February 7, 2016

Landlord/Tenant 411

I’ve been doing an awful lot of research into landlord/tenant issues in the last 6 months or so.  It has become more and more apparent that the man I rent from wears a mask of kindness to hide his true intentions, and getting much needed repair work done has gotten to the point of getting legal advice.  However, I’m not going to spend this post risking a slander suit.  I intend to share the fruits of my labors.

First and foremost, I am not a legal professional or an attorney. This advice is general in nature and should not be taken as advice from a professional. If you have encountered difficulties with your landlord, please consult an expert in your area before proceeding.

Now that that’s out of the way, let us begin.  If you have not moved in to your new location yet, here are a couple of items to keep in mind.  Legal Aid of Nebraska makes an absolutely fantastic booklet available to renters called the landlord and tenant handbook.  It doesn’t matter if this is your first apartment out of college or the third time you’ve moved this year, this has wonderful information in it.

Now, on to finding your place.  First of all, inspect the actual unit you will be leasing.  You might be offered to look at a unit just like the one you’ll be renting, but insist on seeing the actual property for rent.  If the building you will be living in was built prior to 1978 you must be provided with lead paint information.  Here is a useful page on this topic provided by the Nebraska Health and Human Services.  

When you move in, use a checklist to document the condition of the unit and take photos of any damages you find.  Provide your landlord a copy of both and save them for your records.  If you should find there were problems that were not disclosed, or your landlord won’t let you move in, you may be able to end your lease.  You will need to notify your landlord within 5 days.  If you should run into this sort of situation, it would be wise to speak with an attorney.  If you are having problems at a later date in your occupancy, the following will be more useful for you.

First of all, you want to consult your lease.  This is the document that spells out the explicit responsibilities you and your landlord have to each other.  This is outside of the state’s requirements for landlords, which we will get into in a moment.  Your lease should list your landlord’s name, address, phone number, and the terms of your lease.  These often consist of the duration of your lease, rent cost, date rent is due, how it can be paid, what you can and can’t do in your living area, pets, utility responsibilities, number of people living in the unit, how long you can be gone without notifying the landlord, and lead paint information.  (For purposes of this writing, we shall assume you’re in an apartment or house.  Mobile home rentals have some separate statutes in Nebraska and I haven’t read through them at all.)  Keep this handy so that you may refer to it if needed.  

Your security deposit may not exceed one month’s rent.  If there is a pet deposit, it can’t exceed 25% of your rent.  Your responsibility as a tenant is spelled out in NE Statute 76-1421.  Anything above and beyond this should be in your lease.  Statute 76-1415 outlines what is prohibited in a lease is Nebraska.  

The law protects the tenant and states that the landlord must maintain the property and keep it in good repair.  Your landlord also can not spontaneously amend the lease.  All changes to a lease in force must be approved by the landlord and the tenant.  Also, the tenant must be given 30 days notice if the landlord opts to renew the lease with changes, such as a rent hike.

Once you have moved in, your landlord is obligated to give you at least one day’s notice prior to coming into your unit.  They are also prohibited from entering your unit at unreasonable times, and for any reason other than to inspect it, make repairs, or show it to future tenants or buyers.  The exception to that is in case of emergency.  As a tenant, you may allow them access for whatever reason you’d like, but the law offers you these protections should you want or need them.

Your landlord must also provide you with adequate heat, water, hot water, or other essential services per statute 76-1427.If they do not, you have the option to withhold rent until it is fixed, or deduct the money from your rent to hire your own professional to do the work.  You must notify your landlord that this is what you’re doing and why, however.  It is advised you use the 14/30 day letter method covered below.  Each unit must also have working smoke detectors.

If you’re having problems getting your landlord to make repairs to the property or your unit, and they are not complying with statute 76-1419, where they are required to maintain a fit premises, you have a couple of options.  First of all, statute 76-1425 outlines the 14/30 day letter option.  If you have a repair that you need made, you may write a letter stating your request and deliver it to your landlord.  Some recommend certified mail, but I have been advised that while hand delivering the letter is best, email is also an acceptable method to notify your landlord.  If your email has a read receipt option, this would be much like the notification of delivery you get with certified mail.

The Lincoln Action Partnership makes a good template available online. As a side note, problems with mold can also be taken to the health department in your area.  There are specific mold laws on the books.  If disrepair of the building or property results in injury or damage, you may be able to take your landlord to court to recover expenses or damages.  If you suspect you may be in that situation, consult an attorney.

Your landlord is also obligated to provide services such as trash removal, snow removal, and yard care unless otherwise stated.  However, if this is not done, the city often has a hotline to report such issues.  Consult your local government directory for the number.  In Omaha, the Mayor’s hotline at 402-444-5555 can direct you to the correct authority.

You also have the right to call your local code enforcement agency.  In Omaha, every visit by the inspector costs the landlord $125, so if they don’t meet their obligations during their allowed window of time, they are fined.  When I reported issues (some of which were marked critical on the report) it took the better part of 2 months and cost my landlord somewhere around $400 in fines alone.  When you report something to code enforcement and they send out the notice for the repairs that are needed, you will get a copy, the landlord will get a copy, any other affected tenants will get copies, and the bank holding the loan on the property will also be notified.

Your landlord is not legally allowed to retaliate against you for calling the regulatory authorities.  They are also not allowed to retaliate if you unionize, or are exercising your first amendment rights to speak as a group (be careful of slander and libel though, these are still illegal).  If you are having problems, speak up!  You  might be surprised at how many others are in the same boat.  Many terrible landlords use intimidation and subversive behavior to get their tenants to comply.  They assume others are ignorant of their rights or they are too afraid to fight.  If you feel that you have been retaliated or discriminated against, The Fair Housing Authority handles those claims.  

I have not done much research into eviction at this point in time.  I am lucky to have not needed that information yet.  The handbook mentioned above has some very good information on the subject, as well as how to go about recovering your deposit if you have moved out and suspect your landlord may try to keep it unlawfully.  However, the most often overlooked and perhaps most powerful tool in a renter's arsenal is this gem of a statute: 76-1485.  This outlines the requirements for how to request your deposit back.  There are two reasons why a landlord can keep your entire or partial deposit; to cover the amount of unpaid rent, or to restore the unit to the condition it was in at the start of occupancy.  Normal wear and tear is expected and exempt from being claimed.  The burden is on the landlord, and any withholdings must be spelled out in an itemized list for the tenant to review.  In short, if you have advised your landlord of any items needing repairs, and unless you shorted your landlord on rent, or trashed your place, you should receive your full deposit back at the end of your lease.

At the end of it all, I can only advise to know your rights, be a dutiful tenant as best you can, and take no crap.  Talk to others, and if you’re all having problems, get a group of you together.  There is strength and protection in numbers.  Good luck!

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