Massachusetts residential lease agreements are regulated by state laws and local ordinances with different rules applying to leases concerning subsidized housing. A residential lease agreement must be in writing and have a fixed term, generally one year, during which the landlord may not increase the rent or terminate it absent a lease violation or nonpayment of rent.
On the other hand, a tenancy at will, which is comparable to a monthly lease, may be oral or in writing. The landlord or tenant may terminate a tenancy at will upon 30-days’ written notice or a full rental period in advance, whichever is longer, which may be for any reason or no reason at all. The rent may also be increased upon giving the same 30-day notice to the tenant.
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For any leased premises, a landlord has an implied duty to provide a residence that fits minimum standards for human habitation including lighting, electricity, water, hot water, adheres to certain kitchen standards and is in a safe condition. Also, landlords cannot refuse to rent a unit to anyone because of color, race, religion, national origin, age, ancestry, sexual preference, military background, marital status, blindness, deafness, need of a guide dog or because of the person’s dependence on public rental assistance. Having children is also not a valid reason for refusing to rent to a prospective tenant, though there are exceptions to this rule.
Contents of the Lease
The contents of a residential lease should have the following terms and provide certain required disclosures and documents:
- Name of landlord or agent and address where rent is to be paid as well as where notices and other legal documents may be served
- Names of the tenants and other occupants who will be living in the unit
- Description of the premises
- Term of the lease
- Amount of rent, due date, and grace period of 30-days before a late fee may be imposed
- Receipt for first and last months’ rent if deposit is required—landlord must pay interest at either 5% or that received from bank where deposits are kept
- Returned check fees—no more than $30
- Security deposit—no more than one months’ rent, interest to be provided at bank rate or 5%, to be deposited in a separate account with procedures for return of deposit
- Signed, separate statement of the premises’ condition including list of current damages to be given to tenant within 10-days of beginning of lease and advising tenant it must be returned within 15 days of receipt or occupancy or be deemed correct
- Right to deduct portion of security deposit if property taxes increase
- Cost of new lock and key for the unit
- Obligations of landlord regarding repairs and maintenance
- Obligations of tenant
- Responsibility for utilities
- What major appliances are being provided
- Fees for access to certain amenities if the tenant opts to pay (may not force tenant to pay such fees)
- No unlawful use of premises by tenant or conduct that constitutes a nuisance
- Pet clause
- Subletting clause
- Right of entry by landlord to make repairs, inspect and show to future tenants or purchasers—must be done by reasonable means
- Notices regarding termination for nonpayment of rent, other lease violations and increase of rent
- Disclosure of the presence of any lead-based paint or hazards on the property for rental property built before 1978—both landlord and tenant must sign an EPA-approved disclosure form and the tenant provided an EPA pamphlet entitled “Protect Your Family from Lead in Your Home.”
- Upon request by tenant and within 15 days, provide name of insurer and amount of coverage regarding damage and fire to the premises along with name of person receiving insurance benefits if such events occur
Terms that may not be included in a residential lease agreement include:
- Waiver of rights to sue landlord for neglecting duties or obligations
- Offer to reduce rent if paid in advance
- Requiring a tenant to prepay the rent if not obligated to do so
- Allowing entry at any time without notice or prior arrangements
- Prohibition on joining a tenant’s union
- Allowing eviction without notice or without court order
- Waiver of any section of the law regarding security deposits
- Requiring a late fee if the rent is late at all (may only be charged if rent is 30-days’ late)
Any deceptive act can expose a landlord to treble damages, costs and payment of the tenant’s attorney’s fees.
No more than one month’s rent may be required for a security deposit, which may be used for nonpayment of rent or for damage to the premises that is not ordinary wear and tear or deterioration. It may not be used by the tenant to pay the last month’s rent. The deposit must be in a separate, interest bearing account. A tenant is to be provided the interest each year but does not need to be a tenant for a full year to be entitled to the interest. You can advise the tenant that the interest can be deducted from the following month’s rent or the tenant may do so unilaterally. A landlord may, if the lease provides, deduct a portion of the deposit if the property taxes increase.
