Landlord-Tenant Screening in Massachusetts

An important tool exists for landlord-tenant screening, one that is completely free and easy to use.  All of Massachusetts’s trial court dockets are online, providing both tenants and landlords with the ability to see filed eviction cases across the state.  The website is http://www.masscourts.org.

Eviction (“summary process”) cases are almost always filed in District Court or Housing Court.  To use masscourts.org for landlord-tenant screening, you need to search individually for each court.  The site doesn’t allow a general search for all trial courts across the state.  

However, if you know where the tenant or landlord has resided or owner property (or have a reasonably good idea), you can narrow down the applicable courts.  Bear in mind that searches on the site can be sensitive, and slight variations in names may not produce the desired results (the website is not Google!).

Search results will tell you if a case has been brought by or against a particular party, and a history of the case.  Search results generally will not provide details on the case, such as the reason(s) for evictions and counterclaims.  Information such as this can generally only be obtained by visiting the court and reviewing the case file.

For this reason, masscourts.org isn’t perfect for landlord-tenant screening.  However, it is useful for determining if a particular tenant has been frequently evicted, or if a landlord has often been subject to complaints from tenants.

An important word of caution, from someone who represents landlords and tenants: don’t assume the worst because a party has been involved in an eviction case.  Tenants are sometimes named in eviction cases for no-fault reasons, such as the adult children of parents who are being evicted.  Likewise, claims can be raised against a landlord that aren’t really meritorious, and are only meant to be a “delay” tactic.  In short, while masscourts.org is helpful for landlord-tenant screening, it should never be the only deciding factor in selecting a tenant or landlord.

If you need assistance with a landlord-tenant matter, contact me for a consultation.

Evicting a Tenant: What To Do

Evicting a tenant is the process required for obtaining possession of rental property. Evictions, known in Massachusetts as summary process, are done through an expedited court process; most often brought in Housing Court or District Court.

A recent news article reveals a disturbing trend about many landlords, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, attempting to evict tenants on their own; a process commonly referred to as “self-help evictions.” Self-help evictions are highly illegal in Massachusetts, and can get landlords in an enormous amount of trouble.

Evicting a Tenant: When Is It Required?

An eviction case is required for obtaining possession against any tenant, regardless of the reason why the eviction is necessary. Although there is a limited exception for tenants engaging in illegal behavior, an eviction is generally required in every other circumstance.

No Self-Help Evictions

A “self-help eviction” is a case where a landlord attempts to remove a tenant from the rental property without a formal court case. Changing the locks, cutting off utilities, and threatening a tenant can all be considered a self-help eviction, and are expressly forbidden under Massachusetts law.

An eviction case requires a landlord, in most cases, to provide the tenant with a notice to quit, serve the tenant with a formal eviction summons, and appear in court. The process takes time and, understandably, can be frustrating, especially when it is against a non-paying tenant.

Presently, there is an eviction moratorium in Massachusetts, which is preventing the filing of almost all eviction cases for the foreseeable future. As such, it is understandable why some landlords may be tempted to bypass a formal eviction case against a tenant. Doing so, however, is a terrible idea, and will be far more trouble than it is worth.

Conclusion

Instead of considering a self-help eviction, contact me for a consultation. While evictions are not going forward now, I can explain the process to you, what can be done in the meantime, and how to prepare for such an action when the courts reopen.

Evictions After Coronavirus

Next week, I’ll be a panelist on a webinar for the Massachusetts Bar Association concerning evictions after coronarvirus. This is a topic that promises to be extremely relevant once the pandemic ends.

What do landlords need to know about evictions after coronavirus?

New Requirements for Notices to Quit

As I have written before, the federal CARES Act has new requirements for notices to quit for non-payment of rent. This applies to only certain categories of landlords, but the reach of this law is large. Landlords need to check whether this law applies to them, and err on the side of caution if there is any question that it does.

Inevitable Delays With Court Proceedings

No doubt, evictions after coronarvius will take much longer to resolve than before. An eviction case in Massachusetts (referred to as a “summary process” action) is intended to be “just, speedy, and inexpensive.” The growing backlog of cases, unfortunately, will put a strain on the court’s resources. Landlords will need to keep this in mind when deciding to pursue an eviction.

Flexibility With Stays of Execution

When evictions after coronavirus resume, it is inevitable that many tenants will request stays of execution. A stay of execution is a request for a court to delay the time by which the landlord can assume possession of the rental property.

Although the law is written only for no-fault evictions, most judges take the position that a stay is permitted in any eviction, under the right circumstances.

Given the multitude of problems arising from the pandemic, I am inclined to think that most judges will be sympathetic to tenants facing eviction after coronavirus. Landlords need to keep this in mind when negotiating with tenants.

Final Thoughts

If you assistance with an landlord-tenant matter, contact me for a consultation.

