Written Leases Avoid Misunderstandings
All Vermont landlords should have a written Vermont residential rental lease agreement. Though oral leases are valid, you risk disputes and misunderstandings with tenants that can create animosity and even litigation. Also, you can be flexible with a written rental agreement and include optional terms that you can negotiate with your tenants.
Your agreement should be clear and comprehensive and carefully set forth the rights and responsibilities of landlord and tenant. A copy needs to be provided to each tenant and asked if they understand or have any questions about its terms.
Other than owners of buildings with 3 or fewer units and if the owner or family member lives in one of them, all other landlords are subject to antidiscrimination laws. You may not discriminate against an applicant or tenant on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, gender, family status, national origin, sexual orientation or disability. This includes sexual or other harassment or intimidation or threats against a tenant who exercised a civil right or any right found in the fair housing laws.
For disabled renters, you must provide a reasonable accommodation and may not charge the tenant for the cost of adding or altering any part of the premises.
Landlords may not charge a fee for a rental application but can charge one to conduct a credit check. The tenant is entitled to a copy of the credit check report upon request.
All landlords have basic obligations to their tenants to provide dwellings that are safe, clean and fit for human habitation. Other duties include:
- Comply with all housing, building and health codes affecting the tenant
- Make all necessary repairs within a reasonable time regarding conditions, systems and services that affect the habitability of the premises
- Maintain common areas free of trash and hazardous conditions
- Provide services including heat, electricity, air, plumbing, ventilation, running and hot water sanitary, elevators and appliances in good and working condition—heat must be at a minimum of 65 degrees F if the outside temperature is -15 degrees F.
- Suggest you provide trash or garbage receptacles and a means of removal
- Suggest you provide each tenant a move-in checklist before taking possession that advises of the condition of the premises and any damage
- Provide smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in all dwellings
- Have fire extinguishers on the first and second floors of the building and in each unit; for a unit on the second floor, ensure there are at least 2 means of escape
If your tenants are aware of and fully understand their obligations, then you should have few disagreements over notice requirements and rules of conduct. It is important to keep communication open and encourage your tenants to contact you regarding any issues pertaining to the lease. Basic tenant responsibilities are:
- Maintain the dwelling in a safe condition and do not damage, deface, modify, alter or remove any part of the unit
- Comply with building and health codes to keep the premises safe and clean
- Use all appliances and systems such as air, heat, electricity and plumbing in the appropriate manner
- Do not engage in criminal activities on the premises
- Pay the rent on time and adhere to all terms and provisions of the rental agreement
- Do not disturb the right of other tenants to the quiet enjoyment of their own premises
- Promptly notify the landlord of needed repairs
Residential Lease Provisions
All lease agreements must have certain essential terms and provisions but you can add other provisions to address common landlord/tenant situations. Be aware that some of these terms differ depending on the municipality where your unit is located.
Consider the following terms and provisions for your Vermont residential lease agreement:
- Name of property owner and property manager; address where rent is to be paid; emergency or maintenance contact information; address and name of person 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
- Description or address of the premises
- Beginning and end dates
- Amount of rent and date it is due—state grace period and amount of late fees and when the fees apply—late fees must be related to any actual expenses incurred and provide proof of the expense upon the tenant’s request
- Insufficient check fees—whatever the bank charges
- Provide rules that apply to all tenants fairly, are clearly worded and that promote the convenience, safety and welfare of the tenants; preserve your property and are not intended to avoid your own duties and obligations
- Security deposit:
- No limit on what you may charge unless the unit is in Burlington or Barre
- Funds need not be kept in a separate account
- if paid in cash, should give tenant a receipt
- no interest required to be paid unless the unit is in Burlington or Barre
- suggest you provide a check-in list and statement of the condition of the property to be signed by both parties or if tenant refuses or neglects to, that it is considered to be the true state of the premises upon initial occupancy
- state that that the funds are to be used for damages that exceed normal wear and tear or unpaid rent—may not use funds for routine maintenance or painting unless there was damage caused by the tenant makes repainting or restoration necessary
