FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS: LANDLORD/TENANT LAW
I AM A LANDLORD. WHAT SHOULD I KNOW?
At Powers & French, P.A., we recommend new landlords start off on the right foot by meeting with us first to set up some standard practices. Landlords often will want to form an LLC or otherwise transfer ownership of a rental property from their own names in order to avoid personal liability for the property. If another entity owns the property, all bills should be in that entity’s name, the entity should have its own checking account, and rent should be paid to the entity. Lease terms are very important as well, and should have specific provisions about the condition of the property, expectations of the landlord and tenant, and provisions for termination. The laws in Maine are quite protective of tenants, but there are some things landlords can do to protect themselves. Finally, Maine law requires landlords to keep security deposits in separate accounts; there are stiff penalties for not doing so.
I NEED TO EVICT A TENANT. WHAT SHOULD I DO?
Powers & French, P.A. handles evictions, also known as Forcible Entry and Detainer [FED] actions. Evictions can be a complicated and time-consuming. Tenants have substantial rights in Maine and cannot be evicted without a court order.
Landlords first should consult their leases, which should provide both for early termination under certain circumstances and for remedies for default or tenant malfeasance. Landlords next need to provide tenants with notice that they are in violation of their lease or that their lease has terminated. These notices, called Notices to Quit, must be in writing and must give tenants 7 or 30 days to move out, depending on the circumstances. After the 7/30 days, tenants must be served by a Deputy Sheriff with an FED complaint and summons to appear in court (court dates must be obtained from the clerk of court for this notice and a tenant must be given at least 7 days notice of a hearing date). Once a tenant has been served, proof of service, a copy of the Notice to Quit, and a copy of the FED complaint need to be filed with the court.
At the FED hearing, both parties have the opportunity to present evidence and testimony. If an eviction is approved by the court, the court will give a tenant 7 days to appeal or move out. Thereafter, a landlord can request an eviction order from the court that provides for police removal of tenants who do not vacate the property within 48 hours of the order.
MY TENANT LEFT SOME THINGS BEHIND. WHAT CAN I DO?
Property left behind by a tenant is still considered to be the tenant’s property, at least for a while. Landlords should compile an itemized list of the property and its approximate value. If the property is worth less than $750, the landlord can send the tenant the list with a demand that they claim the property within 14 days. If the property is not claimed, the landlord has the right to sell or dispose of it. Landlords also can hold left property if a tenant owes them money. If the property is worth more than $750, documentation must be provided to the State Treasurer before a landlord can sell the property.
CAN I KEEP A SECURITY DEPOSIT?
Landlords can keep security deposits for damage or unpaid rent, but not for ordinary wear and tear. If you would like to keep a security deposit, you need to provide a tenant with a detailed explanation, in writing, of the reasons for keeping the deposit within 21 or 30 days, depending on the type of tenancy (or sooner if required by your lease).
I AM A TENANT. WHAT RIGHTS DO TENANTS HAVE?
RENT INCREASES: Landlords must give tenants notice of rent increases in writing, 45 days in advance.
LATE CHARGES: Landlords only can charge interest/fees on late rental payments if they tell you in writing, in advance. The interest/late fee cannot exceed 4% of the monthly rent.
HABITABILITY: Landlords owe a tenant an implied warranty of habitability; rental properties must be safe and fit to live in, meaning that they must have drinkable water, a heating system able to heat living spaces to at least 68%, smoke alarms, working plumbing, no insect infestations, etc. If there is an issue of the habitability of your rental space, you first need to notify your landlord in writing. You have the right to fix the problem yourself and deduct the cost from your rental payment if you did not cause the problem. To use this “repair and deduct” remedy: (1) notify your landlord in writing, sent by certified mail/return receipt of the problem and request that it be fixed within 14 days (shorter if an emergency) or you will fix it and deduct the cost from your rent; (2) pay for the repair yourself, using a licensed worker if the problem is heat/plumbing/electrical and charging only for materials if you do the work yourself; (3) the cost to fix is either less than $500 or half of your monthly rent, whichever is greater; (3) provide your landlord with a copy of the receipt; (4) deduct the cost from your next month’s rent. Please note that this remedy does not apply to rental property where the landlord lives in t the building and there are fewer than five units. Also note that, if the repair is more costly than the $500/50% limit and there are multiple tenants, each tenant can pay up to the limit. Finally, tenants are still liable for rent dispute habitability issues although you could use the issue as a defense in an eviction proceeding.
UTILITIES: A landlord cannot turn off utilities. In this circumstance, you could seek emergency assistance from the court plus damages and costs.
PROPERTY LEFT: A landlord can keep any personal property you leave in your rental property after moving out if you owe back rent or damages.
SALE OF THE BUILDING: If you have a lease, you probably will have the right to stay until the end of your lease term. If not, you will have to reach a new agreement with the new owner. If you are concerned about a sale, you should get a comprehensive lease and record in the county Registry of Deeds.
DISCRIMINATION: Landlords cannot refuse to rent to you, charge you extra or evict you on the basis of race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, physical/mental impairment, religion, welfare status, or having/expecting children.
ENTERING MY HOME: Landlords can enter your home only during reasonable time and with reasonable notice to you, unless there is an emergency. For non-emergencies, this usually means that landlord visits must be during waking hours, with 24 hour notice. Tenants can sue landlords for entry violations, requesting court orders to prevent future entries and damages or a $100 fine. Tenants cannot, however, change the locks without notifying the landlord and providing a set of keys to the landlord within 48 hours.
EVICTION: Eviction process either is governed by your lease or, if you have no lease or no lease language regarding evictions, by state law. Landlords must provide tenants with notice that they are in violation of their lease or that their lease has terminated. These notices, called Notices to Quit, must be in writing and must give tenants 7 or 30 days to move out, depending on the circumstances/lease. If the termination is for failure to pay rent, a tenant has until the end of the notice period to pay the rent due and thus avoid eviction; it is important to get a receipt stating that a rental payment was received in this instance. After the notice period has ended, tenants must be served personally by a Deputy Sheriff with an FED complaint and summons to appear in court (a tenant must be given at least 7 days notice of a hearing date). If any of the notice language, method of service or timing is incorrect, the tenant should use this as a defense in court.
At the FED hearing, both parties have the opportunity to present evidence and testimony. If an eviction is approved by the court, a tenant has 7 days to appeal or move out. Thereafter, a landlord can request an eviction order from the court that provides for police removal of tenants who do not vacate the property.