When Should a Landlord Hire an Attorney?

Some landlords who own or manage many residential rental properties have a real estate attorney on staff or on retainer to handle lease negotiations, evictions, or other disputes that many arise.  However, if you are a landlord who only owns or manages a small amount of rental properties, you probably do not have an attorney on retainer, and it is important to know when you should consult with one to answer your questions or provide legal services.

If You Are a New Landlord

If you are new to the business of renting residential properties, it is a great idea to consult with an attorney.  There are many duties that a landlord is required to fulfill when they lease a property to a tenant, such as complying with building, safety, and health codes, making necessary repairs to keep the property in a habitable condition, and keeping common areas in a safe and healthy condition.  Consulting with an attorney can ensure you are aware of your obligations and help you to avoid future disputes with tenants.

Furthermore, paying a little money up front to have your attorney draft a lease for you is a great idea that can save you time, money, and frustration down the line.  Having an attorney draft a lease agreement for you ensures that it will contain provisions that help protect the property owner’s interest should a dispute with the tenant arise.  Also, attorneys can recommend lease provisions that you may not even think of if drafting your own leases.  For example, many leases contain a provision regarding attorney’s fees shall a dispute between the landlord and tenant arise.

Evictions

Unfortunately, landlords sometimes come to a point where they need to evict their tenant.  The most common reason for this is because the tenant is not paying rent according to the terms of his/her lease.  The eviction process is a fairly quick process in comparison to many court proceedings.   However, the laws regarding the eviction process are detailed, and it is important that you follow the proper procedure in order to guarantee a successful eviction.  It is highly recommended that you consult an attorney if it is your first time evicting a tenant.  This will ensure the proper procedure is followed and time and money is not wasted.  Most attorneys offer a very reasonable rate to handle evictions, and again, a little money up front is worth it to avoid wasting time, money, and aggravation.

In many states, including Ohio, companies cannot represent themselves.  So if the party to the lease agreement is a company, such as a limited liability company (LLC), the landlord must hire an attorney to represent him/her in the eviction.  Other reasons you should hire an attorney for an eviction are: the tenant hires an attorney to fight the eviction, the tenant files a counterclaim, and there are housing program rules for eviction that you must comply with.

Being Sued for Injury, Illness, or Property Damage

Tenants or their guests may sue you for injury or illness if they feel you have not met your obligations in keeping the property and a safe and sanitary condition.  It is crucial in these cases to hire an attorney to represent you and develop a legal strategy and negotiate on your behalf.  Also, tenants that believe their property was damaged because of your failure to maintain a property may bring a lawsuit against you.  Sometimes you can represent yourself, such as in small claims, but it is always a good idea to at least consult with an attorney.  For claims seeking a significant amount of money or that are filed in municipal or common pleas court, it is probably a good idea to hire an attorney to represent you to ensure the proper legal procedures are being followed and to negotiate on your behalf.   Moreover, in any of these cases, you may turn the claim over to your liability insurance company, and an attorney may be provided to you.

Being Investigated or Sued for Illegal Discrimination

The Federal Fair Housing Acts prohibits discrimination on the basis of “protected categories”: race or color, religion, national origin, familial status or age—includes families with children under the age of 18 and pregnant women, disability or handicap, or sex.  It is typical that at some point, a prospective tenant or even an evicted tenant will try to accuse a landlord of discrimination.  It is unnecessary for a landlord to consult with an attorney every time this happens.  However, if a prospective or previous tenant files a lawsuit against you or the Department of Housing and Urban Development or some other housing department agrees to investigate you, it is important for you to consult with an attorney.  Penalties or judgments can be steep in these types of disputes.  They can also damage the reputation of the landlord or the business.  An attorney can help resolve the dispute and end the investigation or settle the lawsuit in an efficient and effective manner.

Although there are many disputes landlords can handle without an attorney, it is important that you know when to consult with and/or hire an attorney to protect your interests.  Many real estate firms offer free consultations.  Furthermore, many firms offer very reasonable rates to draft documents or handle standard landlord/tenant issues and disputes.  It is important to remember that it is often worth a small amount of money in the beginning to avoid potential liability later.

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