The Implied Warranty Of Habitability Part 1: What Is It?

In simple terms, the implied warranty of habitability is like any other warranty, i.e., one person to a transaction is giving a warranty to the other that the product or service in question will meet or perform to certain standards. When a car dealer gives the buyer a warranty for example, the dealer is saying that the car will function at a certain standard and, if not, the dealer will repair at the dealer’s cost.

In landlord-tenant law, a landlord, whether he knows it or not, is extending a similar warranty to the tenant every time he enters into a residential lease. In California, for example, the landlord’s warranty of habitability exists in every residential lease whether it’s written in the lease or not. How can that be? Because the law implies the existence of the warranty regardless of whether the lease language contains it. In other words, the law engrafts the warranty-writes it in invisible ink-right into every residential lease. The courts will enforce that implied warranty even if the terms of the lease don’t actually include it.

So what is the implied warranty of habitability? It is a warranty, a promise if you will, by the landlord to the tenant given at the time of the lease that the rental property meets certain minimum standards of habitability, that the rental is fit for human living, and that the landlord will do repairs, at his cost, if the rental falls below those standards during the tenancy.

The statutes that define the implied warranty of habitability contain a laundry list of requirements with which a rental property must comply. In summary, the implied warranty requires that a residential rental property have:

1. Effective waterproofing and weather protection;

2. A water supply that produces hot and cold running water and is connected to a sewage disposal system;

3. Plumbing, gas or electrical facilities according to code and in good working condition;

4. Adequate electrical lighting, heating, natural light and ventilation;

5. Adequate sanitation, trash storage and removal, no infestation, and the common area and grounds maintained in a sanitary condition;

6. No general dilapidation. Floors, stairways, and railings must be maintained in good repair;

7. No structural hazards including deteriorated or inadequate foundations, floor supports, vertical supports, roof or horizontal supports;

8. Adequate and working toilet, bathtub or shower, and kitchen sink;

9. A deadbolt lock on all swinging entry doors that extends at least 13/16th of an inch beyond the strike plate and into the door jamb;

10. Adequate exit facilities, fire-resisting or fire extinguishing systems, and the building, equipment, grounds, and vegetation properly maintained so as to not cause a fire, health or safety hazard;

11. No nuisance as the term is defined by law; and

12. At least one usable telephone jack and inside telephone wiring kept in good working order.

The rental property must comply with the implied warranty of habitability at the time of the lease and the landlord must repair all subsequent dilapidations that render the property untenable, except for those conditions caused by the tenant. The tenant is also required to keep the condition of his portion of the premises clean and sanitary. The tenant must properly use all electrical, gas, and plumbing fixtures. The tenant must also use the living, sleeping, cooking, and dining areas as designed and intended. If the tenant fails to do so, the landlord is relieved of the obligation to repair.

If the tenant makes a legitimate complaint relating to one of the categories listed above, good rental property management requires that the landlord fix the problem. However, it is also good practice to keep all receipts evidencing the repair and have the tenant acknowledge, in writing, that the condition has been adequately repaired. I have seen tenants raise habitability claims at trial respecting conditions that the landlord previously repaired. If you’re a landlord, you’ll want to be able to prove that you completed the repair about which the tenant complains.

Often times, a tenant who foresees a problem with paying the rent will begin complaining to you about the condition of the premises. The tenant may also complain to the city’s housing authority. The tenant is doing this to discourage the landlord from filing an eviction case when the inevitable nonpayment of rent occurs or to set up a breach of the implied warranty of habitability defense to any later eviction action. A tenant may also complain to the city in order to set up a retaliatory eviction defense should the landlord later seek to evict. Lastly, a common tenant practice is to complain about the property’s condition to justify blowing out of a term lease.

I recommend to clients that they respond to the tenant’s complaint, make repairs as needed and document. But always insist upon the rent; don’t be reluctant to serve a 3-day notice, file an eviction case, or sue a tenant who has abandoned a term lease just because the tenant made complaints about the property. Experienced landlord attorneys see the habitability issue all the time. We know how to deal with it at trial. (I will not disclose how in this article because I don’t want tenants to read it and better prepare their cases). In my next article on the implied warranty of habitability, I will write about the consequences to the landlord of breaching the warranty.

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Common Issues In Rental Property Management: Tenant Application And Screening

I recently walked out of court with a client after a trial. Although we had won, my client was shaking his head in self-blame, interrogating himself about why he had ever rented to this tenant. Although my client’s ordeal was largely over-we had obtained judgment against the tenant for possession and $8,000.00 in rent, costs, and attorney’s fees-the judgment was not so much a measure of victory as it was a measure of loss, a public reminder of how much my client had allowed a bad tenant to get into him, how much he was now out of pocket for subsidizing the living expense and broken promises of a liar.

