A Note From The Legal Helpdesk: A General Overview of Alabama’s Laws on Landlords and Tenants
March 13, 2018
Over the past several months, the Legal Helpdesk has received multiple questions on various landlord-tenant issues. This article provides highlights on Alabama’s landlord-tenant laws specifically targeted to issues that REALTORS® may face.
General Information – Laws for Landlords and Tenants
While this article focuses primarily on Alabama’s laws, Federal laws also apply and should be taken into consideration. Federal laws in this area focus on non-discrimination and include, among others, the Fair Housing Act, the Civil Rights Acts, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Federal acts work together to prohibit discriminating against tenants because of race, religion, familial status, age, disability, national origin, or sex.
In Alabama, the relationship between a tenant and landlord was governed for many years by common law principles and a smattering of general laws. However, in 2006, Alabama made vast changes to this area with the passage of the Alabama Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (the “Landlord-Tenant Act” or “the Act”). General laws on leases still apply but are supplemented by the Landlord-Tenant Act.
The Landlord-Tenant Act changed many of the fundamental elements of the landlord-tenant relationship. In an effort to provide additional leverage to tenants, the Act mandated certain responsibilities of landlords, including ensuring that any leased premises are habitable and in good repair. On a foundational level, the Act obligates landlords and tenants to carry out their duties in good faith. Ala. Code § 35-9A-142. This duty of good faith must be considered by landlords and tenants for all duties under a lease agreement, including performance and enforcement.
What is Covered and Not Covered
In general, the Landlord-Tenant Act covers residential lease agreements. Ala. Code § 35-9A-102(c). However, the Act specifically does not apply in several situations, unless one of the exceptions is satisfied for the sole purpose of avoiding the application of the Act. These exceptions include, among others:
- Pre-closing occupancy agreements where the occupant is the purchaser;
- Post-closing occupancy agreements up to thirty-six (36) months where the occupant is the seller or a member of the seller’s family;
- Occupancy by members of a fraternity or social organization in a building operated for the organization’s benefit;
- Residence at medical, geriatric, educational, or similar institutions, whether public or private; and
- Temporary residence at a hotel, motel, or lodgings.
See Ala. Code § 35-9A-122.
Some provisions apply for every lease agreement covered by the Act. Here are some examples.
- Freedom of Contract – Provisions not specifically prohibited by the Act can be included in a lease.
- Default Tenancy Term – The Act sets the default term of a tenancy at week-to-week for tenants paying rent on a weekly basis and month-to-month for tenants paying rent monthly. However, the lease can specify a different default term.
- Lease Effective without Signature – Acceptance of rent without reservation by a landlord creates a binding rental agreement, where landlord did not sign an agreement signed and delivered by the tenant. Alternately, acceptance of possession and payment of rent without reservation creates a binding rental agreement, where tenant did not sign an agreement signed and delivered by the landlord. Leases created under this provision are limited to one year.
See Ala. Code §§ 35-9A-161; 35-9A-162.
Some provisions are prohibited by and unenforceable under the Landlord-Tenant Act. Abiding by these prohibitions is important because attempting to enforce a prohibited provision may subject a landlord to paying to the tenant actual damages plus other damages up to one month’s rent and reasonable attorney’s fees. The prohibitions in the Act include provisions that:
- waive any of a tenant’s rights or remedies under the Act;
- require the tenant to pay landlord’s attorney’s fees or the costs of collection;
- allow the landlord to keep the security deposit when required by law to return; or
- limit the liability of or indemnifies the landlord for duties arising under the law.
If one of these provisions, or other prohibited provisions, is present, the provision is unenforceable.
See Ala. Code § 35-9A-163.
Responsibilities of Landlord and Tenant
As we stated above, the purpose of the Landlord-Tenant Act was to make more equal the position of landlords and tenants. Here are some of the key responsibilities placed on both parties.
