Renting can be costly for landlords

By Traci DiPietro
Staff Writer
Posted 5/13/07

FAIRHOPE — More than 500,000 Alabama households live in rental housing. This is good news for those who own rental property … or is it?

Many have experienced, or known, someone who has had a bad landlord.

Tenant Rights Defined

On Jan. …

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Renting can be costly for landlords


FAIRHOPE — More than 500,000 Alabama households live in rental housing. This is good news for those who own rental property … or is it?

Many have experienced, or known, someone who has had a bad landlord.

Tenant Rights Defined

On Jan. 1, a new state law went into effect that may help curb substandard rental housing. The Alabama Landlord-Tenant Act clearly defines what is acceptable as a habitable dwelling, and it outlines the basic rights and duties of both tenants and landlords. It requires landlords to maintain working heat, air, electricity and water in all property rentals, as well as providing garbage containers and make necessary repairs.

The law prevents a landlord from raising the rent or changing tenant rules in any way without the tenant’s written consent once they have entered into a lease agreement, and they cannot engage in any type of retaliatory conduct such as threatening an eviction, or raising rent on the tenant if a complaint is filed against them.

Additionally, if a landlord does not adhere to the law, tenants have the right to break a lease, after giving 14 days written notice.

Another issue addressed by the law is that of landlords requesting unreasonable security deposits and withholding their return without just cause. Security deposits are now limited to one month’s rent, and are to be returned to the tenant within 35 days.

The woes of being

a landlord

Alabama Landlord-Tenant Act is not one-sided. It also enacts covenants to protect landlords.

Melissa Patti owns rental property in Baldwin County. So does Alan Cobb. Both have suffered financial loss as a result of irresponsible tenants.

In Cobb’s case, renters left him footing the bill for thousands of dollars worth of damage. Not only did they damage the recently remodeled property and refuse to pay rent, they also left garbage, urine and feces everywhere.

The property, located in Fairhope, was left in such poor condition that an odor emulating from it was detectable from a significant distance outside the building. The smell and filth was so bad, it actually drove neighboring tenants to move out, said Cobb.

“How could someone do this?” asked a visibly distraught Cobb as he surveyed the damage. “This is incredible.”

Cobb was sure he could not recoup damages, and although he had collected a security deposit, he said it did not even begin to cover the expenses he had incurred.

“All of this brand new carpeting has to be ripped out now,” said Cobb. “They even broke the kitchen cabinets. Look … look over here.”

Cobb pointed to a switch plate and wall that was smeared with what appeared to be feces. Drapes hung from rods in tatters, and large bags of garbage were piled in a corner.

Sadly, said Cobb, the family that lived in that squalor had young children … and apparently a pet of some kind, although pets were not allowed. The two bedrooms were so filthy they made one retch upon entering. It is hard to imagine that children had been kept in such conditions, and it’s even harder to believe the tenants were not there very long. The damage had been done in a short period of time.

Cobb not only lost money in unpaid rent, he has to put forward thousands of dollars to clean, fumigate, repair and restore the apartment. He lost money each month it went unrented during repairs.

“What kind of person would do this?” asked Cobb, shaking his head.

Patti began an eviction process to remove tenants from one of five properties she owns after renters damaged the property and failed to pay (Patti was reluctant to give details because she feared retaliation if the renters were identified).

To her dismay, the eviction process took time and money, and she continuously agonized over the fact that the family, who had stopped paying rent, was getting a free ride while simultaneously damaging her investment.

“These people knew what they were doing,” she said. “They told me themselves — they knew their rights.”

Patti said the Alabama Landlord-Tenant Act is not enough to protect landlords. Evicting and suing the family was the only legal option available to her, she said, and suing is usually ineffective. She wants tougher penalties for destructive tenants.

“There’s no recourse for us to recover damages. There needs to be criminal charges against tenants when they damage rental property,” she said.

Although this was her first bad experience with a renter, Patti said she really learned a hard lesson.

“It was a real eye-opener” she said, “I learned a lot.”

And if it happened again?

“You wouldn’t be able to print what I would do,” she said with a good-natured laugh.

Under the new law, landlords can evict tenants more quickly, but if a tenant is being evicted for refusing to pay rent, waiting another month before they are forced to evacuate often means another month of unpaid rent. Usually a tenant who refuses to pay rent does not clean or properly care for the property, as Cobb and Patti found out, and it can be months before a damaged apartment is fit to be rented out again.

Since security deposits are limited to the amount of one month’s rent, landlords cannot rely on that money to cover expenses.

“This just isn’t right,” said Patti. “Something needs to be done. This is my investment. I’m the one who pays for it — I’m the one who pays the bank, and I’m the one who pays the taxes.”

She now uses a lawyer for every landlord-tenant transaction, and she advises all landlords and tenants to do the same.

“You will never regret it,” she said.

Other consideration for landlords/tenants gleaned from Web sites:

• Inform your landlord if you’re going to be away for two weeks or longer.

• Let the landlord enter your rental — you can ask for two days’ written notice — to inspect conditions or make repairs.

• Tenants must properly dispose of all garbage and rubbish.

• If the tenant violates the law (for example; leaving piled-up garbage or by not repairing a window broken by a child), the landlord can sue or get an injunction against you.

• The federal law says that the landlord has to make “reasonable accommodations” for people with disabilities

• Landlords cannot discriminate against a tenant or treat one differently from other tenants.

• Landlords may be required to bend the “no pets” rule in the case of animal guides for those physically impaired.

• Always review a lease carefully before signing, no matter how long it takes, and do not be afraid to question what do you not understand. Ask that any verbal agreements be added to the lease prior to signing.

• Tenant rights under the Alabama Landlord-Tenant Law apply whether or not one has a written lease.