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VOLUME VTenants Welcome, Disruptive Guests Need Not ArriveBy Shamontiel L. VaughnBefore a new tenant moves in, there are some topics on the lease that need to be explained—the cost for rent and security deposits, maintenance and repair roles, condition of the premises, and pet and smoking rules. These are rules that usually have minimal room for misinterpretation.
But there’s one gray area on a lease that could become a sticking point for both tenants and landlords: quiet enjoyment. Although the wording may vary, this point on the lease is that if tenants pay rent in a timely manner and perform all other obligations on the leasing agreement, they may peaceably and quietly hold and enjoy the premises throughout the rental term without landlord disturbance. If tenants hold up their end of the bargain when it comes to behavior on the property, so can landlords. But the lease is the deciding factor.
“In Texas, one of the things that courts will jealously guard—within reason—is whether the lease establishes what conduct is acceptable and what isn't,” said Marc Girling, the managing attorney of Girling Law PLLC. “If the lease has something that says, ‘The tenant shall not be disruptive,’ well, what does that mean? That's too broad. The lease should get into a little bit more detail—no loud noises after 10 o'clock, no parties after 10 o'clock.”
Landlords who have an oral agreement (which are allowed in both Florida and Texas) may risk a weaker argument if unruly behavior gets as far as eviction court though, according to Girling.
“The landlord’s kinda screwed because there's an absolute failure in that case to establish what conduct is permitted and what isn't,” Girling explained. “The tenant is going to lie in court and say ‘No, we never discussed X, Y and Z.’ Then the landlord can’t meet the legal burden to obtain an eviction judgment against the tenant. Short answer: Have a good lease.”
While a detailed lease is a reasonable expectation for anyone choosing to regard a rental as “home,” even if only for 365 days, landlords may still have a harder time staying away if disruptive guests of the tenants make it difficult for them to have peace and quiet. And unlike the tenant, this noisy guest didn’t sign anything at all. If the noisy guest becomes so troublesome that it drives a wedge between the landlord and the tenant, then what?
“A well-written lease is going to establish that the tenant is responsible for the guests’ behavior,” Girling went on to explain. “From the eyes of the law, and based on the writing in that lease, if a guest is violating the conduct prohibitions under the lease, the tenant is liable for it.”
If the landlord’s lease doesn’t already list the tenant and all guests as “occupants,” Girling recommends adding a lease addendum that does. This way, if any occupants—whether a permanent tenant, temporary guest or a squatter—do not follow the rules on the lease, it gives the property owner stronger grounds to make that “occupant” stay away from the property or evict the tenant if that doesn’t work.
Removing Unruly Occupants: The Role of Landlords, Law Enforcement and Condo BoardsThere are certain responsibilities that landlords must police (ex. busted pipes) and other areas better left to law enforcement (ex. domestic disputes). Handling guest disruptions may fall under the authority of either group, depending on the seriousness of the issue.
The lively guest who won’t stop blasting loud music from a car, the one who tramples through the neighbor’s flowers, the one who loiters in a communal space, or the one who won’t clean up after a pet are just a few examples in which tenants’ guests can quickly wear out their welcome in the neighborhood.
The good news is this person may only be around for a few hours and disappear long before the landlord is asked to arrive to mediate tension with the neighbors. The bad news is if too many complaints arise, at some point, the landlord may have to decide whether these occupants are worth the rent. With a well-written lease, some problems can be clearly resolved even without going to court.
Revisit pet rules in the lease. Let’s say the tenant doesn’t have a pet, but an unruly guest keeps bringing an equally lively dog around the property. If the rental does not allow pets, then neither tenants nor guests should have any pets on the premises. Depending on how the lease is written, if the pet has caused property damage during these visits, then the tenant can be reminded that funds to repair the damage will be taken out of a security deposit.
If the tenant and/or guest are avoiding picking up after the pet in neighboring areas, that will cost them. For example, in Orlando, not removing dog poop from another person’s private property is an $84 fine and a citation. In Austin, Texas, that same fine sextuples up to $500.
If the lease clearly spells out that no unauthorized pets are allowed on the property, the landlord may be able to evict the tenant. So either the tenant will have to start going to the guest’s home instead with the pet, or tenants risk losing their own homes altogether.
Review noise ordinances in the lease and by county. Public nuisances are taken up with the state (i.e., Texas Department of State Health Services or Florida Department of Health). Examples of public nuisances are abandoned vehicles, bright outdoor lights, criminal activity, hazardous pollution such as fireworks, high weeds, and odorous or sickening smells. A tenant allowing a guest to start a bonfire in the backyard would be an example of a public nuisance—unless the property owner has a backyard fire pit that the tenant has been allowed to use, assuming state rules and regulations are followed.
