By Jonathan Schmidt / Guest Column

Recent rulings by the Iowa Supreme Court have statewide implications for Iowa residential landlords and tenants.

Under the law, landlords have a responsibility to maintain a “habitable” environment for their tenants in compliance with local housing codes. The landlord is not only required to provide the property to the tenant in a habitable condition, but also to maintain the property as such throughout the duration of the tenant’s lease.

The Iowa Supreme Court’s rulings were in part with regard to carpet-cleaning provisions which require that tenants be subject to an automatic charge for professional carpet cleaning fees at the end of their lease, without an inspection and without regard to the carpet’s condition. We may well imagine that carpets post-tenant should always be cleaned – especially those of college students.

However, the court found the provision to be illegal – even though the tenants had signed a lease agreeing to the carpet-cleaning charge. The implications of this ruling span far beyond the ground we walk on. Landlords must investigate and explicitly detail all appropriate terms for a lease or rental agreement.

A lease agreement, a fixed-term lease or a rental agreement is a written contract for a term of residential tenancy that is typically one year or can also be month-to-month. The agreement specifies the terms under which tenants will live in the property of a landlord. Lease agreements can be extensively detailed, or they can be a simple, one-page document. However, in general, the more clarity expressed within the agreement, the fewer the chances of misunderstanding or even misdeed.

Some of the areas to think about and to expressly clarify within include:

Names of tenants. Every adult who lives in the rental unit should be named as tenants and sign the lease or rental agreement. That way each named tenant is legally responsible for all terms of the rental or lease agreement, including the full amount of the rent.

Term of the tenancy. Stipulate whether it is a month-to-month or a fixed-term lease.

Limits on occupancy. This not only clearly specifies whom you have agreed may live in the property, but also the number of occupants and the terms of subletting, should you choose to allow it.

Rent. Not only should you specify the amount of rent due and when it is due, but also acceptable methods of payment, such as by personal check or bank debit, and any potential late fees. Make sure that the late fee provisions comply with Iowa law.

Deposits and other fees. The use and return of security deposits can be a source of conflict between landlords and tenants. To avoid confusion and legal hassles, your agreement should be clear on the amount, limit, use and return of deposits. Remember that normal wear and tear cannot be charged to the tenant or deducted from a security deposit.

Repairs and maintenance. Clearly set out both your and your tenant’s responsibilities for repair and maintenance in your lease agreement, including property damage that may occur, complaints/repair requests, and allowed tenant modifications to the property.

Entry to rental property. Your lease or rental agreement should clarify the landlord’s access to the property (to make repairs, for example), and how much advance notice will be provided before entering. Ensure that the notice provisions comply with at least the minimum requirements of 24 hours and written notice of the date and time when you intend to enter.

Illegal activity. Within the agreement, include detailed behaviors that are prohibited, such as illegal activities and excessive noise. This can limit your exposure to lawsuits and problems from other residents and neighbors.

Pets. If pets are allowed, specify which pets are acceptable, how many and what consequences will ensue if there is resulting damage. Otherwise, clearly state in the agreement: No pets.

Other restrictions. There are many other legal ordinances which may apply, depending on Iowa and local laws, including health and safety codes, antidiscrimination laws, tenants’ rights and disclosure requirements, among others.

Well-researched, well-planned and well-written agreements protect both tenants and landlords, and help to keep everyone out of court. If you’re a landlord, know your rights and limitations so that you and your tenants are protected. And if you’re unsure of either, get help from an attorney.

Jonathan Schmidt is an attorney and partner with Nazette, Marner, Nathanson & Shea LLP. He practices in areas of business and litigation. He can be contacted at jschmidt@nazettelaw.com or www.jschmidtlaw.com.

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