In most states, the laws establishing the rights and responsibilities of landlords and their tenants are a blend of statutory and common law. Typically, states have enacted legislation governing the relationship, but the courts get involved in construing the provisions of the statutes. A number of states have passed laws that incorporate some or all of the provisions of the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, or the Model Residential Landlord-Tenant Code. State and federal laws may also apply if there are concerns about discrimination or the violation of civil rights.
The relationship between the owner of property and a tenant is a contractual one. Though most states have statutes that require that specific provisions be included in a residential lease, the parties also have substantial latitude with respect to the terms of the lease. For example, the lease will generally give the tenant a certain type of property interest in the land/premises. The parties can agree to the length of the lease, the specific property covered under the lease, and the ways that the tenant may use the property. The parties can also negotiate whether the lease will include the right to assign or sublease the property to others.
There are, however, certain promises (called covenants) that are assumed to be part of a residential lease. For example, it has long been a principle of law that the tenant is the beneficiary of what is known as the “implied covenant quiet enjoyment.” This essentially means that no other party has a greater claim to the use of the property during the lease (including the landlord), so the tenant will have undisturbed possession of the premises for the length of the lease. If, for any reason, the landlord interferes with or allows interference with this right, the tenant may terminate the lease.
Another implied covenant that typically comes with residential rental property is the “implied covenant of habitability.” Often based on housing codes, the implied covenant of habitability requires that the landlord maintain the premises in a certain condition. Violations of the housing code may be evidence that there has been a breach of the implied warranty of habitability, and can be grounds for terminating a lease.
Unless the lease states otherwise, there is an assumption that the tenant must pay rent. State statutes may provide for a reasonable rental value to be paid absent a rental price provision. Rent acceleration clauses that cause all the rent to become due if the tenant breaches a provision of the lease are common in both residential and commercial leases.
Summary eviction statutes commonly allow a landlord to quickly evict a tenant who breaches statutorily specified lease provisions. Self-help as a method of eviction is generally restricted. Some states do not even allow it for tenants who have held over after the end of a lease. Landlords are also restricted from evicting tenants in retaliation for action the tenant took regarding enforcement of a provision of the lease or of applicable law.
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