Not a month goes by in my practice that I don’t hear clients utter the same phrase-sometimes in more colorful language-at least ten times: “I never should have rented to this guy. I never should have rented to this guy.” In the case mentioned above, after the tenant fell behind and my client started looking into his background, he learned from a previous landlord that the tenant had a prior eviction. At the time of our trial, the tenant was also under indictment for mortgage fraud and had a prior criminal conviction for possession of counterfeit government bonds.

My curiosity piqued, I did my own superficial background check on the tenant and found that, since 1995, this particular tenant had amassed six eviction judgments in his real name and two more under an assumed name, a total of eight evictions in just fifteen years. So how did this tenant-from-hell wind up in my client’s rental property? The need to ask the question is even more confounding when one considers that the rental was a new build, a four-bedroom house, rental price $3,200/ month, nice neighborhood, the kind of place that many qualified applicants would be happy to call home. My client didn’t need bodies. What was the reason, then, that my client’s rental property became home to The Convict and Serial Evictee?

Easy. My client didn’t screen. He didn’t verify the application nor did he run credit. Why? Because the tenant had made such a convincing appearance. He was mature, friendly, a good conversationalist, wore nice clothes, drove an expensive car, had a pretty girlfriend, and told a nice story about needing a house to start a family. The tenant also looked good on paper. He was, in short, an accomplished con man. Convinced that he had found the right man, my client skipped the verification process and signed a lease. And-when the rent started dribbling in, late, and the bad checks and broken promises outnumbered the timely payments-he soon came to regret it.

Every landlord-tenant relationship must begin with the same thing: a thorough application. Get a form application online, at Office Depot, or from your nearby landlord association. Just make sure that the application asks for the applicant’s full name, driver’s license number, social security number, and the last five years of home addresses. Most importantly, verify the information. Make the tenant show you his driver’s license and social security card. This information will also help out collection efforts later should you wind up getting a money judgment against the tenant.

The application should include current and past employment information for five years, banking information, and vehicle information. Make the tenant verify the information on the application by producing three recent pay stubs, three recent bank account statements, and a current title for any vehicles. Some landlords even require two or three years of tax returns. The application should also include references-the most recent landlords if possible-and emergency contacts. This information will provide essential information about the tenant and will also come in handy later should you ever have to collect a judgment against the tenant.

The next step is to run the applicant’s credit. The reports that you order up should include a combined credit report (i.e. a compilation report from all three major credit reporting agencies), an eviction and civil records search, a criminal database search, and employment and rental verification. You may charge the tenant the actual cost of the background check not to exceed $42.00. Sometimes the tenant, rather than pay the fee, will offer up his own credit report. Don’t accept it; get one of your own.

The report will provide the information that you’ll need to make an informed decision about the prospective tenant. You’ll also be able to compare the report with the application and draw a conclusion about the prospective tenant’s propensity for truth telling. The purpose of the report is not only to assess the prospective tenant’s financial capacity and creditworthiness. You also want to weed out the liars. Take a pass on any prospective tenant that supplies inaccurate information, refuses to provide information, or who has recent eviction judgments.

I’m writing this article at the end of October 2010. In just this month, I have worked on seven eviction cases where the tenant had an eviction judgment within the last two years. That’s just my practice, this month, and seven cases that I know about (i.e. where I learned about the prior evictions from my clients). There may have been others. The point is that bad tenants abound and you need to protect yourself from them.

Bear in mind some characteristics that I’ve discovered about tenants with recent evictions. First, they’ve learned a little something about the system. In other words, they know how to delay. Second, they don’t fear the system. They’re not afraid of court, judges, lawyers, the sheriff. They know the time periods and they know how to plan. Also, their credit is already wrecked so they don’t fear the hits to their credit that an eviction judgment and money judgment will bring. Trust me, you don’t want these people unloading a moving truck in front of your rental.

The deadbeat tenant usually has a string of financial victims. He’s just trying to make you the next one. Whether that happens is up to you. Remember, though, that a prior landlord paid an attorney to take an eviction case through to a reportable judgment so that he could warn the world about the tenant. If you fail to screen, you are effectively nullifying that suffering and cost borne by the prior landlord. Don’t make the past irrelevant, screen.

Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back Into The Real Estate Market: Congress Amends Obama Tenant Protection Law To Hurt Real Estate Investment

Remember the trumpeted financial reform bill that Congress passed in late July? You know the one, the new round of regulations that would abolish greed, protect us from Wall Street, the slap-on-the-wrist political payback for the bailouts, the kind of major legislation that results in hours of cable news face time for politicians standing in front of too many flags.

