Know when house rules violate lease

Q: As a property manager, I am under contract with an owner to advertise and show his single-family rental. I recently chose new tenants and signed the lease. Since then, the owner has sent the tenants a nonsmoking policy, specifying that if any guests smoke on the property, it will constitute a violation of the lease and can result in termination. He is also demanding proof that their dog is current on vaccinations; a statement from their vet that the dog is current on monthly flea and tick medicine; and a copy of their renters insurance policy. He's also issued detailed cleaning instructions, including a demand that the air conditioner and heater filters be cleaned or replaced every month. Can he do this?


A: Your owner appears to be a little confused as to the meaning of a lease: It’s a contract that binds both sides to its terms, as written. If one party to the lease wants to change or add to those terms, it must get the OK from the other party. Unless everyone agrees to vary the terms of the deal-which includes adding important conditions as to use and defaults (a violation that triggers a termination notice)- those changes are ineffective.

However, it’s possible to put some “rules and regulations” in a document other than the signed lease. Commonly known as “house rules” in multi-unit complexes, these rules cover day-to-day aspects of the rental, such as use of the pool, laundry room and parking areas; operating hours for the manager’s office; or how to reserve the clubhouse. These are details that one would not expect in a lease- they’re simply too minor. Because of that, landlords generally don’t need to give month-to-month tenants the legally required notice of any changes to these rules (the notice they must give to raise the rent, for example). Such changes will apply immediately to lease-holding tenants.

In other words, the landlord can change these rules without the tenants’ agreement and without renegotiating the rental agreement or lease.

The key question is: How do you tell the difference between a provision that belongs in a lease (and cannot be added unilaterally, midlease), and a house rule, which can be announced at any reasonable time?

One rule of thumb is to ask whether the rule is one that a tenant would seriously think about before committing to the rental. If it concerns an issue that might be a deal-breaker or at least one that the tenant would seriously weigh before signing a lease or rental agreement, it likely belongs in the lease.

Let’s look at the additional provisions your owner is attempting to place on this tenancy. A nonsmoking policy, particularly one that makes a violation of the policy a lease default, is a big deal. This policy belongs in a lease. Renters insurance is similarly a significant provision: Although it’s a wise investment for all tenants, it’s also an extra expense, which they should be aware of before signing a lease.

With respect to the pet rules, there’s a good argument that they, too, belong in a lease. Some owners won’t want the hassle of providing vaccination proof (and may argue about the need for vaccinations other than those for rabies), and some might not want to give their animals monthly treatments for fleas and ticks.

Detailed instructions for cleaning may also fall within the “belongs in the lease” camp. Requiring constant filter replacements is, again, costly; and telling someone how to clean the house is downright invasive. Many applicants, seeing the extent to which the owner intends to regulate their lives, might decline the rental on that basis.

If these new rules are very important to the owner, they are probably also significant to the tenants. If so, the tenants should have been made aware of them before they signed up. In the future, your owner should include them in the lease or place them in a “house rules” document that he instructs you to give to applicants during the application process. That way, prospective tenants will get a sense of what this owner is likely to demand, and can make decisions accordingly.

Author: Janet Portman, Rent It Right, Chicago Tribune