Ending a Lease Early: What to Know

Ending a lease early is a matter that often arises when either the landlord and/or the tenant wishes to terminate the rental term before the designated date in the lease agreement. Several factors must be considered when such a matter arises.

Ending a Lease Early by Mutual Agreement

The easiest scenario for ending a lease early is when both the landlord and tenant want the lease to end. Just as with nearly every contract, parties are free to reach a mutual agreement for termination.

In such a case, the landlord and tenant should always put this in writing, and clearly state the date by which the tenancy is over. Landlords who are holding a tenant’s security deposit or a last month rent need to mindful that certain obligations arise when a tenancy is over, and ensure they comply with these applicable laws.

Ending a Lease Early by the Landlord and Tenant’s Conduct

It is a common misconception that only a written agreement can end a lease agreement. Rather, an agreement to reach a lease can occur “from the attendant circumstances and conduct of the parties.”

This means that, although no agreement was put in writing, the actions taken by the landlord and tenant can lead to a determination that the lease ended. For example, if the landlord accepts the apartment keys from the tenant, immediately assumes possession of the unit, and otherwise acts as if the lease had ended, there is a good argument to be made that it has . . . even without a written agreement.

This is important in a circumstance where a tenant wishes to end a lease, but the landlord does not. Here, the landlords needs to be extra careful about accepting the apartment keys or behaving in any way that could be considered as a finding that the lease ended.

One way a landlord can avoid this is by explicitly telling the tenant that he or she is not intending to end the lease.

When Only One Party Wants Out of the Lease

Under most leases, a landlord or tenant is not permitted to unilaterally end a lease. A few, limited exceptions exist, such as for tenants serving in the military or who are victims of domestic abuse. Otherwise, ending a lease early cannot be done alone by a landlord or tenant.

If a tenant does break a lease, a landlord (in the right circumstances) can pursue a claim for damages against the tenant. Before doing so, however, a landlord should consider speaking to an attorney.

Final Thoughts

If you need assistance with a landlord-tenant matter, contact me for a consultation.

3 Mistakes to Avoid When Preparing a Notice to Quit

Preparing a notice to quit is a requirement for nearly every Massachusetts eviction. This notice informs the tenant of the reason for the eviction and provides them a time period in which their tenancy is terminated.

A mistake in one of these notices, however, can be fatal to an eviction case, and lead to unnecessary delay.

Here, I’ll discuss three common mistakes made when preparing a notice to quit.

#1: Using the Improper Notice to Quit for The Tenancy

The proper notice to quit depends on the type of tenancy. Generally, a fourteen-day notice to quit is required for evictions based upon non-payment of rent, and a thirty-day notice is required for a no-fault eviction for a tenancy at will (commonly known as a month-to-month tenancy).

Landlords need to be careful that they are using the correct notice to quit for their eviction, as the wrong notice will likely lead to the eviction’s dismissal.

Landlords also need to be careful when using templates for these notices. Often, there are many free notices to quit on the Internet that are not intended for a Massachusetts eviction.

#2: Stating Inconsistent Reasons for the Eviction

A notice to quit must be consistent. Including inconsistent reasons for the eviction can also be grounds for dismissing the eviction case.

#3: Not Using a Sheriff or Constable to Serve the Notice

In an eviction, the landlord bears the burden of proving that the tenant received the notice to quit. Simply taping the notice to quit to the tenant’s apartment or mailing it to the tenant can be problematic, if the tenant denies receipt.

A much better option is to use a constable or sheriff to serve the notice. By law, such service creates a presumption that the tenant received the notice to quit. The tenant can try and argue otherwise, but will have a much harder argument to make if there is proof of service from a constable or sheriff.

Final Thoughts

If you assistance with a landlord-tenant matter, contact me for a consultation.

Non-Payment of Rent During Coronavirus

Non-payment of rent is an important issue for landlords, especially during the coronavirus pandemic and eviction moratorium. Here, I’ll discuss what landlords should do regarding tenants who owe them rent.

Non-Payment of Rent: What Landlords Cannot Do During the Eviction Moratorium

With the exception of evictions for emergency matters, landlords cannot evict tenants. This includes the sending of notices to quit and the filing of eviction cases. Doing so can get landlords into trouble.

Non-payment of rent is not considered emergency grounds for evicting. If a landlord is not receiving rent from their tenant, unfortunately, not much can be done now to remedy the situation.

Non-Payment of Rent: What Landlords Can (And Should) Do During the Eviction Moratorium

While landlords cannot evict now for unpaid rent, landlords can (and should) notify their tenants about unpaid rent. Massachusetts has recently issued a regulation on this matter, and explains the reason for doing so:

In order to minimize the risk that a tenant will face eviction for an accumulated non-payment of rent once the Act expires, and to promote the prompt resolution of such situations without resorting to the court system, landlords should provide tenants of residential dwelling units a written notice of each missed rent payment.

