Chapter Four - The Law

Disagreements often arise between tenants and landlords because of a lack of understanding of law and of the rights and responsibilities of both parties. They may end up in court because communication has stopped entirely. The following synopsis of the Tennessee Uniform Residential Landlord/Tenant Act will help settle disputes in a rational fashion without the necessity of litigation. On the other hand, people should not shy away from hiring an attorney when a clear-cut case of bad faith warrants it. Often the plaintiff - whether tenant or landlord - can collect his/her attorney’s fees and court costs from the other party as part of "damages."

This chapter is a simple explanation of basic law; it is not meant to be legal advice. A copy of the Act can be found in the public library in the Tennessee Code Annotated, beginning at Section 66-28-101, or online here. The Act pertains only to counties having a population of more than 68,000 according to the 1970 federal census or any subsequent federal census.

The Chattanooga Housing Code is also discussed in this chapter.

For information on the Federal Fair Housing Act barring discrimination, see Chapter 1.

 

Access to the Unit

Tennessee law strictly limits the landlord's right to enter the tenant's unit without permission, but the law is frequently abused. A landlord may enter without permission in case of emergency, such as a suspected fire, or to make urgent repairs affecting the safety of his tenants. He or she may also enter without permission in the event of the tenant's extended unexplained absence.

Some leases ask tenants to grant "free access" in advance so that the landlord or others may enter unannounced for pest control, maintenance, or inspection. Even though you may have signed a lease with a "free access" provision, it is not enforceable in court. Landlords cannot make tenants waive privacy rights guaranteed in the Landlord/Tenant Act.  They must have consent to enter to repair, supply services, inspect or exhibit the premises unless they can prove "circumstances demanding immediate action." Public and subsidized housing are exceptions.

However, a tenant may not "unreasonably withhold" permission. All parties must be "reasonable" in agreeing on a time. Trouble often arises when the rental house is for sale or rent, and the tenants feel harassed when the landlord or real estate agent wants to show the house in the evening or when the tenant is at work. Landlords and agents must give at least 24 hours’ notice in writing and make appointments; they cannot come and go at will, or just announce when they are coming.

A landlord who repeatedly enters the house or apartment unannounced has broken the promise of "quiet enjoyment" implied in a rental agreement. With proper documentation, the tenant may sue for breach and "trespassing".

In no case may the tenant change locks without permission from the landlord. The owner/manager must be provided with keys to all locks installed by the tenant, including those on garages and storage areas. Locking the landlord out is grounds for eviction.

 

Problem vehicles

A landlord may have your vehicle towed if you do not properly care for it. Broken down cars and trucks blight the landlord’s property. If you are unable to make repairs to your vehicle, talk to your landlord about the problem and let them know when you plan to have it fixed. A landlord can have your vehicle towed or removed from the property after giving a ten-day notice posted on the vehicle if:

  1. The vehicle has one or more flat or missing tires
  2. The vehicle cannot operate under its own power
  3. The vehicle has a missing or broken windshield or more than one missing or broken windows.
  4. The vehicle is missing a fender or bumper, or
  5. The vehicle has tags expired for more than 30 days. 

In addition, if the vehicle is considered a nuisance, the landlord can have it towed upon giving 24 hours’ notice posted on the vehicle.

 

Repairs and Maintenance

Poor maintenance is one of the chief complaints of tenants. Sometimes they withhold rent in an attempt to force the landlord to make repairs. Usually this tactic results in an eviction notice. The court does not regard poor maintenance as a reason to withhold rent, even if it is escrowed. The landlord guarantees that the unit is livable when he signs a lease agreement. It's one of the basic "covenants," or promises, that he/she legally must make to tenants. This "warranty of habitability" protects tenants from serious maintenance problems.

For smaller breakdowns, tenants should get repairs the right way.

