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Real Estate Today

Neophyte Landlord Needs Inside Information

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Robert S. Griswold | Steven R. Kellman | Ted Smith
6-January-2002 Sunday

This column on issues confronting renters and landlords is written by Counselor of Real Estate and Certified Property Manager Robert Griswold, host of Real Estate Today! with Robert Griswold (10 a.m. Saturdays on AM1130 - KSDO radio, or on the Internet at www.retodayradio.com), and by attorneys Steven R. Kellman, director of the Tenants' Legal Center, and Ted Smith, principal in a law firm representing landlords.
 

QUESTION: I am a new landlord and have heard horror stories about tenants who take advantage of novice landlords. What are the most common actions taken by a tenacious tenant to forestall eviction for nonpayment of rent and how can I avoid them?

ANSWER : Smith: There are professional tenants out there who are very adept at maneuvering the legal system when it comes to renting and eviction. These tenants from hell use a variety of techniques. Some have legal training and know how to work the system. Others set up illegal drug dealing or gang activities in the premises. There are no guarantees, but you can minimize your exposure to these types of prospective tenants by making sure you carefully prescreen each and every applicant with a thorough review of rental history, credit and income.

Watch for traps and don't be set up. Common frauds include stolen Social Security numbers, other identity theft, phony employer or a friend or relative posing as the former apartment manager to give a positive reference.

By careful and patient screening, problems can be avoided in this area.

Innocent bystander

Recently I was staying with a friend who was renting a one- bedroom apartment. The apartment was entirely in her name and she was the sole applicant on the lease agreement and was the only one who paid rent. Thus, when she stopped paying rent, the two of us were evicted. I understood why I was included on the eviction, but now there is a judgment in both our names for almost $2,000.

I am trying to find out if I am legally responsible for this unpaid amount if this was never even my apartment. The agency that is attempting to collect on the judgment sent me a copy of the document and somehow, this must have been included in the eviction, because both of our signatures are on it. What can I do now?

Kellman: All residents living in a rental may be included in an eviction proceeding. Only the tenant who signed a rental contract should be held liable for the rent or attorneys fees as per that lease. All others may be removed from the property with a judgment against them for the eviction but without the monetary liability as per that contract since they did not sign it.

The problem is that you probably did not correctly respond to the eviction lawsuit to protect your rights. In landlord tenant law, tenants who do not properly protect and defend their rights will surely lose them. It is not clear from your question what document you say has your signature on it, but if you did not sign anything, then that should have been brought up in court in your defense of the case.

If you did not file the necessary papers to defend the case, you probably lost that case by default. There is a proceeding (called a motion) that may undo that default judgment and allow you to reopen the case. Unless this motion is filed within a certain time, it will be too late and your right to have the case reopened will be lost. See an attorney right away to see if such a motion is available for you.

No littering

I have rented an apartment since 1988. The plumbing in the eight- unit building (built in 1960s) is old and faulty. This summer my toilet repeatedly backed up. When I complained, the landlord claimed I had been throwing kitty litter down the toilet and served me with a notice to quit or get rid of the cats. At my own expense I had the toilet repaired. The plumbers signed statements of finding no kitty litter in my toilet or pipes.

I removed the cats after I checked my lease, which stipulated no animals without prior permission. However, there are two other apartments with animals. The occupants say they got permission to keep the animals while the landlord has written me that the building is not available for housing animals.

I feel he is bullying me and retaliating for my complaints about the decrepit plumbing. I want to bring my cats back, but cannot get the landlord to speak with me. He has refused mediation also. What can I do?

Griswold: The landlord has a legitimate concern that kitty litter may have been an issue if your toilet is the only one that is continually backing up. While the plumber states that they failed to find any kitty litter in the toilet or pipes, that does not mean that you were not at fault in some other manner.

Regarding your concern that the landlord is singling you out for making complaints, it is important to know that landlords have the legal right to change their policies at any point in time as long as they give proper legal notice. A landlord's changes in rental policies can include the acceptance or refusal to accept animals or set any parameters, limitations or rules concerning animals as long as the policies are not arbitrary or discriminatory.

Since your animals apparently are not service, assistance or companion animals prescribed by a medical provider, then your landlord is well within his rights to ask you to honor your lease, which you agree prohibits animals. The fact that other tenants have animals does not necessarily mean that the landlord is arbitrary or discriminating against you.

For example, the other tenants may have a legal right to circumvent the landlord's "no animals" policy if the animals are service, assistance or companion animals.

Under privacy laws, your landlord should not discuss other tenant's personal business, including any medical condition or other legal basis for allowing them to have an animal. Of course, a landlord should always be prepared to demonstrate to the court that there is a legitimate business purpose for management practices, if challenged.

Therefore, unless you have very specific facts that clearly show that the landlord is being retaliatory, arbitrary or discriminatory in prohibiting you from keeping your animals, I suggest that you either reluctantly accept the landlord's no-animals policy or seek another landlord that accepts animals.

Your suggestion of mediation is fine but clearly the landlord is under no obligation to participate unless he feels that it would be mutually beneficial.

Kellman: A landlord may have a no-pets rule if it is clearly set out in the agreement or otherwise agreed to by the tenant. Such a rule must be enforced equally as to all residents. The landlord should not allow some tenants to have pets while prohibiting others from having them.

If the landlord allows some tenants to have pets, he may have waived the no-pets rule for all the other tenants who want pets, also. If other tenants can have cats, you should be able to have one, too. Assistance animals (such as a guide dog for the visually impaired) may generally be kept regardless of a no-pet rule.

As to the plumbing problem, you may have proven that it was not your fault and you even went above and beyond your duty by fixing that plumbing system at your expense. The landlord should be very happy with you.

However, if the landlord feels that your complaints are unwelcome, he cannot treat you harshly by reducing services, limiting your use of the premises or threatening to evict you since that would be seen as retaliatory, which is improper.


IF YOU'RE A TENANT OR LANDLORD, the authors stand ready to answer your questions in this column, although letters cannot be answered individually. Write them at: Rental Roundtable, Homes Section, San Diego Union-Tribune, P.O. Box 120191, San Diego, CA, 92112-0191. Or you may e-mail them at rgriswold.sdut@retodayradio.com

Copyright Union-Tribune Publishing Co.

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Robert Griswold and the Real Estate Today! radio show strongly support the intent and the letter of all federal and state fair housing laws.  As a reminder to all owners and managers of real estate, note that all real estate advertised is subject to the Federal Fair Housing Act, which makes it illegal to advertise "any preference, limitation, discrimination because of race, color, national origin or ancestry, religion, sex, physical disability, or familial status, or  intention to make any such preference, limitation or discrimination." Additional state and/or local fair housing laws may also apply.  Be sure to inform all persons that all dwellings offered or advertised are on an equal opportunity basis.

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Revised and Updated - Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Robert S. Griswold, CRE, CPM, CCIM, PCAM, GRI, ARM
Griswold Corporate Center
Griswold Real Estate Management, Inc.
5703 Oberlin Drive, Suite 300
San Diego, CA 92121-1743
Phone: (858) 597-6100
Fax: (858) 597-6161

Email: rgriswold.ret@retodayradio.com

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