Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Pop Quiz: Landlord-Tenant Law.
Think you know the law? Sure you know the law? Test your knowledge of landlord-tenant law in Wisconsin and see how well you really know it -- just in time for all you college students out there signing leases for the first time.
1. My landlord promised to fix up the apartment before we moved in, but he didn't. So I get to move back out, right?
B. You have to give him written notice.
Answer: C. In Wisconsin, a landlord who promises to repair something before you sign a lease must make that promise in writing. But if he/she didn't do that, you don't get to move back out. Instead, a landlord has to repair the premises and keep them in a reasonable state of repair. But Wisconsin doesn't have any automatic rules that let you back out of your lease, except if the premises become "untenantable." You may have a right to "abate" rent - -reduce your rent by the amount the premises can't be used.
And if your landlord did promise to repair something, he also had to give you a date by which the repair would be done.
2. True or false: If you didn't sign anything in writing, you don't have a lease.
Answer: False. A "lease" is any agreement, oral or written, to rent property. It's possible to have an oral lease for up to a year -- but beyond a year, you need to have it in writing (and there have to be certain things in there for it to be enforceable.) But, if you don't have anything in writing and don't have any specific agreement with your landlord about how long you were renting the place, then you've got a "periodic tenancy," meaning a tenancy that renews each time that you pay rent.
3. If you don't pay your rent on time, you have to get out of the apartment:
A. At the end of the month you didn't pay rent for.
B. Within five days of the date rent was due.
C. When the Court orders you out.
Answer: C. Technically speaking -- which lawyers love to do -- you can't be forced to leave your apartment without a court order -- and that order can only be given after an eviction action is heard. But there's problems with that. Under most leases, if you breach the lease, a landlord must give you a "5 Day notice" that tells you to fix the problem in five days or get out. If you fix the problem, everything goes on as it was before. If you don't fix the problem, your tenancy is terminated -- but you don't technically have to leave unless and until the landlord takes you to court and gets an order kicking you out.
But the problem with that is that the tenancy is terminated after those five days -- so after that, you're a "holdover" tenant. And "holdover" tenants may end up owing double the rent to the landlord, on a daily basis. So not getting out by the end of that five days (or, better yet, fixing up the problem) means that you might be doubling the rental charge.
4. True or False: Your landlord can force you to pay attorney's fees if it's in your lease.
Answer: False. Whether or not it says so in your lease, your landlord can never force you (or even ask you) to pay attorney's fees he incurs in enforcing the lease. So if you're threatened with eviction and your landlord claims he'll get you for his fees, he's breaking the law.
And, this is nice: If it says in your lease that your landlord can collect his lawyer's fees from you, you can "void" the lease and get back out of it.
5. A landlord, after you move out, has to return your security deposit to you:
A. Within a week.
B. By personally delivering it.
C. That depends.
Answer: C. A landlord has 21 days under Wisconsin law to tell you what was done with your security deposit, and that has to be done in writing, mailed to your last-known address. (That's why it's a good idea to tell your landlord where you're moving to, even if you leave under bad circumstances. Otherwise, he'll mail it to the apartment you just left.) But it's perfectly acceptable for the landlord to apply your security deposit to a variety of costs, so long as you are notified of what was done with it within that 21 day time period. If the landlord doesn't tell you that (remember, in writing) in that time frame (it just has to be mailed in 21 days, not received) then you can collect up to two times the security deposit, plus attorney's fees. The same goes if the landlord applies your money to something that the law doesn't allow him to apply it to.
But, a landlord who wrongfully withholds your security deposit, or doesn't tell you what was done with it, can still then bill you for damages and costs -- so you'll maybe collect less than the full amount, or might still owe the landlord money. It's best to keep your apartment clean and take pictures before you move out to show the condition the apartment was in.
6. If you get evicted from your apartment, you owe rent:
A. Through the day you leave.
B. Only if the landlord was right in evicting you.
C. Until the apartment is re-rented or your lease expires.
Answer: C again. An eviction doesn't mean you don't owe the rent -- it just means that you can't live in the apartment anymore. But you still have to pay the landlord rent for the time you should have been renting the apartment.
After evicting you, a landlord must try to re-rent the apartment. If he does, then you only owe rent for the period of time that the apartment was vacated. If he's not able to re-rent it, then you'll be on the hook for rent until the end of your lease, even though you got kicked out. So be careful about violating the lease, because you might end up paying two rents.
Note: Madison has special landlord tenant laws that apply within city limits. Those laws do not change the answers to this quiz, but they do provide extra rights and responsibilities.
Got a landlord tenant question? Contact a lawyer before things get too bad.