Then there are private nuisances. This includes abandoned vehicles, bright lights (ex. motion sensor lights), foul odors and garden rubbish, which usually falls on the tenant to correct. Disruptive guests usually create temporary private nuisances, such as arriving at the property while blasting loud music, parking in an unauthorized spot, or smoking illegal substances on the property.
The length of time for these offenses would have to be taken into account if law enforcement must get involved. Generally speaking, when sound measurements are considered for noise complaints, the duration should be a minimum of five consecutive minutes. The guest who arrives blasting music with bright headlights on for a couple of minutes may not be treated like the guest who is resting comfortably in the driveway with the car running and music continuously blasting.
The volume of the music should be no more than three A-weighted decibels (dBA) louder than the background noise to be considered disruptive. (As a point of reference, a military jet is 140 dB at takeoff, an ambulance siren is 100 dB, a “normal” conversation is 60 dB and a bird call at night is 40 dB.)
The time of day also matters. For example, there is more noise flexibility in the downtown entertainment area of Orlando, Florida (7 a.m. to 1:59 a.m.) versus residential or multi-use properties (7 a.m. to 10 p.m.). In a city like Austin, Texas, unreasonable noise (via sound or vibrations more than 30 feet from a vehicle) would become stricter between the hours of 10:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. Landlords should already have a section in the lease regarding loud music, especially in quieter neighborhoods.
“The city ordinance or county definitely prohibits a certain behavior,” Girling agreed. “But if the tenant violates the ordinance and the lease doesn't have [terminology stating that] the tenant shall comply with all city ordinances, now what's going to happen is the city or the county is going to issue a citation to the landlord.”
And as long as the lease is verbal, or it’s not well-written and includes language regarding following all city ordinances, landlords may end up stuck with the cost of the citation and the court costs for eviction.
Know the declarations for the condominium before creating a lease. For condominiums, landlords will also have to take into consideration the bylaws, along with the Rules and Regulations, for what will and won’t be tolerated when creating a lease.
“In Texas, [condominiums] have declarations, the bylaws are separate,” said Girling. “Texas allows condo associations to bring evictions against tenants for violating declarations, bylaws and any other rules of the association—as long as it’s in their declarations. They can also [initiate] an eviction in the event that a tenant causes damage to a common area, or refuses to pay for the repair.”
However, the condo board trying to evict occupants may create friction with a landlord. For example, if the landlord has an active case to collect unpaid rent on top of there being complaints of unruly occupants in this rental, the landlord may lose money if the tenant is evicted by the condo board before funds are collected.
Girling can relate. In a prior case, one of his clients had a $12,000 claim for unpaid rent. Meanwhile, a homeowners association was already trying to evict the tenant.
“I threatened the HOA with a lawsuit for tortious interference with contract rights,” Girling explained. “The homeowners association ended up dismissing their eviction lawsuit. If [the HOA] got their eviction first, [the HOA] could only get a judgment for possession.”
When the HOA lawsuit was dismissed, the landlord was able to proceed with his own case. For that reason, the landlord being in regular communication with the condo board, clarifying that action is already being taken to abide by the declarations and the landlord’s lease, could avoid this type of miscommunication.
Remind tenants of rules regarding roommates. If the landlord is receiving noise complaints on a consistent basis, this may mean this guest has become a roommate. And if that happens, then the landlord should remind the tenant of the initial residential count. If only one person’s name is on the lease, then it should still be one person. If it’s two, only two. And so on. If the tenant is trying to sneak the guest in as a roommate without paying additional funds, or is trying to sublet the rental to a guest, again, wording in the lease should often spell out the risk of eviction for doing so.
Is Eviction the Only Alternative? Whether the disruptions are private or public nuisances, the guest’s behavior reflects the tenant. And if the tenant will not make sure the guest behaves, eviction may be the only other option. However, only a sheriff or constable can enforce tenant eviction via court order.
Responsible tenants will do everything within their power to maintain the peace in order to have quiet enjoyment of their homes. Landlords should not have to micromanage their rentals. But if the tenant chooses not to resolve guest complaints and the guest continues with offenses like the ones above, the landlord should start the process of eviction and contact law enforcement if things get out of hand before court procedures can begin.
For nonviolent offenses, it may be easier to just wait out the leasing period so the tenant and guest will move out simultaneously. Once the occupants are gone, the landlord should make sure to complete a careful walk-through of the rental before releasing the security deposit.
Take note of any gray areas in the lease where occupants may have been unclear on how to interact on the property. Then update the lease as needed before the next occupant(s) moves in—hopefully with guests that the landlord will never need to meet.