- that funds will be returned no later than 14-days of tenant vacating unit or when landlord learns of vacancy and sent to a forwarding address that is supplied by the tenant or advise tenant that a specified amount of funds will be deducted for damages
- 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 or conduct 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
- Party responsible for certain utilities
- Major appliances and furnishings being provided
- No commercial, business or illegal use of premises by tenant or conduct that constitutes a nuisance or is unlawful
- Pet clause—may limit type of pet, weight and require tenant to clean up pet waste in common areas; may charge a deposit; no deposit for service dogs is permitted
- Subletting clause—whether you allow it and that you have to consent to whomever is the sublessee
- Your right of entry to make repairs, inspect and show to future tenants or purchasers—give 48 hours’ notice and restrict entry to between 9 am and 9 pm; indicate that you may enter immediately if it is an emergency or if you have a reasonable basis for believing there is imminent danger to persons or property
- Notify landlord if absence from unit is to be longer than 7 days
- If lease is monthly, termination upon 60-days’ notice without cause or any other notice period—failure to give proper notice can result in the tenant forfeiting the security deposit and liability for the rental period
- 14 -day notice to quit required for nonpayment of rent or for illegal activities, and 30-days for other violations of the lease but 90-days’ notice if the tenant has had possession for more than 2 years: state the specific term of the lease that has been violated such as:
- substantial damage or waste to the premises caused by tenant or persons under tenant’s control that has not been repaired
- unauthorized pets or occupants
- sublease without consent
- being a constant nuisance to other tenants
- refusing entry to landlord after being given notice and if requested between 9 am and 9 pm
- Notice for increasing rent or changing any other lease term—60-days in advance of the effective date of the increase in a monthly lease (may not be for a discriminatory or retaliatory purpose) and 90 days if in Burlington; otherwise, not until the fixed term expires unless your lease states it may be raised after the notice period is given
- Consider an automatic lease renewal by giving tenant 30-days’ notice before the expiration of the current lease term that the lease will automatically renew—must ask for rent increase 60-days before end of the fixed term lease (90 days in Burlington) or lease renews at same rent though you can serve the requisite notice again if month-to-month—if lease renews with same terms, you cannot increase rent for term of the lease unless you have a clause that states otherwise and after notice is given
- 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.”
Security Deposits – Check Your Municipality
Other than in Burlington, Barre or any other municipality with a different security deposit ordinance, you may charge whatever you wish as a security deposit, though most landlords charge no more than one month’s rent. You may charge an additional deposit for a pet that is not a service animal.
Other than in Burlington or Barre, you need not deposit the funds in a separate, interest bearing account. Specify in your agreement that the deposit is to be used to pay for damages that are more than usual wear and tear, for unpaid rent when the tenant vacates, unpaid utilities or other expenses owed. It is recommended that you have a check-in list to review with the tenant prior to occupancy and have you and the tenant sign it. Use the list again when the tenant vacates and conduct a mutual inspection.
You have 14-days to return the deposit once the tenant vacates or you learn of the vacancy. Provide a detailed summary of the damages and cost of repair within this time if you intend to retain any part of the deposit. If you fail to follow these procedures, your tenant may sue you for twice the amount of the deposit.
Termination of the Lease by Notice
Any lease with a fixed term terminates on the end date unless it allows for termination sooner upon certain conditions. Month-to-month leases terminate upon 60-days’ notice or 90-days for tenants with more than 2 years’ occupancy. Weekly leases require 21—days’ notice. If you have an oral lease, the tenant may give you 30-days’ notice to terminate the lease or one full rental period, and 7-days for weekly leases.
For nonpayment of rent and for engaging in criminal activity, serve a 14-day notice to quit. For all other material violations of the rental agreement, serve a 30-days’ notice.
You may not terminate a lease within 90 days of a tenant who complained to a governmental agency regarding the premises or who exercised any rights under the fair housing laws or any other civil rights.
Further, if a tenant commits an act of domestic violence, you may bifurcate the lease and evict the perpetrator but not the tenant or tenants who were the victims.
Check for Servicemembers’ Exception
Under the federal 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.
Check your local ordinances, especially if your rental units are in Burlington or Barre, to see how their ordinances affect security deposits and other matters. For any questions about your Vermont residential lease agreement or regarding your rights and duties, contact a knowledgeable Vermont landlord/tenant lawyer.