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Rent it Right

by Janet Portman, Inman News

Q: I’m interested in a rental that describes the rent in an odd way: First, the advertisement lists the rent, then it adds “pet rent.” Is this legal? –Rigoberto R.

PetsA: It’s perfectly OK for an ad to specify that if a tenant has a pet, the rent will be a certain amount more than the stated rent (unless, of course, the property is subject to local rent control, as explained below).

The rent is the rent, whether the landlord chops it up into little pieces ($200 for the ceiling fan, $100 for keeping a dog, etc., for a total of “X” dollars in rent), or simply announces one flat sum.

That said, a few things need to be kept in mind:

1. Charging separately and willing to omit an essential service or aspect of the rental. As most landlords know, they must offer fit and habitable premises, which includes basic things such as working plumbing, heat, weatherproofing, and so on. Most landlords would never consider this — but don’t put it past the regrettable few who might offer a “working kitchen” for a separate sum, and be willing to accept a tenant’s “No, thanks, I’ll skip the kitchen.” In virtually every rental situation, a fit and habitable rental must include a functioning kitchen sink, and the law will not allow a landlord to get out of that obligation by offering an “optional” sink, available only if the tenant pays more rent.

2. When the “pet” is alleged to be a service animal. Once the tenant utters the words “service animal,” everything changes. It’s against the law (federal and state) to charge more for a service animal (an animal specially trained to assist a person with a disability). How to confirm that the animal is indeed a “service animal” is another question entirely.

3. Misleading advertising. It’s very risky business to advertise a rental as pet-friendly, state the rent in the ad, then inform inquiring tenants that the rent will be more than the ad indicated if they have a pet. Doing so may constitute false and deceptive advertising. It’s best to state from the beginning, in all ads and conversations, that the rent will be a certain amount more if the tenant has a pet approved by the landlord.

This last caveat — that landlords must approve of the pet — is crucial. It’s dangerous to imply that any tenant who’s willing to pay the extra rent can bring any pet he chooses. Careful landlords screen those pets!

4. Rent control. Landlords subject to rent control cannot tack on “pet rent” if that would put the total rent over the legal maximum allowed by the rent control ordinance.

5. Pet deposits. Some landlords charge not only pet rent, but also a separate pet deposit. This is legal as long as the total deposit is at or below the legal maximum (assuming your state has one). However, it’s a bad idea, from a practical point of view, to segregate the deposits. Here’s why: After specifying that the pet deposit will cover damage caused by the pet, the landlord may not be able to use that money for anything else.

But what if the pet is better behaved than the owner? The landlord could end up having to refund the entire pet deposit because the pet caused no damage, even though the remaining deposit won’t cover the cost of repairing damage caused by a careless human tenant. It’s better to charge the legal maximum (or as close to that as the market will bear) and have the entire pot of money available for cleaning and repairs, no matter who soiled the carpet.

See Janet Portman’s feature,  How to Negotiate a Lease Buyout.

 American Apartment Owners Association offers discounts on products and services for landlords related to your real estate investment including REAL ESTATE FORMS, tenant debt collection, tenant background checks, insurance and financing. Find out more at joinaaoa.

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  • Tammi

    Thanks for the article on pet deposits/extra rent. I allow pets that meet reference reqs, my approval, etc, with extra deposit built into the total.

    Curious–can one charge extra deposit/rent for kids? Kids have caused by far more direct and wear/tear damage in my apts than animals. NJ is a state that doesn’t allow discrimination in rentals to people with children (however, there are state limits to the number of kids in a given space). It seems that 1 adult renting is a considerably better prospect (wear and tear, etc) than a family with 2 small kids. Conceptually, could “base rent and security” be cover, for example, two adults, then things go up after that? Thanks, TR

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  • David

    Also like to add that a service animal or companion animal is exempt in some states. In Ca. where I live it is real easy to get your pet registered as a companion, eliminates a lot of head aches.

  • CurtQuayle

    How did you not have a security deposit from which you could pay for this?

  • Bonnie MacMahon

    And how many tenants that had pets and paid the extra ‘pet rent’ NOT do any damage to their/your apartment? But you still kept that rent, right? Yeah, it is greed. And I’m sorry, one cat does 3000$ worth of damage? What was it, a bob cat, lion or tiger? 3000$ bucks my ass. If you believe that I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

  • I know this is an old post, but this is worth stating: NO! Charging extra for kids is illegal because it’s discriminating based on family status under the Fair Housing Act. Better to just always charge the highest legal security deposit and refund what isn’t needed to clean the unit than to risk a lawsuit…

  • Beth a Maxwell

    I understand pet deposits and reasonable pet rent but large pet rent seems illegal. We are moving my mother into a senior residence that has CMS funding. The add said pets allowed. When she asked about pet deposit they said they had to check but they think it was 300. She has a caged bird. When she went to sign papers she was told there was a 300 pet deposit. She was ok with that but then they told her it would be an additional 300 a month rent for the bird. They waited until she had given notice at her old apt and really had no other choice. She is scheduled to move at end month. This is their first bird rental. All other tenants have cats and dogs. The amount seems outrageous. What could a caged bird do that would incur an extra 3600 a year? She had not signed anything yet. Thoughts?

  • SheilaR

    Nope, not ignorant. A tenant is liable for all damage caused by any means. If it exceeds the refundable deposit, you can use legal means to recover it. The trend now is to charge the standard full month’s refundable depisit, an additional nonrefundable “pet deposit,” plus the highly questionable “pet rent,” typically an additional fee added monthly per pet. It’s illegal to charge extra if I move in with a pack of kids with crayons, or any other assortment of people up to the occupancy limit. But we pet owners are considered fair game for this type of “pet penalty.” I’m a responsible pet owner, and if I see that in a listing, I move on to a landlord who actually welcomes us.

  • SheilaR

    Excellent point. Allowing various penalties for those with pets but not for kids is unfair, if the issue really is about damage. I’m fine with an extra refundable depisit, but the nonrefundable depisits and monthly “pet rent” is overkill.

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