Within 30 days of the lease being vacated, the landlord must return the deposit in full or provide a detailed statement of the damages and cost of repairs. A landlord who fails to follow these procedures may be liable for damages to the tenant for 3 times the amount of the security deposit.
Obligations of the Landlord
As indicated, the landlord must provide a fit residence that complies with minimum standards for human habitation. A Massachusetts landlord is also obligated to remove snow and ice from the premises and may be required under local ordinances to remove snow from a public sidewalk that abuts the property.
Regarding entry of the leased premises, you can enter the unit after making arrangements with the tenant to inspect the unit; make repairs; to show the premises to prospective tenants, buyers or inspectors; or within the last 30-days of the tenancy to determine damages and their costs to repair.
You must give the tenant a separate check-in list of the current condition of the unit, including any damages, within 10-days of the tenant first occupying the unit. The tenant and landlord must sign the list. If the tenant does not return the list within 15 days, it is deemed to be accurate.
Tenant’s Rights and Remedies
Tenants have to maintain the premises in a safe and sanitary manner, to not engage in unlawful activities and to not disturb the property or enjoyment of other tenants to their units. A tenant’s main duty is to return the unit in substantially the same condition it was in when first possessed.
In situations where there are repairs that are needed or serious violations are present that affect the safety or health of the tenants, a tenant may withhold rent if:
- The landlord was notified of the need for repairs and failed to do so
- The Board of Health has inspected the property and found violations and advised the landlord
- The tenant is current in the rent, the unsanitary conditions or code violations are not the fault of the tenant and the tenant need not vacate the unit because of the nature of the violations
Tenants may self-repair and deduct only if there are department of health violations and may use up to 4-months’ rent to pay for repairs, though the landlord is first given 5-days from receipt of the notice from the health department to begin repairs or contract for services and 14-days to complete all repairs. Tenants under these conditions may choose to void the lease. However, they are still liable for the fair market value for the period of occupancy and must vacate the unit within a reasonable time.
A landlord can terminate a lease if the tenant fails to pay the rent, causes excessive damage, engages in unlawful conduct or violates the lease in other ways.
14-Day Notice to Quit
For nonpayment of rent, you may only serve a 14-Day Notice to Quit. Tenants can avoid eviction if under a lease by paying the total amount due along with any interest and the costs to the landlord if an eviction summons was filed and served so long as it is paid before the answer to the eviction is due. The 14-day notice is also applicable to tenancies at will for nonpayment of rent.
If a tenancy at will, the tenant has 10-days to avoid eviction by paying the rent in full so long as the landlord has not had to serve a prior notice to quit within the past 12-months. Should there be no notice of the tenant’s right to revive the rental agreement, the tenant has until the answer is due in an eviction proceeding to pay the full rent.
7-Day Notice to Quit
For other violations such as excessive damage, violating the pet clause, or for causing a nuisance, the notice period may be 7-days if so specified in the lease.
30-Day Notice to Quit or Full Rental Period
In a month-to-month agreement or tenancy at will, the landlord must give 30-days’ notice or the full rental period, whichever is longer, for any violation other than for non-payment of rent.
No Retaliatory Eviction
With any lease or rental agreement, a landlord must follow the notice and/or eviction processes before forcing a tenant out. Retaliatory eviction refers to instances where a landlord forces, or attempts to force, a tenant out by changing locks, shutting off utilities or taking the tenant’s property without obtaining the proper court order.
A landlord also may not evict a tenant who has exercised certain rights such as joining a tenants’ union, notifying authorities of the landlord’s failure to correct violations of the sanitary code, who deducted repair costs from the rent, or who took court action because the landlord included unenforceable provisions in the lease. If the eviction proceeding is within 6-months of these activities, it is presumed to be retaliatory in nature and can subject the landlord to damages.
A Massachusetts residential lease agreement must comply with all laws and your conduct as a landlord must not violate certain laws or you can be forced to pay certain damages. Consult with an experienced landlord/tenant attorney if you have any questions regarding your duties and obligations as a landlord and what you should and may include in your lease agreements.