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NEWS | Jan. 7, 2014

Legally speaking: Understanding the landlord-tenant relationship

By Brandi Smith and Capt. Alan Serrano 633rd Air Base Wing Judge Advocate

Most disputes between landlords and tenants are caused by one or both of the parties' failure to meet its obligations related to the rental property.

There are several steps tenants can take to ensure tenancy is peaceful and dispute-free as possible. Service members and their families should seek legal advice anytime they are concerned about a lease, or if a dispute arises during their tenancy. The Joint Base Langley-Eustis Legal Office is available to assist clients with such matters, including disputes between military families and privatized housing.

Best practices for Service member tenants

Before signing the lease, read it thoroughly and ask questions when needed. Never assume the landlord will allow tenants to do things not in the lease, such as have a pet or paint the walls. Always seek legal advice if concerned or unsure of what the lease provisions say. It is best to clarify any questions before signing the lease to avoid being locked in to unfavorable terms or surprised when an issue arises.

When reading the lease, look for military clauses that conform to the Service Members Civil Relief Act (SCRA). This clause protects military members from possibly forfeiting their security deposit and owing future rent upon receipt of Permanent Change of Station (PCS) or Temporary Duty (TDY) orders during tenancy.

When making changes to the lease, ask the landlord to revise the lease or create an addendum. When signing a lease, the military member's name must be on the lease to obtain full protection under SCRA. Spouses should not be the sole signatory on a lease. Also, when signing leases with non-military roommates, be aware that SCRA protections do not apply to civilians. While the military member may receive orders and sever the lease, the civilian may not be able to do the same.

During move-in, take photos of the property before bringing in furniture. Pay particular attention to existing damage during walkthrough inspections, and be sure to retain copies of the inspection. Good photos will serve as a reference for the tenant and the landlord should a dispute about the condition of the property arise in the future. Additionally, take photos of personal property after moving in, and obtain renter's insurance. These photos will help renters with any claims for damaged or stolen property covered by insurance.

Upon moving out, again take photos of the property and keep in records, as these photos could be useful when disputing a deduction to security deposits for damages to the property. Ask for all move-out inspection documentation in writing from the landlord, including an itemized list explaining deductions from the security deposit. Always provide a proper forwarding address to receive the deposit.

Maintaining the property

A Service member tenant can be a "good" tenant by adhering to a few basic principles to ensure that he or she is not the cause of a maintenance dispute.

First, strive to maintain the property in the same condition it was upon moving in. Normal "wear-and-tear," such as the discoloration of window blinds from sunlight, is expected during any tenancy -- therefore, by law, tenants are not financially responsible for it.

However, damage to the property, such as holes in walls, is not considered normal "wear-and-tear," and tenants are responsible for any damage to the property they cause. Naturally, accidents occasionally occur, and incidental damage is inevitable. When this happens, many tenants are afraid or embarrassed to tell their landlord about the damage, and simply let the landlord discover the damages during the walk-through inspection on the last day of the lease. Do not be afraid contact the landlord about the damage before moving out. Most landlords will appreciate the honesty, and may allow tenants to fix the damage or may simply fix it for free.

Second, some leases include landscaping as part of required maintenance. The key to being a "good" tenant is maintaining the property in a way the landlord would want it to be maintained. Most landlords expect tenants to cut the grass or trim shrubbery at least a few times a month. However, ask the landlord for clarification if unsure of their expectations. It is always best to take photos of the property upon moving in, and ensure yard care requirements are included in the lease document.

Finally, notify the landlord when something breaks as a result from normal daily use, such as a sink or toilet. Tenants are normally not responsible for this type of maintenance, but could be responsible for further damage caused by failing to notify the landlord of the issue in a timely fashion. Common examples include leaks in the ceiling or roof. If something breaks in the property, notify the landlord quickly to give them the opportunity to fix it before the damage gets worse. Notify the landlord of any damage well before moving out.

Landlord-tenant relationships can become strained by preventable events. Service member tenants can achieve a good relationship with their landlord by respecting the landlord's rights, meeting his or her obligations under the lease, and communicating with the landlord when he or she has questions or concerns. If a dispute does arise, the Service member should do their best to resolve it amicably. If no resolution seems possible, or if a tenant is unsure on what to do, seek legal advice. Service members should contact the JBLE Legal Office at 764-3277 on Langley Air Force Base, or 878-3031 on Fort Eustis for assistance.