  • Call the landlord to discuss the problem and determine the day/time he or she will (a) call you back or (b) send someone over. If you created the problem, you might have to pay to have it fixed, but it is important to report the situation to the landlord as soon as possible.
  • Immediately send a note or email summarizing your phone conversation and describing the problem. Be sure the note is dated and keep a copy. This "written notice" is the legal key that guarantees that your options and rights will remain open in the future.
  • If the landlord gets back to you at the appointed time, the repairs will probably be made. Relax and be patient. It will take time to schedule a plumber, order the part, etc. Give the landlord a reasonable amount of time to make to repair.
  • What is "reasonable time"? It could be two (2) days for a plugged-up toilet, or two (2) months for a leaky roof. It all depends on the situation. A landlord who intends to fix the problem will communicate regularly with you. If the landlord ignores you, keep a diary of phone calls and events pertaining to the problem. Make sure to document with pictures.
  • If a reasonable time has passed and the landlord hasn’t acted in good faith, you may want to call Legal Aid of East Tennessee at (423) 756-4013 for advice.  Under certain conditions, if essential services are interrupted, the Landlord Tenant Act gives you the right to (1) get and save several estimates, (2) pay for the repair yourself, and (3) deduct the cost from your rent.  However it is best to let your landlord know in advance that you intend to do this. He/she may not even be aware that you have this right and may be happy to have you take care of it. Generally, if you broke it, you will pay for it anyway. If it just worn out, the landlord should pay.
  • Depending on the circumstances, some tenants may choose to report the matter to the City of Chattanooga’s 311 Call Center.  From there the complaint is assigned to a Code Inspector from the Department of Economic and Community Development’s Code Enforcement Division. If the inspector conducts a housing inspection and determines that the property is unsafe or unfit for human habitation, the property will be condemned and you may not be able to enter or occupy it until the repairs are completed.  For more information about the condemnation process and standards, please refer to the Chattanooga City Code Sec. 21-12.

 

ESSENTIAL SERVICES

The right to pay for repairs and deduct from rent is guaranteed only if "essential services" have been interrupted. This is a somewhat vague area of law, but certainly heat, water, gas, hot water, and a working toilet are deemed essential. The normal remedy for failure to make a repair for an essential service is to give the landlord 14 days’ notice to fix the problem and then sue for damages or possibly termination of the lease. If you report a problem with an essential service in writing and it's not fixed within a reasonable time, you may:

  • Pay for the repair yourself and deduct the cost from your rent,
  • Move to a hotel or other reasonable substitute housing and recover costs from the landlord, or
  • Stay in the unit and ask (or sue) the landlord to reduce rent based on "loss of use" or "reduced value".

SAVE ALL CONVERSATIONS AND DOCUMENTATION

Tenants who complain often might not have their lease renewed. The landlord may be less likely to raise rent if you keep an eye on things and only reach out when necessary.

 

Chattanooga Housing Code & NeIGHBORHOOD SERVICES

Each housing unit in the city should meet health and safety standards set forth in ordinances governing plumbing, electrical and structural conditions. City of Chattanooga’s Code Enforcement enforces this code within city limits. Unincorporated areas in Hamilton County do not have the same protection and must rely on provisions in the Landlord/Tenant Act.

Call an inspector only after you've written the landlord about serious dilapidation such as a rotting floor, or if he won't respond to a safety or health threat such as faulty wiring, plumbing, or sewer problems. The inspector will give the landlord a reasonable time to remedy a list of specific code violations. If this fails, the landlord may be cited to court and fined. Remember you may have to move on very short notice (generally 10 days) if the property is condemned or if repairs are substantial.

"Retaliatory Eviction" is illegal, but landlords can find ways to make tenants "pay" for reporting violations. The best time to file a complaint is after you've found another place to live, and just before vacating the unit. You may save the next tenant some pain. But you cannot avoid paying rent by reporting your landlord to an agency.

Some City of Chattanooga Code Provisions:

  • Safe and adequate wiring and electrical system
  • Free-flowing water throughout the plumbing system
  • At least one window per room
  • Hot and cold potable water
  • Properly installed shower or tub
  • At least 2 electrical outlets per room
  • Porches, balconies and stairs in safe condition
  • Sound roof which doesn't admit rain or dampness
  • Safe solid walls, floors, ceilings, roofs
  • Structure substantially rodent-proof
  • One smoke detector per floor
  • Safe lighted entryways and halls
  • Weather tight walls and windows
  • Operable locks on all doors and windows

Under The Ordinance The Occupants Must:

  • Set garbage on the curb the evening before pick-up, not earlier. TRASH CANS CANNOT BE OUT FOR MORE THAN 12 HOURS.
  • Keep the unit free from dirt, garbage, rodent and vermin.
  • Keep plumbing (toilets, drains, sinks, dishwashers, etc.) free from obstruction.
  • Keep the smoke detector in working order; make sure there is one installed in every room.

If your neighbor routinely sets garbage on the curb more than 12 hours before pick-up, call 311.

 

Retaliatory Eviction

It is illegal for the landlord to punish the tenant for asserting his/her legal rights. If an angry owner tries to throw the tenant out, or suddenly imposes a rent raise or restrictions, or reduces services in some way, the tenant should keep a diary of dates of these events.  The judge may recognize that these acts are in retaliation for "seeking remedies granted to you by law."