- Habitability – A landlord is required to keep the residence in habitable condition, complying with all building and housing codes that materially affect health and safety. All common areas should be kept clean and safe, and trash cans should be provided and maintained. However, leases of single family residences may shift the responsibility for repairs, water, and trash cans to the tenant with no additional consideration. Leases for non-single family residences may do the same but additional requirements apply. See Ala. Code § 35-9A-204. Tenants are obligated to maintain the residence in a clean and safe manner, keep plumbing clear, use the property and fixtures in a reasonable manner, cannot deliberately or negligently damage, destroy, or remove any part of the residence and must not impact the quiet enjoyment of other tenants. See Ala. Code § 35-9A-301. Repairs caused by a tenant’s failure to maintain the residence can be charged to the tenant as additional rent. See Ala. Code § 35-9A-422.
- Utilities – The Act requires landlords to keep in good and safe working order all electrical, plumbing, sanitary, heating, ventilating, air conditioning, and other appliances that are supplied or required to be supplied by a landlord. Landlords are also required to supply running water, including reasonable amounts of hot water, with some exceptions. A lease agreement can specify who covers utility bills, but, if a tenant is obligated to pay utility bills, the landlord is not responsible (Ala. Code § 35-9A-404(a)). If an unpaid utility bill is in the tenant’s name, the utility provider cannot require the landlord to pay the bill nor can the provider acquire a lien for the unpaid bill. Ala. Code § 35-9-15.
- Security Deposits – Landlords may require a security deposit from a tenant. While the security deposit cannot exceed one month’s periodic rent, this limitation does not apply to deposits for pets, changes to the residence, or increased liability risks to the landlord or residence. Landlords have 60 days after lease termination and delivery of possession to send the tenant either a refund for the entire security deposit or provide an itemized accounting of the amounts withheld. Failure to abide by the 60-day timeframe causes the landlord to pay the tenant double the original deposit. Landlords can utilize the security deposit to pay unpaid rent or for damages. Note that prepaid rent is not prohibited. See Ala. Code § 35-9A-201.
- Reasonable Access to Premises – Landlords are entitled to reasonable access to the premises in order to meet their obligations and show the property to purchasers, prospective tenants, workmen, and others. However, a landlord’s right of access is limited to reasonable times and a two-day notice, if possible. See Ala. Code § 35-9A-303.
- Retaliatory Conduct Prohibited – Landlords must be careful not to retaliate or appear to retaliate against a complaining tenant. Discriminatory retaliation will give the tenant a cause of action against the landlord for damages. See Ala. Code § 35-9A-501.
Breach and Cure
Landlords may terminate residential leases in certain situations, including material noncompliance with the lease, intentional misrepresentation of a material fact in the lease or application, or noncompliance with the tenant’s obligation to maintain the residence. When a breach occurs, a landlord must give the tenant notice and at least a seven-day period to cure the breach, except for intentional misrepresentations, which cannot be remedied or cured. Tenants are statutorily limited to curing 4 breaches in any 12-month term except by express, written consent of the landlord. Certain acts of a tenant or guest of a tenant are considered non-curable breaches, including: 1) possession or use of illegal drugs in the residence or common areas, 2) discharge of a firearm on the property, with some exceptions, and 3) criminal assault of a tenant or guest on the rental property.
See Ala. Code § 35-9A-421.
At times, a tenant may refuse to vacate the premises after a lease agreement is terminated or the term ends. Under the Landlord-Tenant Act, a landlord may bring an action to evict the tenant. Here are some notes of importance.
- Jurisdiction and Venue - An action to evict may be brought in district or circuit court in the county where the leased premises is located.
- Service of Process – A complaint may be served in two ways: 1) normal process under the Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure, or 2) hand delivery to the person living on the leased premises or posting notice on the leased premises if reasonable effort reveals no one resides there (and same-day mailing of the notice).
- Appeal – Either party may appeal an eviction judgment within seven days of judgment being entered. However, a tenant who appeals must pay to the circuit clerk all rents properly payable to maintain possession.
See Ala. Code § 35-9A-461.
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