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Lease Disputes in Massachusetts - What You Need to Know

A. Leases In Massachusetts Have Certain Requirements. Knowing Your Remedies Can Protect Your Rights in the Case of a Dispute.

Massachusetts law sets forth certain requirements for lease agreements. Real estate disputes may arise as to the terms of the lease or a breach of the agreed upon terms. Understanding these rights and the possible remedies for their breach are important to ensuring your rights are protected.

Lease Requirements

Written lease agreements are only required for tenancies that are one year or greater. It is strongly encouraged that a lease is drawn up in every case to protect the rights of both landlords and tenants. In Massachusetts, every rental agreement must contain certain terms. The legislature has also prohibited the inclusion of various other terms.

The landlord must also ensure that the tenant is given a legible copy of the lease agreement. The lease must set forth the name, phone number and address of the owner, the person responsible for maintenance, and who can receive copies of formal complaints, notices, or court papers. The landlord should also include the:

  • Lease term
  • Occupancy Conditions
  • Description of the premises
  • Rent amount
  • Due date for rent

It is illegal for a lease to include terms such as:

  • Requiring the tenant to pay for parts of the building beyond the leased premises
  • Prohibiting the tenant from joining a tenant's union
  • Requiring the tenant to pay for ordinary wear and tear to the apartment
  • Enforcing a late fee if rent is even just a day late
  • Prohibiting the tenant from suing the landlord for violations of the Sanitary Code

Another important aspect of the lease agreement is the security deposit. If the landlord decides to collect a security deposit, the lease must state the amount paid, and must delineate what rights the tenant has to return the deposit. The deposit amount may not exceed one month's rent, and the money collected must be stored in a separate, interest-bearing account in a Massachusetts bank. A receipt for the deposit must be given to the tenant which includes the name and location of the bank, the amount deposited, and the account number where the funds are held. The tenant is entitled to any interest paid by the bank as a result of the deposit.

B. Common Areas of Dispute

Disputes concerning a lease agreement may arise over a variety of issues between a landlord and tenant. Following are some common examples of disputes which arise from lease agreements:

  • Disputes over Noise: Landlords may have to confront noisy tenants who are disturbing others. This affects tenants' right of quiet enjoyment of the premises. Massachusetts law places the burden on landlords to protect this right.
  • Safety and Sanitation Concerns: Landlords are required to ensure that rented premises are safe and habitable during the time of the tenancy. For example, a landlord is required to provide a heating system which is in good working order, kitchens with working appliances if provided, and the premises must be free of pests such as rats and cockroaches.
  • Structural Integrity: A landlord is required to maintain the rented premises in a safe condition. This includes the walls, doors, floors, windows, porches, and other aspects of the rented space. The premises must be able to keep out rain, wind, and snow.
  • Snow Removal: Every exit for use by tenants must remain free of obstruction.
  • Nonpayment of Rent: Likely the most common dispute of all, tenants are required to pay the contractually agreed upon rent. Late fees may be assessed if provided for in the lease agreement. A grace period exists which prevents immediate eviction for nonpayment of rent.

C. Remedies and the Legal Process

Rent Withholding

When a landlord fails to maintain the leased premises in a habitable condition, a tenant is permitted to withhold a portion of the rent after the tenant has served notice of the breach of the warranty of habitability. While permitted, such a step is serious and appropriate legal advice should be obtained.

A tenant may withhold rent if:

  • The local Board of Health has inspected the premises and found health code violations;
  • The tenant requested the landlord make necessary repairs;
  • The tenant is current on rent up until the time the landlord learns of the problems, the tenant did not cause the problems, and the conditions do not require the tenant to vacate the property for repairs to be made.

Once the landlord has repaired the issues with the premises the tenant must pay back all withheld rent. A landlord may pursue the tenant for this owed rent if the tenant refuses to pay.

