Tenants: Beware and Negotiate

In a matter of first impression before the Texas Supreme Court, the Court ruled that a Residential Lease provision that obligated the Tenant to pay for any damages that result from “any cause not due to Landlord’s negligence or fault” was not void and unenforceable.

The background facts:  A young lady, Carmen White, got her first apartment and signed a standard Texas Apartment Association (“TAA”) lease.  Her parents gave her a washer and dryer set as a gift.  While using the dryer, it caught fire and burned her apartment and others nearby.  The damages to the apartment complex exceeded $83,000.00.  The source of the ignition was unknown and no fault was placed on White or the Landlord.  The landlord’s insurance company paid the claim, subrogated, and demanded reimbursement from Ms. White.  When she refused to pay the insurance company brought suit against her. 

The Procedural facts:  The case was tried to a jury.  After trial, the jury answered “no” to a question asking if White’s negligence proximately caused the fire.  However, the jury answered “yes” to the question whether White breached the lease agreement by failing to pay the casualty loss.  The jury awarded the landlord $93,498.00 in damages.  White moved for judgment not withstanding the verdict which was granted and the trial court rendered a take-nothing judgment.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court ruling holding that that the Reimbursement Provision was void as against public policy.  The Appeals Court found a fatal conflict between the Reimbursement Provision’s broad language and Chapter 92 of the Texas Property Code restricting a Landlord’s ability to contractually allocate repair responsibilities.

The Supreme Court ruling:  The Supreme Court was to determine, as a matter of first impression, whether public policy embodied in the Texas Property Code precludes enforcement of a residential lease provision imposing liability on a tenant for property losses resulting from “any other cause not due to the landlord’s negligence or fault”.  In so holding the Supreme Court (in a 5-4 decision) repeatedly stated the well known legal axiom that “Parties in Texas may contract as they wish, so long as the agreement does not violate the law or offend public policy, recognizing the the Legislature has limited the freedom of a landlord and tenant to contractually allocate responsibility for repairs materially affecting health and safety.  Interestingly in footnote 4, the court acknowledged that above the signature block, the lease prominently states that the lease can be modified by agreement of the parties, but neither party requested modifications to the Reimbursement Provision. 

The Lease contained a reimbursement provision standard in the TAA lease which obligated the Tenant to pay for any damages that result from “any cause not due to Landlord’s negligence or fault”.

As we all know it is almost impossible to get a Landlord to revise any provision in a standard form lease, but if you are to avoid the tragedy that happened to Ms. White, you must negotiate a modification of the Lease.

Be aware that the TAA Lease is a legal document and forms a binding contract.  You should consult an attorney for help revising the Lease. 

We would first add a sentence to Section 10, Special Provisions.  We would write in the blanks a sentence to limit my liability.  For instance, “Notwithstanding anything to the contrary, Tenant shall never be responsible for repair, or liable for damages to Landlord’s property, including other units in the complex, unless such damage is proximately caused by the negligence of Tenant, Tenant’s guests, or invitees.”

Secondly, we would strike out certain language contained in Section 12. We would strike out “or any other cause not due to our negligence or fault”, at the end of the first sentence of Section 12.

We firmly believe that no residential Tenant should be held responsible to repair other units damaged or for property losses “resulting from any other cause not due to the landlord’s negligence or fault.”  Do not let this happen to you.

A Review of Basic Texas Landlord-Tenant Laws & Interests

When Texas leases successfully balance the rights and privileges that landlords and tenants most desire, they often help minimize future disagreements and legal challenges. However, before such leases can be drafted, all contractual parties must try to better understand the primary interests of those countersigning the required documents.

In general, stable and responsible tenants want to extend their leases with landlords who provide quality property, respect tenant privacy rights and make all promised repairs promptly. And good landlords want to attract and retain tenants who pay their rent on time, get along well with other tenants — and keep the rented or leased property in good condition. If respectable landlords will also provide all required legal disclosures to prospective tenants, few problems may arise.

Here’s additional information both Texas landlords and tenants should bear in mind while trying to build and maintain good relationships with one another.

Federal laws forbid discrimination and other wrongful practices

Whether renting commercial or residential properties, landlords must avoid violating all

federal statutes and regulations. Perhaps the most important law is the Fair Housing Act that forbids treating anyone unfairly who’s looking for a place to live.

Stated simply, property owners cannot discriminate against prospective tenants based upon their gender, race, color, national origin, disability, family status (regarding whether they have children under age 18 living with them) or religion. This law extends to all sales, rentals and financing of dwellings. Furthermore, as your Houston real estate attorney can explain to you in greater detail, there are Texas state, county, city and municipal laws that also define and extend these rights and obligations. In addition to forbidding discrimination, all these laws are designed to overcome past efforts to segregate society based on poverty and the seven factors named above.

Other federal laws affecting prospective property tenants include the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and specific Environmental Protection Agency laws and regulations. After obtaining an FCRA “background check” on a prospective tenant, landlords must allow people to formally dispute negative material in their credit reports with pertinent legal documents.

While respecting all federal, state, local and municipal laws – Texas landlords must also be prepared to provide tenants with numerous disclosures – including those set forth below.

Property information, equipment & disclosures all Texas landlords must provide

Since these can be quite numerous, the following list is merely representative of the more common ones.

  • Name and address of the property owner or property management company that can be contacted about ongoing needs or concerns;
  • All specific, defining rental lease terms. With renters, this must include information about the monthly “final” due date for rent and the acceptable ways to make all payments;
  • Information about the required security deposit – and when it will be returned after a tenant moves out (unless the tenant is no longer qualified to receive it);
  • Special rights of domestic violence victims. They must be informed about their right to withdraw from a lease when being subjected to abuse. While specific procedures must be followed, they should not further jeopardize these tenants;
  • Adequate security devices including window and door locks must be already installed upon move-in. Many state and local laws may also require the presence of fully functional fire extinguishers, smoke alarms and other safety equipment;
  • A clear and firm commitment to make all crucial repairs in a timely fashion. The most critical repairs are those that directly affect the health and safety of tenants;
  • Tenant parking and pet deposit information;
  • Detailed information on how all move-out matters must be handled.
  • Disclosures regarding the possible presence of lead-based paint or asbestos in the units. Likewise, recent bedbug infestations and other similar problems must be disclosed.

While this list isn’t entirely comprehensive, landlords who meet all these basic legal standards are likely to create harmonious relationships with tenants.

Please contact our law firm so we can answer your questions and prepare any rental contracts that you may require. Our experience in this field should allow us to fully meet your needs.