Not noticed among all of the pomp surrounding the law’s passage was a small provision within it pertaining to, oddly enough, state landlord-tenant law. Congress must have calculated that, while it was burdening even the most honest financial institutions with new regulations, it would be “germane” to take a shot at the real estate investor as well.

Whether the “financial reform” law delivers on all the windy promises or, more likely, is just another set of expensive regulatory and compliance headaches for law abiding firms that didn’t get bailout money, will have to await a future article. Tucked away inside the bill, however, and germane to this article, was an amendment to President Obama’s Protecting Tenants At Foreclosure Act.

If you read my June 15, 2010 post, I wrote about the Act at length. One of my criticisms was that the Act failed to define “Notice of Foreclosure”, a critical term for deciding whether a real estate investor at foreclosure purchased a tenant-occupied property subject to the tenant’s existing term lease. Prior to the Obama law, the answer was nearly always “no”, the new investor bought the property free and clear of all junior encumbrances, including leases, which were extinguished by the foreclosure sale.

Thus, the new investor knew when bidding that he could buy a tenant-occupied property and “flip” it, i.e. fix it up and offer a renovated and vacant property to the market in short order. Because “flippers” sell their properties at fire sale prices, the new family coming in could often times obtain the property with equity already in it. It is from this process of fresh investment and profitable transactions that the real estate market digs itself out of a recessionary hole with the resulting appreciation in values being a tide that lifts everyone’s boat.

Under pre-Obama law, the new investor had no reason to be concerned about tenant occupancy because he knew that the foreclosure sale wiped out the lease. Obama’s blow-hard Protecting Tenants At Foreclosure Act changed that. Now, a real estate investor buys at foreclosure subject to any existing term lease. (All other leases require a needlessly long 90-day notice to terminate).

Thus, if a tenant has a term lease with ten months remaining on it at the time of foreclosure, the tenant gets to stay for that ten months even if the lease came after the deed of trust foreclosed upon. In other words, the real estate investor is stuck. He has no way of knowing prior to the foreclosure sale whether the tenant has a month-to-month lease requiring a 90-day notice to terminate or a term lease with God knows how much time left on it.

The result is that investors will pass on tenant-occupied properties leaving the bank to credit bid and add to its glut of inventory of foreclosed properties or investors will lower their bids to take into account the investment uncertainty. Either way, the law’s result is the same, it slows recovery by either keeping fresh money out of the foreclosure process or it contributes to downward pressure on the real estate market because foreclosed properties will not realize their full bid potential. The law was completely unnecessary-and nothing more than political window dressing and pandering to the more numerous tenant voter-because existing state law already adequately protected the rights of tenants. 

Back to the language of the Obama law. Whether a term lease survived foreclosure depended upon whether it was entered into before “Notice of the Foreclosure”. However, Congress failed to define “Notice of Foreclosure” in the original text of the law. Congress fixed-for lack of a better word-that problem in the financial reform bill on July 21, 2010.

The term “Notice of Foreclosure” was critical to the law’s reach. If Congress defined “Notice of Foreclosure” to mean earlier in the foreclosure process, i.e. closer to the underlying default by the prior property owner, such definition would better serve the real estate investor since it would mean that fewer term leases would qualify and, as to those that did, less time would remain on them after foreclosure.

If, however, Congress defined “Notice of Foreclosure” further out, say closer to the actual foreclosure sale, such definition would be better for tenants because it would bring more term leases within the ambit of the law and such leases would likely have more time left on them after the foreclosure.

Would anyone like to guess which option Congress and the President chose? You guessed it. Congress chose the latter, determining in the fictional world of politics that the tenant does not get “Notice of Foreclosure” until the moment of the actual foreclosure sale.

In reality, the tenant knows about the foreclosure months before the sale. Also, the tenant doesn’t get notice of the foreclosure at the time of the property’s auction since the tenant isn’t present for it. Thus, Congress chose to define “Notice of Foreclosure” at the very instant in time where the tenant doesn’t get notice of the foreclosure. Since the law was political from its inception, however, it shouldn’t be surprising that logic and fact as considerations finished dead last in its wording. The effect of the Notice of Foreclosure definition is that any term lease entered into before the moment that the trustee bangs his gavel is enforceable against the new investor and the property is burdened with it.

Congress didn’t bother to clarify the more looming ambiguity in the law, namely, whether the tenant with a month-to-month lease must pay rent during the 90-day notice period required to terminate his tenancy. Since the law is a political sop for the tenant voter base, it follows that the law won’t even pretend to be fair to real estate investors. After all, Congress and the President instructing tenants to pay rent would ruin the political ambitions of the Obama law.