Leaseholders have much better protection than those with month-to-month tenancies which can be terminated at will. If you feel that the landlord is attempting to evict you in retaliation for your own claims of a legally protected right, make sure to pay the rent during the period of your dispute and document any attempts to pay if rent was refused.

 

Damage Deposits

One of the promises that you make when you rent an apartment or a house is not to damage it, either deliberately or out of inattention and neglect. To do so could be cause for eviction and lawsuit.

Most landlords require a security or damage deposit—often in the amount of an extra month's rent—to cover potential damage to the unit. Get a signed and dated receipt for your deposit, and be sure it is written into your lease. Tennessee law requires the landlord to tell you where this money is banked in a special "escrow" account.[9] If you, your children, and guests take good care of the unit, the hallways, and other common areas, you are entitled to return of this deposit, even if you live there for many years.

If the landlord sells the building, your lease will remain in effect and the damage deposit should be transferred to the new owner. Stay on top of things. Ask in writing if the new owner will take possession of the escrow account. Make a dated note of the response for your file. Both owners can be held jointly liable if you must sue to recover the deposit.

If you break your lease you will most likely forfeit your deposit. Even if you notify the landlord and leave your place spotless, leaving before your term is up will cost you. Read your lease carefully. Pet and cleaning fees are non-refundable regardless of damage.

LANDLORDS MUST ESTIMATE THE COST OF REPAIRING THE DAMAGE FOR WHICH YOU ARE BEING CHARGED BEFORE THEY CAN KEEP YOUR MONEY. IT'S THE LAW.

What Is Damage . . . And What Is Not

The tenant is responsible for damage to the unit, but is not responsible for normal wear and tear. This gray area is where many disputes arise. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between damage and wear and tear. The landlord should not deduct from your deposit for cleaning or repainting (unless your lease says so) or for ordinary repairs such as loose hinges, leaky faucets, or minor scratches or spots.

Landlords (and judges, if it winds up in court) look at both the extent and the cause of the damage. If you caused the problem, you'll most likely pay for it. Also, if you violated specific lease provisions regarding certain damages (such as nail holes), they are likely to be deemed "damage".

Generally, landlords with new or well-maintained units will be more particular about the way you treat their property. Expect to be charged accordingly.

ABUSE DOES NOT MEAN ORDINARY WEAR AND TEAR RESULTING FROM NORMAL USE!

Tenant tip:  The landlord must inspect the unit within ten days after you have moved. The landlord will make a list of the damage and the tenant has a right to inspect the premises to check the accuracy of the landlord’s listing. If possible, ask to meet the landlord at the unit to inspect with him or her. This will ensure there are no surprises. When you first move in, make a list of existing conditions and damages and give the list to the landlord within five (5) days of moving in. Include pictures if possible and ask the landlord to sign it. Your landlord may not be accustomed to this procedure, so be cordial and show him/her this section of the book. He/she knows it is good business to record or photograph conditions for which you may later be held liable.

Rotting wood frames or flooring is generally the landlord's responsibility, but if the damage occurred because you were careless in closing the shower curtain or window, or didn't report leakage under the toilet, sink, refrigerator, dishwasher, or washing machine, you may have created a very expensive repair for the landlord and could be sued for costs over and above your deposit.

The Landlord Tenant Act is clear about the steps both you and the landlord should take when you move out and want your deposit back. (See "Leaving Your Rental" in this chapter.) Within 10 business days after you move out, the landlord is required by law to give or mail you a "comprehensive" list of the damages you created, and an estimated repair cost for each one that he/she is charging against your deposit. If possible, inspect the unit with the landlord to determine the accuracy of the list. It is wise that you agree to take care of this as soon as possible. After cleaning and repairs begin it will be difficult to determine fault.

Tenant Tip: If you move before the final inspection takes place, be sure to let the landlord know in writing where to send the damage list and refund (keep a copy). If the landlord can't find you at your "last known address", he or she may lawfully keep your deposit; sue you for any damages and garnish your wages.  Don’t think you can escape paying for damages just because you do not give the landlord your forwarding address. They can track you through your social security number and credit report.  Once they find you, they can sue you, obtain a judgment in court against you for damages and garnish your wages. 

If you are using Section 8 to pay your rent, the landlord can report you to the Chattanooga Housing Authority and this can result in the termination of you Section 8 eligibility. A landlord expects you to treat them with courtesy and maintain their property in the same condition as the day you moved in. 

