Are Landlord`s `House Rules` Illegal?

by Janet Portman, Inman News

Q: When we moved in, our landlord gave us a one-page, yearlong lease that had just the basics (apartment number, rent, move-in date). It also had a paragraph saying that we agreed to abide by the “House Rules,” which could be changed at any time. The rules covered who could park in the lot; use of the laundry and other facilities; fees for late rent; and charges for replacing lost keys.

No swimmingLast week, our landlord gave us a new set of rules. They’ve drastically reduced the pool hours (no weekday hours, which is the only time we can swim), are charging for parking and have doubled the late fees. We feel that the landlord shouldn’t be able to impose these significant changes mid-lease. –Walter and Dot H.

A: House rules are meant to be the place where landlords explain the details of living on their property. Properly used, house rules cover “housekeeping” issues such as the use of the laundry room, how to pick up packages, where to place recyclables, and proper etiquette when using common areas, such as the pool.

Leases and rental agreements typically refer to house rules in a clause saying only that the tenant will abide by them, and that they can be changed without notice. Because the rules cover rather mundane and relatively unimportant issues, most tenants wouldn’t consider it “unfair” for the landlord to revise them. Whether you have to put your recycling in the basement or on the curb probably doesn’t matter much to you, for example, as long as it gets hauled away.

But house rules are not the place to set and change major policies. A major policy is one that most tenants would consider when deciding whether to rent the property in the first place. Put another way, if a policy covers something that most tenants and landlords would expect to find in a lease, it doesn’t belong in the house rules.

Placed against this standard, how do your landlord’s rules measure up?

It appears that he is taking advantage of the inherent flexibility of house rules to make changes to policies that properly belong in an amended rental agreement (for tenants renting month to month) or in a new lease (for tenants like you who have the protection of a stated rental term).

For example, if the pool hours have been cut back so much that you can’t realistically use it, that’s about the same as renting at a property without a pool — something you would have considered before committing to this Application photoproperty.

Most tenants would also factor in parking fees when deciding where to live; if the fees are too high, tenants might look elsewhere.

A late-fee policy definitely doesn’t belong in house rules, because these policies can cost tenants plenty. Tenants need to have advance warning of the consequences of late rent before they sign on the dotted line.

A judge probably would not enforce a late-fee policy that a landlord tried to sneak into a set of house rules.

Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of “Every Landlord’s Legal Guide” and “Every Tenant’s Legal Guide.” She can be reached at [email protected]. What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor. To contact the writer, click the byline at the top of the story. Copyright 2008 Janet Portman

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