This regulation, notably, states that landlords should do this. As such, it is a good practice for landlords to send these notices. This regulation includes language that should be included in these notices, including a disclaimer that the notice is not requiring the tenant to leave the apartment (very important).

Final Thoughts

If you need assistance with a landlord-tenant matter, contact me for a consultation.

Non-Renewal of Leases: FAQs

Non-renewal of leases is an important topic for any Massachusetts landlord who rents to a tenant with a lease agreement. This topic is especially important given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and eviction moratorium.

What’s Required for a Non-Renewal of a Lease?

Landlords should always start with reviewing the lease itself. Many leases have requirements for both the landlord and tenant to inform each other whether or not they plan to renew the lease. This is particularly important for landlords with Section 8 tenants, whose lease agreements often have specific language about these scenarios.

Many leases are silent about non-renewals. In such a case, nothing is actually required for a landlord to not renew a lease. A landlord, in theory, can simply inform the tenant, the day after the end of the lease, that he or she does not wish to continue renting to the tenant.

This is rarely a good idea. A landlord, instead, should provide a tenant with as much notice as possible in advance, in writing, that it will not renew the lease.

Are Non-Renewals of Leases Allowed During the Eviction Moratorium?

In my opinion: yes. The eviction moratorium prohibits the sending of “any notice, including a notice to quit, requesting or demanding that a tenant of a residential dwelling unit vacate the premises.”

This language clearly covers more than just the notice to quit that is required for most evictions. However, I do not read this to prohibit a landlord from simply informing a tenant that he or she does not intend to renew a lease.

Landlords, however, need to be extremely careful when pursuing non-renewal of leases, and not include any language that can be construed as a request or demand for the tenant to vacate.

Landlords should consider including language to make this point clear. The statement below is taken from a state regulation on the eviction moratorium and can be used in notices of non-renewal:

THIS IS NOT A NOTICE TO QUIT. YOU ARE NOT BEING EVICTED, AND YOU DO NOT HAVE TO LEAVE YOUR HOME. An emergency law temporarily protects tenants from eviction during the COVID-19 emergency.

What Happens If A Tenant Will Not Leave After The End of The Lease?

The tenant becomes a tenant at sufferance. This is a tenant who was previously allowed to be in the rental apartment, but is no longer permitted by the landlord to do so. An eviction is required to get a tenant at sufferance out of the rental property.

However, the ongoing eviction moratorium prohibits all non-essential evictions. Unless the tenant at sufferance is damaging the apartment or threatening another person’s safety, an eviction is not allowed right now.

Can a Landlord Accept Rent from a Tenant Who Stays Past Their Lease?

Landlords need to be careful in these cases.

Suppose a landlord and tenant had a one-year lease, from June 1, 2019 to May 31, 2020, with rent due on the first of every month. If the landlord accepts rent from the tenant on June 1, 2020, the landlord and tenant have now entered into a new tenancy agreement: a tenancy at will (commonly known as a month-to-month tenancy). If the landlord wishes to evict, he or she would now need to send a thirty-day notice to quit before starting an eviction case.

How can a landlord avoid this? Before accepting rent after the lease, the landlord should tell the tenant, in writing, that the money is being accepted for use-and-occupancy only. This prevents the creation of a new tenancy.

Conclusion

If you need assistance with a landlord-tenant matter, contact me for a consultation.

Zoning for Landlords: What to Know

Zoning is an important topic for any property owner, especially landlords. Landlords should have a basic knowledge of zoning before offering property for rent, and know what to do if problems arise later on.

What is Zoning?

Zoning are local rules on the use of real property. Zoning often regulates the size, shape, and use of property in a town or city. These regulations are generally found in a town or city’s ordinances, which are usually available online.

Most towns and cities are divided into zoning districts, where only certain uses are permitted. It is common to have zoning districts for residential and commercial purposes. Towns and cities generally have a zoning map that indicates the zoning district for a particular property.

Failing to comply with a zoning regulation can have severe consequences. A town or city often has the power to issue a fine or stop-work order for a property in violation of the respective zoning ordinance.

Zoning for Landlords: Is My Property Allowed to be Rented?

For landlords, a critical issue to determine is whether the property they wish to rent is allowed for renting. Many zoning ordinances have specific requirements on where rental housing is allowed, and the minimum requirements for such rentals. This is often in addition to the state sanitary code, which applies to all residential housing in Massachusetts.

A landlord should never assume that property is suitable for renting simply because a prior owner did so in the past. It is not uncommon for zoning violations to continue for many years before finally being brought to enforcement by the town or city.

If a landlord’s property is not allowed for renting, a landlord may be able to request permission for doing so, through a variance, special permit, or some other zoning request.

