing agent and property manager Elizabeth Healy, the head of marketing for the property management platform Tenlor.com, says, “Tenants are more receptive to rental increases, maintenance issues, and surprise notices when they are already have a basis of open communication with the landlord. Simply checking in once a month to see if they need any repairs or requests completing ensures a greater likelihood that they will resign the following year.”
8. UNDERSTAND THAT RETALIATION IS ILLEGAL
In Florida, if a tenant makes an official compliant about an unsafe living condition – for example, broken heating or plumbing that has not been repaired – it is illegal for a landlord to retaliate by raising the rent or by refusing other legal obligations. Florida landlords can prevent legal problems by fully documenting how repairs are handled as well as documenting other aspects of your relationships with your tenants.
9. COMPLY WITH STATE LAW IF EVICTION BECOMES NECESSARY
Failure to comply with the rules can cause extensive delays if you need to evict a tenant. The law in Florida is quite precise regarding the reasons for an eviction and the amount of time a tenant has to respond. For example, if a tenant destroys rental property intentionally, causes repeated disturbances, or repeatedly violates the lease, a landlord must give the tenant seven days to leave before the landlord can initiate the eviction process.
According to Daytona Beach real estate attorney Melody Lankford, “It takes approximately one month to evict a tenant and I have seen cases that drag on much longer because the landlord did not engage an attorney sooner. Landlords also must watch out for situations where an individual(s) moves into a rental property without the landlord’s permission. The landlord must follow the eviction process to evict that individual from the property even though that individual never had the landlord’s permission to live there in the first place.”
10. USE THE LEGAL RESOURCES AVAILABLE TO YOU
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Florida’s municipal and county housing authorities offer practical legal information for landlords and resources for residents on their websites. John A. Michailidis, GRI, JD, and a Florida real estate broker, says the most important thing for a landlord is consistency. “As a landlord, always do what you say you are going to do, and always hold others to doing what they say they are going to do. If you go back on your word, or if you allow others to go back on theirs, there will be problems, as all credibility will be lost.”
Of course, when you have specific legal questions, an experienced Florida real estate lawyer can answer those questions, review or help you draft leases, and advise you regarding the eviction process. By putting sensible and effective solutions to landlord-tenant disputes in place before problems emerge, you can eliminate most of the potential legal troubles that landlords in Florida may face.