Leases in Writing Protect Both Parties
Rhode Island residential rental lease agreements may be oral or in writing. Having it in writing provides certain security and protections to both parties and minimizes the risk of disputes so long as it is comprehensive and addresses the main issues that arise in landlord/tenant arrangements.
If an oral lease, it may be weekly or monthly depending on when the rent is due. A contract is created when the landlord accepts the rent and the tenant takes possession. A written lease is usually for 6-months to one year or longer and the tenancy cannot be terminated unless the tenant fails to pay the rent or violates a material lease in the provision. Rent cannot be increased until the term is over except in some limited situations.
Obligations of the Landlord
Landlords have responsibilities toward their tenants, not least of which is to deliver a premises that is fit and habitable. Generally, landlords may not refuse to rent to anyone based on race, color, creed, religion, national origin or ancestry, family status, sexual orientation or disability. You also may not refuse to rent to victims of domestic abuse, stalking or sexual assault.
You can refuse to lease a dwelling should the applicant have a criminal conviction, poor credit, no references or insufficient income.
Further, do not take action to terminate or raise the rent of a tenant who within the past 6 months of these actions filed a complaint about the premises to a governmental authority, joined a tenants’ union or exercised other lawful rights.
Other obligations include:
- Comply with building codes regarding repairs
- Supply essential services such as heat between October 1 and May 1 unless controlled solely by the tenant and supplied by a public utility connection; running and hot water
- Maintain all common areas free of trash and hazards
- Provide rubbish containers if there are 4 or more rental units in the building
- Send notices of housing violations to the tenants unless repaired to the satisfaction of a housing code inspector
Obligations of the Tenants
Tenants have certain responsibilities as well:
- Comply with all state laws and local ordinances regarding safety and health
- Properly dispose of trash
- Keep plumbing and sanitary fixtures and facilities in a clean condition
- Use all other systems in a reasonable manner
- Do not deliberately damage, deface or remove furnishings or any other property of the landlord within the premises
- Notify the landlord of damages and repairs to be made or any condition that may cause deterioration
- Avoid disturbing other tenants
- Not use the premises for unlawful activities
Provisions of the Lease in Rhode Island
Your written rental agreement has terms and provisions that must be included along with optional ones that can eliminate disputes, inform the tenants of their responsibilities and even enhance your relationship with them.
Consider the following terms and provisions:
- Name of property owner and property manager; address where rent is to be paid; emergency or maintenance contact information; address and name of person who is in-state to whom legal documents and notices are to be served
- Names of all the tenants and any other occupants—have all adult tenants sign the lease so that they are jointly and severally liable for the lease terms, including the rent
- Address of the premises
- Beginning and end dates with 30-days’ notice before the expiration date for tenant to advise of intention to remain if a fixed term lease
- Amount of rent and date it is due—state grace period of 15 days and or late fees of a specified amount may be imposed
- Insufficient check fees—give 30-days’ notice to pay or collect $25 service and collection costs and processing fees and up to 3 times the amount of the check but no more than $1,000
- You may collect attorney’s fees and costs if the tenant holds over after termination of the lease and it is deemed willful and not in good faith
- You can request prepayment of rent to be used if the tenant vacates with rent outstanding
- Security deposit:
- no more than 1-month’s rent
- no requirement funds be kept in a separate account or interest be paid
- recommend that you and the tenant conduct a mutual inspection with a check-in list and have it signed
- state that that the funds are to be used for damages that exceed normal wear and tear
- that funds will be returned no later than 20-days of tenant vacating unit and sent to a forwarding address that is supplied by the tenant within this time or within the 20-day period submit a written, itemized statement with specific reasons for withholding deposit and including receipts and estimate of the costs of repair
- recommend that you set a time and date for a mutual inspection a short time after the tenant vacates with check-out list on hand
- Landlord’s obligations as noted above—may provide house rules that apply to all tenants and are for the convenience, safety and welfare of all tenants, provides for the fair distribution of services and facilities to all and preserves the landlord’s property from damage
- Tenant’s obligations as noted above—you may require the tenant to perform specific minor repairs or maintenance if it does not diminish the obligations of the landlord to provide a residence fit for habitability unless you and the tenant agree to certain stated conditions that would ordinarily violate your duty to provide a dwelling fit for human habitation and you agree to a reduction in the rent or by providing for some other consideration
- Party responsible for certain utilities
- Major appliances being provided
- No commercial, business or illegal use of premises by tenant or conduct that constitutes a nuisance or is unlawful
- If smoking is permitted in the premises or what limited areas are available for smoking if so permitted
- Pet clause—may limit type of pet, weight and require tenant to clean up pet waste in common areas; may charge a deposit except for service dogs
- Subletting clause—whether you allow it and if you have to consent to whomever is the sublessee
- Your right of entry to make repairs, inspect and show to future tenants or purchasers—48 hours’ notice is required and entry at reasonable hours to make repairs or to show prospective buyers or tenants; indicate that you may enter immediately if it is an emergency
- Notify landlord if absence from unit is to be 10 days or longer
- 3-month notice to terminate for yearly lease or 30-days for monthly
- 5 -day notice required for nonpayment of rent after 15-days and 20-days for other material violations that are:
- substantial damage to the premises caused by tenant or persons under tenant’s control that has not been repaired
- permitting a nuisance on the premises
- refusing to allow entry to landlord after having been given notice
No notice required before beginning eviction proceedings if tenant engaged in illegal activity related to drugs or committed a crime of violence.