On the inspection sheet, the landlord will ask you to sign the list of damages. If you disagree with certain items, negotiate calmly. If you absolutely cannot come to agreement, you may (1) refuse to sign it or (2) ask for a copy and a Statement of Dissent form, which means you disagree with the landlord’s assessment of damage. Write one up yourself if the landlord doesn't know what the form is.

Landlords sometimes assume that the deposit is theirs to keep regardless of careful use. This is thievery and you should take the matter to General Sessions Court yourself or with an attorney. Both parties might agree to have the issue mediated to save on legal costs. Your claim in court will be limited to the exact items you listed in your Statement of Dissent, so don't go to the trouble to sue unless you have "move-in" and "move-out" condition lists and the landlord has charged you for lots of wear-and-tear items or for expensive items that you can prove you didn't damage. Your documentation/photo file will serve you well if you need to take the landlord to court to get what is due to you.

Cleanliness: Read your lease. Some contracts require that you leave the unit in the same condition that you found it or pay to restore it. This may include cleaning the carpet, all drawers, shelves, oven, tub, windows, baseboards, light fixtures and blinds. If cleaning costs are charged against your deposit, they must be itemized in your lease, as well as in a final bill.

Tenant Tip:  Some apartment rental companies may require you to use a carpet cleaning rental and show proof with a receipt. Inquire if this is the case prior to cleaning to ensure you’re not stuck with the bill because you didn’t keep proper documentation.

 

Leaving YOUR RENTAL

Terminating the Contract: When the time comes to end the relationship with your landlord, keep in mind how important his/her reference will be when you rent again or try to buy a house. Never just abandon the property!

  • Clean the place and leave it as you found it.
  • Turn in the keys; otherwise the landlord can claim no knowledge of the vacancy and may continue to charge rent.
  • Arrange for a damage inspection within ten days after you leave.
  • Leave a forwarding address for return of your deposit.

At the End of a Lease Term: You are required to give the landlord 30 days’ written notice if you don't intend to renew the lease. This prevents automatic renewal, a provision of some leases. If you've had an agreeable experience, you might ask for a written reference from your landlord.

Early Termination of a Lease:  If you must leave before the lease is up, your lease will usually stipulate the amount you must pay to "buy out" the contract – usually one or two months' extra rent and forfeiture of your deposit. The landlord will hold you to this agreement. Sometimes tenants aren't able to pay this early termination fee and they leave without making financial arrangements. Landlords will often sue to recover the debt. A landlord can sue you up to six years after you leave the property.

If you've rented the unit for at least a year, some landlords will void your lease without charge for a "good cause" such as illness or death, marriage, out-of-town job or home buying. Negotiate early and get promises in writing.

The landlord might agree to let you sub-let the apartment to another tenant (provisions are sometimes included in the lease), but the damage deposit is usually forfeited. Terms of this agreement should be written, and clearly show whether the original tenant remains responsible for any part of the rent if the sub-lessor doesn't work out.

Accidental Termination: If you can no longer live in the unit because of fire or other damage, you should turn in the keys and give written notice (keep a copy!) to the landlord within 14 days notifying the landlord of your intent to terminate the lease. In this case, the landlord is required to return deposits and adjust rent from the date of the incident, unless you caused the incident. This is known as "constructive eviction" under the law.

Abandonment: Liens on Property: The Landlord/Tenant Act allows rental agreements that require tenants to notify the landlord when leaving the unit for more than seven consecutive days. If the tenant is absent 30 days or more without explanation and without payment of rent, the landlord may re-enter and take possession of the unit.  If the tenant has not paid rent and has substantially moved all of his or her possessions, or has voluntarily terminated utility services, the landlord may post and mail a notice that he/she intends to re-enter and take possession within 10 days. If the tenant fails to contact the landlord, the landlord may remove all possessions and re-rent the unit.  If the tenant fails to claim his possessions within 30 days of the landlord taking possession of the unit, the landlord may dispose of the possessions.

In the absence of good evidence, according to the law, the landlord must wait 30 days and miss a rent payment before he can presume that the tenant isn't coming back. If the tenant's possessions are left behind, the landlord must safely store them for at least 30 days, and then may sell them and keep whatever money is owed. Any excess must be held for the tenant for 6 months. If the landlord disposes of your property prior to 30 days or does not return any excess profit to you, you will have to sue the landlord to be reimbursed.  Many tenants will not have the financial ability to file suit.  Therefore, it is best not to abandon your possessions.