Zoning for Landlords: Short-Term Rentals

Landlords need to be especially cautious about using property for short-term rentals. Short-term rentals are becoming increasingly regulated by Massachusetts towns and cities. Some municipalities require registration of these rentals, and others are banning them all together. Best for landlords to know such requirements before entering into such rentals.

Final Thoughts

If you need assistance with a zoning or landlord-tenant matter, contact me for a consultation.

Notices to Quit for Non-Payment of Rent: Proceed with “Care”

Notices to quit for non-payment of rent are required for initiating an eviction against a delinquent tenant. A landlord must generally provide a fourteen-day notice to quit for such an eviction.

However, the recent federal “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act” (CARES Act) throws a wrinkle into this process. As such, landlords need to proceed with “care” with serving a notice for non-payment of rent (pun intended!).

Overview of Massachusetts Evictions During Coronavirus

Both federal and state law are presently prohibiting most residential evictions in Massachusetts. The CARES Act placed an initial moratorium on a large majority of eviction cases. The subsequent state eviction moratorium has stopped all non-essential evictions across the state.

When the moratorium ends, it is expected that evictions will resume (albeit under different circumstances and conditions). However, a requirement of the CARES Act will remain after the moratorium ends for notices to quit for non-payment of rent.

Notices to Quit for Non-Payment of Rent: Additional Time Required in Certain Cases

While notices to quit for non-payment of rent generally require fourteen days, the CARES Act now requires that such notices, when sent after the end of the moratorium, provide the tenant with thirty days notice.

This only applies to a specific category of properties, referred to as a “covered dwelling unit” under the CARES Act. These are generally properties that participate in a federal program or have a federally backed mortgage.

While this category applies to a wide array of tenant properties, the following landlords, in my opinion, are the most common ones who will fall under this law: those who participate in the Section 8 housing program, and those with a Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac mortgage.

For such rental properties, a thirty day notice (and not fourteen) will be required.

Practical Implications

When the courts reopen, there will be a flood of non-payment eviction cases. I’m predicting that many tenants will raise defenses related to whether the landlord served them with the proper notice to quit.

With this in mind, landlords need to be extra careful when preparing a notice to quit. If there is any chance that their rental property is covered under the CARES Act, the landlord should go with a thirty-day notice for non-payment of rent evictions.

If you need assistance with a landlord-tenant matter, contact me for a consultation.

Three Success Stories as a Landlord Lawyer

As a landlord lawyer, I’ve had the pleasure of representing numerous Massachusetts landlords with their disputes against tenants. As an attorney who has represented landlords and tenants, I have experience with both sides of these legal disputes.

Here, I want to discuss three success stories that I’ve had as a landlord lawyer.

Working Out a Repayment Plan for Unpaid Rent

One of the best ways to succeed in a landlord-tenant dispute is to keep the matter out of court in the first place.

My client owned a condominium in the Greater Boston area, and was owed a large amount of rent from his tenants. The client hired me to start an eviction against the tenant.

Prior to starting the eviction, however, I reached out to the tenants to discuss a repayment plan. I was able to reach an agreement with the tenants to avoid a court proceeding and get my client repaid his money.

What’s the lesson of this? Keeping matters out of court is almost always the best outcome for landlords and tenants. In this case, my client recovered his rent and the tenants avoided an eviction.

Initiating An Eviction for A Tenant Who Doesn’t Plan To Leave An Apartment At the End of a Lease

When a lease is over, a tenant is suppose to leave the rental property (if the landlord doesn’t want them to stay). If the tenant remains, the landlord needs to evict.

Massachusetts law, however, has a lesser known provision that allows a landlord to start an eviction case before the end of the lease, if it is clear that the tenant has no plans to leave.

I represented a landlord whose tenant had no plans to leave at the end of the lease. Rather than wait until this happened, I took advantage of this law and filed the eviction right away. Doing so saved my client time, and got the matter to court (and to a resolution) as quickly as possible. Given that the eviction process in Massachusetts can be lengthy, starting as soon as possible is to the landlord’s benefit.

Protecting a Landlord’s Property From a Disruptive Tenant

In my practice as a landlord lawyer, I sometimes come across landlord-tenant disputes that are about more than just unpaid rent.

In this case, I represented a landlord who needed possession of his apartment. Prior to the start of the eviction, we learned that the tenants were damaging the property.

My response was to request a temporary restraining order (“TRO”). This court order, which is a form of injunctive relief, asks the court for an immediate order preventing a party from doing something. This is allowed for a case of irreparable harm, where the damage cannot be fixed simply by payment of money at the end of the case.

In this case, the court granted my TRO. Doing so helped bring the case to a prompt resolution.

Conclusion

My work as a landlord lawyer is rewarding, and I like nothing better than getting a great result for my clients. If you need help with a landlord-tenant matter, contact me for a consultation.