Repair and Deduct

Tenants may repair a defect in the premises and deduct rent if certain conditions are met. First, the tenant must provide fourteen days written notice to repair the problem. If the landlord does not repair the problem, the tenant may fix it and deduct the amount of the repair from rent. Receipts for the repairs must be kept. If the repairs are deemed unreasonable, a tenant is only entitled to compensation for the value of the reasonable repairs made.

Eviction

There are three mains reasons why a landlord would evict a tenant:

  1. Failure to pay rent
  2. Illegal conduct on the rented premises
  3. Breach of the lease agreement

A landlord is required to give a tenant enough time to fix the violation. The time limits vary based on the reasons for eviction.

Process:

  • Complaint: Once the tenancy has been terminated, the landlord can serve a summons and complaint upon the tenant. After between seven and thirty days have elapsed the landlord can file a complaint in a Massachusetts court.
  • Answer: After the complaint is filed, the tenant is authorized to argue reasons why he or she should not be evicted and raise any possible counterclaims against the landlord.
  • Judgment and Appeal: Once the judge has made a decision in the case, both the landlord and tenant may appeal within ten days of the decision.
  • Execution: This is another name for the eviction order. If a physical eviction is authorized, the landlord is provided the order ten days after judgment. The tenant is entitled to receive notice of the date and time of the eviction at least 48 hours in advance. A landlord has three months in which to use the execution order.
  • Stay of Execution: A tenant may apply to stay longer on the premises if he or she can demonstrate to the judge that they are unable, in good faith, to find a new place to live. A judge may grant a stay of execution for up to six months.
  • Eviction: The tenant is required to move out. If the tenant refuses to vacate, a sheriff may remove the tenant's belongings.

Defenses:

  • "Self-help" eviction: A landlord may not attempt to evict a tenant outside of the approved court process.
  • If the landlord fails to follow the proper eviction procedures.
  • If the tenant is evicted for failing to pay rent, the tenant can stop the eviction by paying the balance owed prior to the filing of the eviction action.
  • The Massachusetts Antidiscrimination law and the Federal Fair Housing Act prohibit discrimination based on gender identity, sexual orientation, age, ancestry, marital status, veteran or armed forces status, or any disability.

Rights of the Landlord

While there are many rights a tenant has in Massachusetts, a landlord also has rights which can be enforced. If you are a landlord, understanding these rights can protect your property, your interests, and your living.

First and foremost a landlord has the right to enforce the terms of the tenant's lease. Tenant conduct such as failure to pay rent, violation of limitations set forth in the rental agreement, or destruction of the property may result in eviction, as outlined above.

After eviction, a landlord may also pursue damages from the tenant, such as:

  • Recovery of Back Rent: A landlord may sue the tenant for rent due which was not paid.
  • Early Termination of Lease: If, for example, a tenant vacates the property in June and the lease stated that the term ended in December, a landlord may pursue the amount of rent that would have been paid over those months. You should discuss with your attorney any responsibility you have to mitigate these damages by finding a new tenant.
  • Damage to the Property: A tenant who causes damage to the rental property may be held accountable for those damages. This would include the costs of repairs to windows, carpeting, appliances, etc. Care should be taken by the landlord to document all repairs, keep receipts, and to attempt to keep repair costs as reasonable as possible.
  • Recovery of Eviction Costs: One cost associated with a successful eviction is the landlord's duty to "move and store." A landlord is required to move and store an evicted tenant's possessions for up to three months. The landlord can sue the tenant for those costs, subject to certain limitations.
  • Use of Security Deposit: If a landlord chose to collect a security deposit, he or she may use that security deposit to pay for repairs or other damages as a result of a tenant's breach. Strict requirements set forth the procedure for the collection and use of a security deposit. Your attorney can ensure you meet each of these requirements which will enable you to utilize the deposit.

Understanding the requirements for leases in Massachusetts and the legal process when disputes arise is crucial to protecting your rights. At the Katz Law Group, we have been representing the interests of both landlords and tenants for 35 years. Please feel free to call us at 508-480-8202 or contact us online today.

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