- Notice for increasing rent—30-days in advance of the effective date of the increase in a monthly lease (may not be for a discriminatory or retaliatory purpose) or before the termination of a fixed term lease
- Provide disclosure of the presence of lead-based paint on the property for all rental property built before 1978—provide the tenant with an EPA pamphlet entitled “Protect Your Family from Lead in Your Home.”
- Provide notice of housing code violations within 30-days of receipt of notice from housing code inspector unless it is corrected; notice of outstanding code violations when tenant begins occupancy
Prohibited Lease Terms
There are certain terms that are unenforceable and can result in you having to pay actual damages to the tenant if you try to enforce them along with up to 3 times the rent and reasonable attorney’s fees. These include:
- waiver of liability or limits to landlord’s liability for damages caused by landlord’s negligence
- allowing you to have a lien on the tenant’s property for rent or any other payments due and owing
- allowing entry by landlord without notice
- that tenant must pay your attorney’s fees and costs for any action to enforce the rental agreement
- requiring more than one months’ rent for security deposit
- allowing eviction without a court order
Security Deposits Capped at One Month
Landlords may only charge one month’s rent to be used for damage that is not ordinary wear and tear or deterioration. You may charge a rent prepayment to guard against nonpayment of rent if the tenant vacates with arrearages. You need not deposit the funds in a separate account or pay interest. Though not required, it is recommended that you conduct a mutual inspection of the unit with the tenant and make a list of any observed damages. You can use the list when the tenant vacates the unit.
Upon termination of the lease and vacancy and receipt of notice to you from the tenant with a forwarding address, return the deposit within 21-days or submit an itemized statement of the damages and costs of repair. Again, notify the tenant and schedule a mutual check-out inspection shortly after the tenant vacates.
Termination of the Lease Requires Notice
Your rental agreement may have a termination date so that no notice is needed unless you want to give your tenant the option of signing a new lease or having the present tenancy become a month-to-month. In such a case, advise the tenant to give you 30-days’notice if he or she wants to vacate.
For yearly leases, you must give 3-months’ notice to terminate without cause before the end of the year’s term. Monthly leases require a 30-days’ notice and for weekly, a 10-day notice.
If the tenant fails to pay the rent by the 15 day grace period, you can serve a 5-day notice to quit with the provision that the tenant pay the full rent within this time. For other material lease term breaches, serve a 20-day notice with the condition that the tenant repair any damages, abate the nuisance or remove an unauthorized pet or tenant within this time. If the tenant commits the identical lease violation within the subsequent 6-months, you can serve the 20-day notice with no opportunity for the tenant to remedy it.
If the violation concerns an act of physical violence or drug activities, you may immediately proceed to evict the tenant without first giving notice.
Noncompliance by Landlord
If you breach your obligation to provide a fit and habitable residence, the tenant may terminate the lease. The tenant must first give you written notice that the specific condition must be remedied within 20-days or the lease will terminate 30-days after the notice is given. You must make the necessary repairs, pay for its cost or engage in ongoing good faith efforts to make the repairs during the 20-days.
If the same condition presents itself in the next 6-months, the tenant must again specify the nature of the breach in a written notice that the lease will terminate in 14-days after the notice is served. You must return the security deposit and prepaid rent and may be liable for damages if your noncompliance was willful.
Under the Servicemembers Relief Act, a tenant who is a member of the American Armed Forces including any of the uniformed services may terminate a fixed term lease if the tenant receives deployment orders to move more than 35 miles from the premises for more than 90 days or must live in a barracks or other residence supplied by the government. The tenant must provide a copy of the orders or at least a written statement from the commanding officer. The tenant must give 30-days’ and has no further obligations under the lease so long as the rent owed for the final rental term is paid.
Repair and Deduct – 20 Day Notice First
If certain repairs are needed and the tenant gives you a 20-day notice to comply but you do not, the tenant may do the repairs or hire someone to do it and deduct the cost from the following month’s rent. The amount may not exceed $125 and satisfy state and local building and housing codes.
Other remedies the tenant may seek include court damages, the cost of substitute housing and attorney’s fees if you fail to provide basic essential services such as heat, electricity, running or hot water. In the alternative, you can pay to have these services restored and deduct the cost from the rent. The tenant cannot give notice to terminate the lease if these remedies are used.
Rhode Island residential lease agreements can be complex and must include certain provisions and disclosures. By making your rental agreement comprehensive and taking steps to minimize disputes and disagreements, you can ensure a longer lasting relationship with reliable tenants. If you have any questions about your rights and responsibilities, contact a Rhode Island landlord/tenant attorney.