Legal Corner

By: Stephen C. Duringer, Esq.The Duringer Law Group, PLC

QUESTION I have a vacancy that I need to fill. I’ve run a few ads and have collected several applications. I know the basics of qualifying a tenant, but one of the applicants said that since he was the first to apply, he should be given preference. I never heard that before, is this true?

ANSWER No. Proper tenant screening includes many factors, but being first in line doesn’t entitle the prospective applicant to any “advantage” over the other applicants. Your duty is to select the best applicant from the pool of prospects, consistent with your tenant screening criteria and in compliance with state and federal fair housing laws. Even if the very first applicant meets your minimum standards, you are free to continue to market the rental and accept additional applications from subsequent prospects.

QUESTION One of my residents is driving me nuts. Granted, he’s been living here for several years, always pays his rent on time, takes care of the place and generally gets along fine with everyone, but lately seems to have some ongoing feud with another resident. Every time they have an “issue” he seems compelled to let me know, even as late as 11:00 at night. The issues never seem severe, in fact the most recent was an allegation that the other closes his door too loudly when he leaves for work in the morning. Trouble is, the other resident is a model tenant also, never a problem. What do I do?

ANSWER Minor neighbor squabbles are a fact of life and part of everyday human interaction. Successful management practices encourage residents to resolve their own conflicts without your involvement. Your duty is to provide housing, not necessarily to function as social coordinator. Firmly set down ground rules, ensure that they know that you expect them to communicate with each other and work out their own differences, and not to elevate petty issues into major disputes. Of course, if there is ever an issue of breaching the peace or any threat of physical harm, the residents should immediately call the local law enforcement agency or 911 if an emergency.

QUESTION I own a single-family house that I have rented out for several years. I wish I could visit it more, but I work quite a bit, and the house is a 2-hour drive away. I generally leave it up to my tenant to let me know if something needs fixing. Well, last weekend I decided to drop by just to see how things were. I’ve finally calmed down enough to write this, but I am still fuming. My beautiful lush green lawn isn’t beautiful, lush or green. In fact it was hard to see it at all with all the cars parked on it! I knocked on the door and was met by someone I had never seen before, and as the door was opened I saw that my nice living room had been converted into a bedroom, with more beds than I could count. I was also met with an odor that reminded me of my high school gym socks. When I asked for my tenant by name, this person seemed confused, but then quickly babbled some story about being out of town, on business, or something like that. The rent has always been paid on time, but I didn’t like what I saw. What do I do?

ANSWER Your question raises several serious issues. I trust you realize the need for periodic visits, even a simple drive by, to ensure your property is properly maintained and cared for. It’s important that neighbors have your contact information to keep you abreast of emergencies or concerns they may have. Assuming your tenants have signed a standard rental agreement prepared by your local rental housing association then there will be specific provisions prohibiting your tenants from subletting without your written consent. Either your rental agreement or your written rules will inform the tenant of your simple expectation that cars should be parked in the driveway or in the street, and not on the lawn. The rental agreement will also define the tenant’s responsibility as to lawn maintenance. Assuming your rental agreement and rules are prepared properly, then your tenant is in breach of your agreement. The stranger at the door and the “dormitory” in the living room indicate that your tenant has illegally sublet or assigned the premises without your knowledge or consent. Your new desert landscape is the result of the tenant’s failure to maintain the premises as required by your rental agreement. The unpleasant smell indicates a lack of proper housekeeping, again a failure to properly maintain the premises. Assuming your tenant, if you can find your tenant, doesn’t immediately acknowledge the error of his ways and take immediate steps to correct the problems, then you have several options and remedies. Assuming the breaches are “curable” then you must serve a three-day notice to perform a condition or covenant or quit upon the tenant, specifying the breach and the action required to correct the situation. In your case the tenant can theoretically remove all the unauthorized subtenants, can properly clean the house, and can re-sod the lawn. If he does all this within the notice period he is theoretically back on track. If the damage to the landscape or the interior of the house is intentional, or so severe that it cannot reasonably be cured, then you may serve a three-day notice to quit, based upon waste. This would require the occupants to pack their bags and vacate within just three days. Of course, if the tenancy is a month to month tenancy, and you don’t view the conduct as being that severe, then you may wish to terminate the tenancy by service of a thirty day notice to vacate. The tenant will, of course, be responsible for the cost to correct and repair any and all damage beyond ordinary wear and tear.

QUESTION My rental units are large and each one has an enclosed yard. I think that tenants with dogs tend to stay longer because not many buildings accept pets, so I allow my tenants to have pets. I recently received a letter from a resident complaining that another resident’s dog growled and seemed to lunge at her poodle. Now, I like dogs, but not necessarily poodles, nervous little creatures, I think that the poodle probably started it, but I don’t know for sure. Anyway, no harm done, no bites, no blood, should I be concerned?

ANSWER Yes. Although you are not the owner of the dog, and would not directly be responsible for any injuries that may result from a vicious dog attack, you may be held responsible based upon a theory that you, as a landowner, allowed a dangerous condition, the vicious dog, to remain on your premises. Once you are on notice of any dangerous propensity, either a bite or even an aggressive growl, you must take action to eliminate the threat of injury. Many juries will extend liability beyond the dog’s owner to the landlord if the landlord knew or should have known of the dog’s dangerous propensities, yet took no action to eliminate the danger.

Stephen C. Duringer

Stephen C. Duringer

This article is presented in a general nature to address typical landlord tenant legal issues. Specific inquiries regarding a particular situation should be addressed to your attorney. The Duringer Law Group, PLC, one of the largest and most experienced landlord tenant law firms, has successfully handled over 225,000 landlord tenant matters throughout California, and has collected over $130,000,000.00 in debt since 1988. The firm may be reached at 714.279.1100, toll free at 800.829.6994 or 877.387.4643. Visit for more information.