In the spring of 2014, a news story about a landlord in California garnered a lot of attention. The landlords had sent his tenants a notice that said each tenant needed to prove that their income was at or above a certain amount and have a certain credit score or else they would have to move out.
Angry tenants spoke to the press and to their attorneys as the story grew.
Interviews with lawyers and other landlord/tenant experts immediately pointed out that the landlord was in error. A few days later, the landlord sent out another letter to tenants asking them to disregard the earlier notice.
Landlord Legal: Can Landlords Change Rules Mid Lease?
We’re a tenant screening company and not lawyers… that is why we asked our friends at Avvo if they would shed light on this question.
Listen below as we discuss with Esther Sirotnik of Avvo’s General Counsel on this subject.
If you need professional advice, we highly suggest Avvo’s online directory as a cost-effective resource.
After getting Esther’s take, let’s go back to the original story from California and see how it applies.
So what was wrong with the landlord’s request? Income is not a protected class and a landlord has the right to set up any approval criteria as long as it doesn’t cross over into discrimination.
Smoking, criminal history, and several other distinctions are not protected either, so why did the landlord catch so much heat for his notice?
The reason the landlord got into such hot water with tenants and the landlord/tenant community at large is that he attempted to change the conditions of the tenancy during an existing lease agreement.
He was trying to re-screen existing tenants and impose income levels and credit scores that were not previously established. In other words, the landlord tried to change the terms of a contract while it was still in effect.
The question, can landlords change the rules in mid-lease, has a simple answer—no.
Why Can’t Landlords Change The Rules?
It may seem like the landlord should be able to change the rules for something because they own the property and should be able to switch things up when they want to, as long as the rule change is fair, right? Wrong.
A lease agreement is a contract, which means that two parties come together on an agreed-upon exchange of benefits for both sides. Landlords and tenants sign a lease agreement and agree to do certain tasks, perform certain duties and also give up some things in the process.
If a change in a rule affects the terms and conditions of the contract, that can be a problem. Any rule change that affects the tenant’s wallet or how they live in the rental property day-to-day can be considered a change in the terms and conditions of that lease agreement contract. Landlords simply cannot change that when they want.
Enacting Rule Changes Properly
There are ways that landlords and tenants can make changes to the lease agreement. This is known as a lease addendum and it means that the landlord and tenant both agree to amend a certain part of the contract they signed.
A lease addendum gives the tenant some power in approving or negotiating the change, because it cannot take effect unless both parties agree and sign. The change only occurs if they both enter into that agreement.
An example of this might be that in the original lease agreement, the landlord promises to pay for basic cable as part of the rental agreement. The tenant wants to get a satellite TV service installed but it is much more expensive.
The landlord and tenant reach an agreement that the landlord will no longer provide or pay for basic cable and that the tenant can get satellite TV installed at the rental property and will assume all costs for that service. The lease addendum would outline these new terms and both parties would sign the addendum.
5 Common Changes Landlords Try to Enact Mid-Lease
Inexperienced landlords often try to affect changes in mid-lease because they don’t know any better. Often it is a reaction to a current tenant problem, such as making new rules about parking, restricting access to a property amenity like a pool or clubhouse or imposing additional requirements for yard maintenance. Here are 5 common changes landlord try to enact mid-lease:
- Raising the rent before the current lease agreement expires
- Changing the late rent date or late fees
- Charging tenants to use a previously free amenity, like the pool or parking space
- Adjusting lost key or lockout policies
- Imposing arbitrary rules based on tenant behavior that doesn’t violate the lease agreement
While there are dozens of things a landlord may want to change, it’s important for both tenants and landlords to know the proper way to usher in a new policy or rule. It can be done, it just needs to be done right rather than in the middle of a current lease agreement.
When Can Landlords Implement Rule Changes?
Landlords can implement rule changes when a tenant’s lease agreement expires. In other words, landlords should notify the tenant of the upcoming change well before it’s time to renew the lease agreement so the tenant will know of the change before signing the new lease.
If the tenant is in a month-to-month lease agreement, the landlord must provide sufficient notice to the tenant of the change—generally a 30 day notice although some states may allow for longer or shorter notification periods.
Rules can also be established for new, incoming applicants that can choose to abide by them when signing the lease agreement.
So the California landlord cannot make the changes he requested for his current tenants, but he can impose income and credit limits on applicants and future tenants as long as it is written in the lease agreement and is not violating any state or local laws.
If a landlord wants to implement a major change, the two ways to do so are via a lease addendum or waiting until the current lease agreement expires.
Can a landlord raise rent after the lease is signed?
A landlord cannot raise rent immediately after the lease is signed. They must wait until that lease ends.
If a tenant signs a one year lease than after 11 months a landlord typically will issue a rent renewal letter.
At that moment the landlord will inform the tenant that the rent will be increasing. Once the 12-month lease is up at that point the landlord can increase the rent.