How to Landlord Legally

Reviewed by Alan A. Alexander, CPM®, senior vice president of Woodmont Real Estate Service, Belmont, Calif.

Every Landlord’s Legal Guide. Marcia Stewart, Janet Portman, and Ralph Warner. 496 pp. Nolo Press, 1996. $29.95.

Before I read this book–the three authors include two lawyers–I was prepared for a self-serving, better-call-your-attorney approach that would provide the reader just enough information to suggest that the only solution was to consult one’s lawyer. I was in for a pleasant surprise.

This book is a must for apartment building owners, on-site managers, and property managers, no matter how long they’ve been in the industry. With regard to apartment management, the authors have taken great care to suggest a “firm but fair” philosophy that isn’t altruistic but rather a “commonsense, make-it-easy-on-yourself” approach. They have considered the law in all states and, where possible, have pointed out the differences.

For me, the most valuable parts of the book are the examples that distinguish between run-of-the-mill problems and serious problems that are likely to cause the owners or property manager severe headaches or legal action.

This book isn’t written in legalese. It contains straightforward, easy-to-understand, critical information for the effective management and leasing of apartment buildings, no matter the size.

The book starts with the issues of tenant screening and proper compliance with fair housing laws. The authors provide not only sample forms of rental agreements and leases but also tear-out copies of the forms and, for the sophisticated, a computer disk that allows the reader to modify the forms to fit any specific situation. (The authors point out the need to consult an attorney if the forms are altered to any great extent.)

Even though setting the rent isn’t a legal issue, except in rent-controlled cities, the authors give excellent advice on setting rents to maximize the owner’s occupancy and income and on avoiding the common problem of asking too much rent and having long vacancies.

There’s an excellent section on the hiring of property managers, something that isn’t all that familiar to small owners, who need all the help they can get. The authors provide hints and sample agreements for the protection of all involved.

There’s a chapter on co-tenants and assignments, a very difficult situation that’s put in proper perspective by the authors, with a lot of good suggestions on how to meet the tenant’s needs while protecting the property owner. Additional chapters give suggestions on the landlord’s duties relative to dangerous conditions, criminal acts, environmental hazards, and day-to-day maintenance of the premises. Each chapter presents the legal side of the issues and gives very specific, practical ideas on how to deal with the potential problems and avoid legal action.

Toward the end of the book, there’s a chapter on how to deal with problems without having to hire a lawyer. The final chapter gives advice on how to hire a lawyer, if necessary, and what type of fees one should expect, how to minimize the expenses, and how to deal with the lawyer should you have problems with either the fees or the service.

Although I’ve been in the business of owning and managing apartments for the past 30 years, I found this book a top-notch reminder of many things I thought I knew well but didn’t. This is an excellent how-to book that will save the reader time, money, and aggravation.

Landlord’s 10 Biggest Mistakes

  1. Being in a hurry to fill a vacancy and not properly checking tenant’s credit history, references, and background.
  2. Not getting all the important terms of the tenancy in writing.
  3. Failing to establish a clear, fair system of setting, collecting, holding, and returning security deposits.
  4. Not staying on top of repair and maintenance needs and failing to make repairs when requested.
  5. Letting your tenants and property be an easy mark for a criminal—-or renting to one.
  6. Violating a tenant’s privacy.
  7. Failing to disclose and remedy environmental hazards such as lead—-even those you didn’t cause of know about.
  8. Hiring the wrong manager or providing inadequate supervision
  9. Having inadequate liability and other types of property insurance.
  10. Using a lawyer when you could do it yourself.

Adapted from Every Landlord’ Legal Guide.

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This post was contributed exclusively for REALTOR® Magazine.

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