Rental leases can often be long and hard to understand. And while they’re partly designed to protect the tenant, they’re written by the landlords and property owners. With that in mind, be mindful of how they can lean in their favor. Here’s what you should be checking when you’re signing a lease for a rental home in Austin, Texas.
Rental Homes in Austin
When it comes to rental homes in Austin, the lease is the law more often than not. Some laws — like whether or not your landlord can enter the property without telling you — aren’t officially in place. So in a court of law, a judge must rely on the lease to clarify when and under what circumstances a landlord can enter. Other scenarios like lockouts are illegal in Texas as they are in most other states unless there’s a clause in the lease that clearly states the landlord may do this. If such a clause (and many others) slipped past you when you signed your lease, you may have given your landlord more rights than you intended. So before you seal the deal with a binding signature, check your lease for these important points.
1. Landlord Entry
There’s no law in Texas that regulates landlord entry. And though most legal cases lean in favor of the lessee to give permission first, a simple clause can trump that.
“The TAA lease, which is widely used in Texas, states the landlord can enter for reasons ranging from removing unauthorized pets to showing the unit to prospective buyers to stopping excessive noise,” says the Austin Tenants’ Council’s website.
Even if the landlord of your Austin rental home issues a different type of lease, be aware that precedents set by other cases can be strongly influential, says Austin real estate agent and owner of Sweet ATX Pads, Frank Salas.
“If a different lease format is used, one that does not mention landlord entry, previous cases hold that landlords can enter for repairs, emergencies, or to post notices. Ensure that the contract states what the time frame is for your landlord to give you notice before entering your premises. Note that this would not apply in an emergency situation,” Salas recommends.
In Other Cities
The rules are similar in cities like New York City and San Francisco, but there are laws in place. In NYC, for instance, a landlord may only enter for repairs and inspections and must give the tenant 24 hours notice (unless it’s for emergency repairs). In SF a landlord may enter for repairs, to show the property to prospective tenants and contractors, or with a court order, and all with a 24-hour notice. Again, if there is an emergency, the landlord may enter immediately. The takeaway is that there may or may not be laws to protect you from landlord entry, so check your local laws first, then your lease.
Sometimes, tenants can negotiate aspects of the lease. Maintenance procedure is another point lessees should check before signing. Especially with rental homes in Austin, the maintenance process is lengthy.
“Pay attention to turnaround time on maintenance issues,” says Salas. “Ensure that most of them can be addressed within 24 hours, especially the ones that are important to everyday life. There are laws in Austin that pertain to turnaround time on maintenance for things like air conditioning that can actually result in you getting free rent.”
Without a clear indication on maintenance timelines (and the know-how on the tenant’s part), it can take days, if not weeks, for even an emergency repair.
In Other Cities
For some renters around the country, the city government has taken necessary steps to introduce a protocol for emergency repairs. In Los Angeles, the Urgent Repair Program demands that landlords repair dangerous situations in as little as 48 hours. In NYC, a tenant can report the issue to the City’s hotline and has the right to withhold rent until repairs are made, or hire a repairman and deduct the cost of the repairs from their rent.
Here’s an Austin exclusive: Landlords can lock you out. Again, this is only if the lease you signed specifically gives the landlord the right to change the locks in the event that rent is not paid. That being said, it is not legal to lock out a tenant permanently — meaning a short-term eviction is not legal.
If the lease states the landlord may lock the tenant out in an attempt to further draw attention to a failed rent payment, the landlord must provide a written notice in advance and may not charge the tenant for the new key; the landlord must give the tenant a key within two hours of the tenant’s request.
“The intention of the lockout law is to force a tenant who is delinquent in rent to have contact with the landlord to discuss the problem or to arrange payment,” says the Austin Tenants’ Council’s website. “Landlords must follow a strict procedure when changing the door locks of a tenant, and the tenant must be given a new key whether or not any delinquent rent is paid. A landlord cannot legally, permanently lock a tenant out without going through the eviction process.”
In Other Cities
Typically the term “lockout” implies a short-term eviction, which is why the Austin Tenants’ Council’s website is so adamant about repeating that their lockouts are not evictions. More often than not, it’s safe to assume that short-term evictions are illegal. In New York City, the landlord needs require a court order to lock a tenant out or begin a full eviction process. In San Francisco, it’s considered harassment for the landlord to change the locks without the tenant’s permission.
4. Eviction Time-Frames
Evictions are still a legal process, but they’re a bit expedited for rental homes in Austin — or they can be. You likely won’t find anything in your lease about it, but if you don’t want to go through the eviction process, you’ll want to read your lease carefully so you know what terms you’re complying with.
In Austin, the landlord first has to tell the tenant to leave with a written notice, or a Notice to Vacate. Note that you do not have to leave just because you receive this notice. If your landlord wants to evict you, they must provide a proper notice and follow the official steps in the judicial process. There are strict guidelines by which a landlord must deliver a Notice to Vacate also, so keep in mind that it can’t just be a text message or email. If the tenant doesn’t leave by the deadline given on the notice (likely a short deadline), the landlord must file an eviction suit. The tenant may go to the hearing date scheduled afterward, and if the tenant is found to lose the suit, they have five days to vacate. If the tenant doesn’t comply, the eviction process can be as short as two weeks.
In Other Cities
In San Francisco, the eviction process takes one to two months minimum, and that’s if the tenant is compliant (which they don’t have to be). In NYC, the landlord must first prove in court that you’ve violated the terms of the lease, and then still has to give you 30 days to relocate, after all the legal stuff.
Moral of the story: Read your lease carefully, renters, regardless of where you live. What might seem common sense in other renting markets (or even the local laws) can be turned on its head with a simple clause in a lease.