Housing lawyer Robert Dyer knows all too well the tenant/landlord relationship can be contentious.
But knowing some of the basics of tenant and landlord rights and responsibilities can help those relationships work more smoothly — and help shape a course of action when it doesn't. On Thursday, Dyer stopped by Central Missouri Community Action to share his knowledge.
"There are rights and responsibilities that exist no matter what the lease agreement says," he explained.
Some are laid out in Missouri's statutes; others have been hashed out in the courts and are now part of case law.
The landlord's obligations are straightforward. Make sure the property is livable (not unsafe or unsanitary) before the tenant moves in and throughout the lease terms. Never disconnect essential utilities, except in an emergency situation; even then they must be reconnected promptly. Give reasonable notice before entering the property.
"The 24 hours thing is a myth," Dyer added.
In many situations a few hours' notice may be considered "reasonable."
"Sometimes a lease agreement attempts to contract around these responsibilities but typically that won't hold up in court," Dyer said.
The landlord also has a limited duty to make repairs, in situations where the repair job is needed to maintain the house's habitability.
Habitability isn't clearly defined in statute, but has been extensively defined in court. A house is uninhabitable if the conditions there materially threaten the occupants' life, health or safety. For example: an exterior door that won't lock, large amounts of dangerous mold, exposed wiring, an insect infestation, sewage backing up into the house, broken windows, structural integrity problems or a lack of heat in winter.
The tenant must notify the landlord of the issue and the landlord must make repairs within a reasonable time period. Generally speaking, the landlord will likely be legally liable if the problem isn't fixed within 14 days, Dyer said. The tenant may break their lease if the problem isn't fixed.
In situations where the habitability issue has been caused by the tenant, the landlord must still repair it, but may sue to recover damages from the tenant.
Tenant responsibilities are likewise relatively simple: pay rent, follow the lease agreement, take care of property, maintain a crime-free home and keep the utilities turned on.
Dyer's biggest advice to both sides is to write everything down, from the lease agreement to maintenance requests.
"Put everything in writing and take pictures," he said.
Not all lease agreements are written — some are oral, or even implied — but he's seen oral agreements backfire too often. Additionally, he said, every oral lease agreement is month-to-month.
"Either party can terminate it with 30 days' notice," he said.
At minimum, every lease agreement should have the names of the tenant and landlord; the property's address; the rent amount, late fees, security deposit amount and (if desired) a clause about legal fees; procedures and information for how to contact the landlord; and any special rules or allowances, such as policies on overnight guests, subleasing and pets. Future changes to the lease terms should be made in writing.
He strongly recommends landlords and tenants do a walkthrough of the property together, documenting existing conditions with pictures, before signing the lease.
Some landlords and tenants might not realize there are restrictions on security deposit amounts. In Missouri, a landlord cannot ask for more than what two month's rent costs. The last month's rent is legally considered to be part of the security deposit.
At the end of the lease, a landlord is legally required to send written notice to the tenant's last known address before conducting a final walkthrough; they must also notify the tenant that the tenant has a legal right to be present.
After the lease concludes, the landlord has 30 days to return the security deposit or provide an itemized list of reasons why they're not doing so.
"If (the landlord doesn't follow procedure), a tenant can file a lawsuit to get their security deposit back and will be entitled to twice that amount if they win," Dyer cautioned.
Carpet cleaning fees are a special case. Landlords must note in the lease agreement if they plan on deducting the cost of carpet cleaning from the security deposit, may only deduct the amount the cleaning actually costs and must provide a receipt upon request.
If damage to the house above normal wear and tear proves more costly to repair than the security deposit covers, the landlord may sue to make up the difference.
Sometimes, the landlord/tenant relationship ends with an eviction. There are two main types in Missouri: "rent and possession" and "unlawful detainer."
The first arises if a tenant fails to pay rent, even after the landlord demands it. The landlord may file a rent and possession case. If the tenant shows up in court and admits rent is owed, the court will likely turn possession of the property over to the landlord.
"Payment of rent is a legal defense in these cases," Dyer said. "If the tenant pays the rent (plus required fees), they can keep possession."
The second kind of case typically arises when the tenant remains on the property after the lease has expired. The landlord must give the tenant 10 days' notice to vacate. If the defendant wants to put up a defense, he or she must provide notice before the court date.
Missouri also allows for expedited evictions in extreme circumstances, such as when the tenant poses a threat to neighbors.
Dyer is a staff attorney for Mid Missouri Legal Services in Columbia.