Guides for Tenants, Landlords, and Neighbors

Every Landlord’s Legal Guide by Marcia Stewart, Janet Portman, and Ralph Warner. $29.95

Every Tenant’s Legal Guide by Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart. $24.95
Neighbor Law by Cora Jordan. $16.95
Tenants’ Rights by Myron Muskovitz and Ralph Warner. $18.95
All books published by Nolo Press, CA; 800-992-6656; www.nolo.com.

NOLO’s new release, Every Tenant’s Legal Guide, by Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart, is a comprehensive resource for renters who want to understand and protect their rights, not to mention their time and peace of mind. It provides everything from precautions tenants should take to crucial actions for crisis situations to strategies for evaluating leases, handling problems with roommates, and suing a landlord. It also offers dozens of tear-out forms for use at all stages of the rental process – such as a rental application, an agreement on tenant improvements to rental unit, and a lease termination agreement – and sample letters and notifications that get results. What makes this NOLO book so useful, however, is the mix of state-specific legal advice with more universal guidelines. The authors offer plain-English descriptions supported by detailed comparative charts covering key landlord-tenant laws across all 50 states.

For landlords trying to provide decent housing at fair prices, NOLO also offers an excellent resource, Every Landlord’s Legal Guide. Negotiating the tangle of laws and regulations that govern relationships between landlords and tenants can be a difficult and dangerous task. A simple mistake, like being late returning, or itemizing deductions from, a security deposit to a former tenant, can subject a landlord to a lawsuit and the cost of statutory fines. This thick volume makes the task easier for landlords and, ultimately, for tenants. It offers both practical advice and an overview of the legal ramifications of every stage of the tenant-landlord relationship. It is clearly written and concise and also well organized and indexed. The guide also includes an appendix with standardized forms for tenant applications, leases, move-in checklists, and other typical transactions. These forms are also included on computer disc so they can be modified and printed to meet the user’s needs.

The chapters on screening tenants and forming a landlord-tenant relationship are particularly helpful. Some of the advice is more practical than legal. For instance, the guide suggests landlords spell out requirements up front, in the advertisement or when the potential tenant first calls, to avoid wasting time. The guide lays out the kind of information you can and should solicit from potential tenants. It also provides and explains a standard lease.

The guide devotes several chapters to minimizing exposure to lawsuits. The chapter on discrimination laws correctly emphasizes the importance of applying selection criteria consistently to all applicants and keeping records of reasons for rejecting applicants. For instance, demanding proof of citizenship or legal residence only from Latinos is an invitation to a lawsuit, but making the same demand of all applicants is probably a safe course. Likewise, informing a wheelchair bound applicant about first floor, but not third floor, units might invite a disability discrimination lawsuit. Other chapters cover a landlord’s potential liability for dangerous conditions, environmental hazards, and criminal activity by or against tenants.

The national approach taken in this book may appear problematic because laws and regulations vary between states and even localities. However, the guide tells readers what the law is in their state on most important issues. For instance, charts tell the reader which states limit the amount of security deposit a landlord may collect, and what time limits apply to the return of security deposits. For more complicated questions, like fair housing regulations, the guide includes phone numbers for the government agencies that administer the regulations. The section on rent control, however, is weak and merely explains the kinds of restrictions that might apply.

Although landlord-tenant laws and regulations frequently change, the guide was revised last March, so it is probably up to date for most locations. NOLO offers a free newsletter that provides updates on changes in the law. A subscription card is included in the book. While no book could cover every conceivable situation or eliminate the need to ever consult a lawyer, the guide does an excellent job of explaining day-to-day legal requirements for fair and ethical behavior as a landlord and offers practical solutions to many problems.

NOLO also offers a volume on the laws and regulations governing relations between neighbors. Neighbor Law by Cora Jordan is not as well organized or indexed as Every Landlord’s Legal Guide. It is also very broad and includes chapters on subjects like rural farms and ownership of fruits and nuts growing on property, which may not be informative to most landlords. However, it does explain the basics of noise and nuisance laws and fencing and boundary disputes. It provides practical solutions for dealing with unkempt neighbors or landlords whose tenants are dealing drugs. It also features advice on resolving conflicts and navigating small claims court.

In addition, NOLO offers a book addressed specifically to California Landlords and Tenants. Tenants’ Rights by Myron Muskovitz & Ralph Warner covers just about everything in Every Landlord’s Legal Guide, but from the tenant’s perspective, and provides a very detailed view of landlord-tenant law in California.

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