Tenants’ Rights in Florida (and Responsibilities, Too)

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Tenants' Rights in FloridaBecoming a tenant involves a contract between the tenant and landlord. Their respective obligations, responsibilities and, even, expectations are a amalgam of Federal and state laws and the terms of the written lease. In Florida, the primary laws on landlord-tenant relations are set forth in Florida Statutes, §§ 83.40-83.682; in addition, Federal and state laws on Discrimination and Civil Rights may come into play.

As I have stated in previous articles on legal rights, these pieces do not in any way obviate the need for an experienced attorney. Before one signs a lease agreement and, certainly if the landlord-tenant relationship had broken down or is about to disintegrate, consulting an attorney is vital. Be aware that a rental agreement need not be in writing in Florida, an exception to the usual rule that all agreements relating to real estate be in writing. Section 83.43(7) defines a rental agreement as including “an oral agreement if for less duration than 1 year”

More important, it must be emphasized that these articles are only skimming the surface. Landlord-Tenant law is very complex and these pieces cannot explore all of the nuances.

The first step is to find an apartment and apply for a lease. Generally, by both Federal and Florida statutes, a person cannot be refused a lease because of race, religion, ethnic background, and so forth, except where the apartment or living unit is in a owner-occupied small building or house. An non-qualified applicant may be denied tenancy in a facility for senior citizens, a building operated by a religious organization or other private organizations for their members, all of which rules have more conditions and provisos at which one can shake a stick! That’s why a lawyer is necessary if there is any question!

An aside: the landlord may have a “no pets” policy. This would not allow the exclusion of a disabled person with a “service dog”; that would be a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, among others.

If a tenant is rejected because of a bad reference from a former landlord or a poor credit report, the prospective tenant is entitled to know at least the source of the negative information. The landlord does not have to give any details, if, in any event, he knows those details. You probably know the problems.

OK, you pass all the tests, jump through all the hoops, and are about to sign a lease. Under most circumstances, the term of the lease will be for a set period, usually one year but sometimes for a lesser period. Sometimes, however, the term will be “month-to-month”, “quarter-to-quarter” or even, “week-to-week”. For all practical purposes, these tenancies will effect the rights and responsibilities of the parties when the tenancy ends. We will, for these purposes, assume the lease is for one-year.

Please remember that a lease is a formal written document, perhaps standard in the locality but nonetheless drafted by the landlord or a real estate organization. It will not bend over backwards to be in your favor. Cave emptor, as we lawyer types say, always in Latin. (It allows us to charge more if we throw in a Latin phrase or two.) There may be some provisions that may be changed. Here a prospective tenant may be well served by having an attorney review the lease.

As in nearly all contracts, a court may declare provisions unconscionable and unenforceable (§ 83.45) or an attempt by the landlord to avoid liability for acts of wrongdoing, a failure to maintain the premises in a reasonable manner or in any way be an attempt to get around any statutory right given the tenant.

Generally, the obligations of the parties are set forth in the statutes. Section 83.51, Florida Statutes directs the landlord to make necessary repairs to keep the place habitable; provide for pest control services, heating (but not air conditioning), garbage and rubbish collection facilities and the like. Section 83.52 spells out corresponding obligations of the tenant in keeping the rented area clean and in reasonable shape. Obviously the most obvious obligation of the tenant is to pay rent, on time.

More and more, especially among the unmarried young, people enter into a landlord-tenant relationship with others. The co-tenant could be a current “significant other” [what our romantic census bureau calls POSSLQ – persons of opposite sex sharing living quarters] or co-workers or fellow students or just people who join to rent an apartment that would not be affordable otherwise. When this happens, the obligations of the tenants are “joint and several”, meaning that one individual’s failure to comply with the lease is imputed to all of the others. If one individual doesn’t pay his or her share of the rent, the other tenants have to make it up. If one co-tenant does an act that would justify eviction, that mis-behavior is also imputed to all co-tenants. (Usually if only one co-tenant has a behavior problem, a landlord would not want to evict everyone, especially if the rent is timely being paid, but. . ..)

For all sorts of reasons, roommate arrangements regularly turn sour. If you have shared an apartment or house, you know about roommates who play the stereo too loud, are utter and complete slobs who never wash a dish or clean up a mess, always pay their share of the rent late, have too many overnight guests, leave their filthy clothes on the floor or dining table, or otherwise drive you nuts. If the situation gets bad enough, you’ll likely end up arguing with your roommates about who should leave. And in fact, roommates can make all kinds of informal agreements about splitting rent, occupying bedrooms, and sharing chores. Your landlord isn’t bound by these agreements, and has no power to enforce them.

If you just cannot live without your significant other or need to replace a co-tenant or wish to add a new tenant, the landlord must give approval. The landlord may well require a new lease naming new roomies as a tenant, may insist on raising the rent and may request a higher security deposit.

Skip ahead to the time when the lease is about to be over. Two issues are very important: Does any kind of notice have to be given by the tenant, or the landlord for that matter, to conclude the lease? What happens to that security deposit that was given long ago?

As to the first, like so many things, the answer is, “It depends.” Assuming that the lease is to run it’s course and the termination is not the result of a breach of the landlord-tenant obligations, either because, for example, the former has failed to keep the facility in reasonable repair or the latter has become a nuisance to other tenants or hasn’t paid the rent, much depends on the length of the original lease or the nature of the tenancy. (It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss breaches of the lease and what each party can do to either evict the tenant, justify the non-payment of rent, allow the tenant to terminate the lease or take other action. Call your lawyer if any real difficulties appear to be imminent.)

The law provides exhaustive provisions on what kind of notice must be given upon lease termination. Moreover, the lease itself may require, and usually does, the tenant to give advance notice to the landlord that the former will be leaving on or before the stated termination of the lease. Read the lease carefully; there are consequences for holding over, including substantial increases in rent. If you give the proper notice the termination itself should not be a contentious issue. On the other had, the return of the security deposit is often a hassle and cause for dispute. It need not be.

When the premises is vacated, upon lease termination, the landlord must return the security deposit within 15 days, or must, within 30 days advise the tenant that all or part of the deposit is being retained because of damages to the apartment or some other reason. The tenant then has 15 days to agree or refute the landlord’s claim. If the parties cannot agree, then it’s off to court, likely a small claims court, because it will always be the tenant making the claim and the small claims court is the ideal and least expensive forum.

Damages to the property must be more than normal “wear and tear”; they wouldn’t involve painting or normal carpet cleaning because that’s what the landlord would do when a new tenant comes in the property. If an appliance must be replaced because it has worn out, that’s the landlord’s responsibility. If the tenant or a guest cause damage by unreasonable carelessness or deliberate misuse, however, the damages will be deducted from the deposit. You must leave a rental at least as clean as it was when you moved in. Because “normal wear and tear” can be interpreted many different ways, disputes often arise. The bottom line is that the better you itemize and document the condition of your unit when you move in, the better case you’ll have against a landlord who tries to gouge you on the way out.

There are many pitfalls and dangers in renting an apartment but, remember, the vast majority of tenancies proceed without difficulty or dispute.

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