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Dangerous Pets, Risky Behavior, and Your Rental Property

Most landlords understand the most common tenant problems; from tenants who paint the walls terrible colors to those with noise problems and even those who skip out on the rent, every landlord has a horror story. The worst issues of all, though, are those that cause legal liabilities or catastrophic damage to your home or property.

In some cases, landlords can be held responsible for their tenant's actions—and even their pets. If you, as a landlord, have a tenant with a dangerous dog or exotic animal and you are aware of the risk, you could be held responsible for that pet’s actions if you do nothing to rectify the situation.

Even the way the tenant uses your home can lead to legal issues. If your tenant is selling drugs, manufacturing drugs, or even erecting unsafe structures on your property, then you face a variety of issues, from legal troubles to terrible property damage. Learning more about the most common hazards and how you could be held responsible can help you protect yourself and your property from harm.

Dangerous Dogs

Most dogs, regardless of breed, are companion animals and hopefully members of the family. For most landlords, the most common pet concerns revolve around odor, pests, and soiled carpets; but if your tenant has a dangerous dog, you could be held responsible for harm caused by that pet even if you are not in control of the animal when it harms someone. In many cases, the tenant is responsible for his or her own pet and its behavior (it is a good idea to require tenants with pets to carry renters insurance for this reason). There are a few scenarios, though, where you could be held liable for damages after a dog-related injury:

  • You knew the dog was dangerous: If your tenant has a dog that you know has attacked someone, menaced you, or is known to be unsafe and you continue to allow the dog on your property, then you could be held liable if the dog injures someone.
  • You knew the dog was a risk: If you know the dog is a risk to your other tenants, the neighborhood, and even delivery people, then you should take steps to remove the animal from your property through any means necessary.

Can You Remove the Dog?

Some states do not allow you to arbitrarily remove a dangerous dog; in this case you might not be held liable for any damage the dog causes. However, you should still alert all bystanders and potential visitors of the risk.

If you know the dog is dangerous and you can legally remove it but choose not to, you could face a liability nightmare. Your lease agreement and any pet clause should include details about pets, including those exhibiting dangerous behavior. Even if you do not own the dog, if you have the ability to legally remove it but do not, you could be found negligent for that pet’s actions.

Who Cares for the Dog?

If you provide any kind of care for the dog on a regular basis, then you could also share liability for its actions. If you walk, feed, or pet-sit, then you could be considered a co-owner and face the same penalties as the owner if the dog harms someone.

Protect yourself from dog-bite-related nightmares by knowing your local law and incorporating details about pets in your lease agreement. If a dog is found to be dangerous, you need to have a way to remedy the problem right away. Properly screening your tenants can also reveal past problems, and requiring that any pets on the premises be registered as required by law can help as well.

You can also mitigate risk by carrying your own insurance and making sure that any breed allowed on your premises is included in your policy. Some dogs that are deemed dangerous could be excluded.

Any dog can bite, but some towns and homeowners' associations (HOA) have created legislation specifically addressing the breeds that cause the most bites and injuries each year. While ultimately the dog’s behavior and your knowledge of it will be what causes you to be liable, a banned breed could cause you a lot of hassle for very little return.

If your tenant is discovered with the banned breed, the dog could face confiscation if the tenant does not make other arrangements right away. You may not face a legal problem at this point, but you could end up with a broken lease as your tenant looks for another place to live with their pet.

You could also be charged by your own HOA, depending on the rules you agreed to. A banned breed allowed on your property could also work against you if the individual animal does bite someone. If you have insurance, you may not be protected if a banned breed bites someone, even if that breed is allowed in your local area. Some insurers will not cover homes with banned breeds or will exclude those breeds from coverage.

Exotic (and Illegal) Pets

While dogs cause most animal-related injuries, a tenant with an unusual or exotic pet could also put you at risk if you know about the pet and allow it on your property. From monkeys and apes to big cats and oversized or venomous reptiles, tenants who bring wild animals on the property are likely skirting the law—and you could be too, if you allow it.

An extreme example of this is the story of Travis the chimpanzee, famous for a brutal attack on a neighbor who was visiting his home. The chimp, despite knowing and behaving well with the guest on other occasions, attacked, resulting in catastrophic injuries. The pet’s owner was held liable for the animal’s actions, but a similar situation in a rental property would likely result in landlord liability as well, if the landlord knew the animal was present. The victim sued not only the owner, but the city as well, stating that the local government knew the animal was kept as a pet but did not take steps to remove it.

While your tenants are not likely to show up with a chimp (these exotic pets cost upwards of $60,000), they could harbor other, less expensive but still dangerous animals, such as:

  • venomous snakes,
  • wild cats,
  • wolves, and
  • foxes.

These animals kept as pets can harm visitors and could result in landlord liability if the landlord knows they are present. Proceed with caution, and require a face-to-face meeting with any pet your tenant owns to ensure you know what you are allowing onto your property.

Using the Home as a Marijuana Farm

As states across the nation struggle with the question of medical and recreational marijuana use, landlords face a surprising problem: homes used as grow houses. While your liability may be limited to what you know about the growing operation located in your rental property (you cannot report something you do not know about), the end result of this type of use is devastating for your property and extremely costly.

Since the plants in question need to be grown in secret, homes are incredibly damaged by the process. Holes punched in walls and ceilings to hang grow lights, indoor irrigation systems (that destroy the floors and possibly the foundation), and even overgrowth of mold can haunt you for years to come.

Illegal Behavior

Tenants buying or selling drugs, dealing with stolen items, or engaging in other illegal activities can be a nightmare for you as the landlord, and you could even be held liable for some of their activities. If you suspect drug use or the manufacturing or sale of drugs on your property and do nothing about it, you could end up in trouble. Promptly investigating and reporting any signs of drug use can protect you legally and protect your property as well.

When one of your tenants deals drugs, you will see an increase in foot traffic and a rise in unsavory visitors. Your actual property could also be impacted; the manufacture of some types of drugs can result in fires and other damage, leaving you with an empty, damaged unit and a rental with a horrible reputation.

How Messy Is Too Messy?

While everyone has their own standards of organization and cleanliness, a tenant that crosses the line from messy into a hazard could cause problems for you legally and will certainly damage your property. A home that is disorganized, has toys on the floor, or is just not as clean as you like is something most landlords have to live with. But a home that looks like an episode of the show Hoarders is a different situation.

As a landlord, you are required to maintain a safe abode. If the home in question is a hazard to others and you do not do anything about it, you could face liability. If the home has children, elderly people, or impaired adults in appalling conditions, you should report it to the proper authorities, just in case.

Even if the messy home is not enough to endanger others, your result will be a filthy rental unit that you have to clean up. Animal feces, used diapers, actual garbage, and other refuse is hazardous to clean out and takes a huge toll on your residence. Addressing the level of cleanliness and ensuring your home is not a hazard to others is essential, particularly if you are the landlord for a multifamily unit.

Attractive Nuisances

An attractive nuisance is an item that is both tempting and dangerous to children. A swimming pool is a typical item that falls into this category. The presence of an attractive nuisance on your property could cause you to be held liable, even if you did not place the item there in the first place.

If your rental home includes a pool with the proper safety precautions and insurance, then you will likely not be exposed to additional risk; however, the temporary pools sold in big-box stores can be considered an attractive nuisance, since they could cause a child to enter the property. These pools do not come with the safety features and fences that a permanent fixture would have.

If your tenant adds objects to the exterior of your property that could be tempting to kids, they could be held liable for damages caused by those objects. Since landlords are responsible for the property, they are also responsible for the attractive nuisances erected there.

Attractive nuisances are man-made; an existing tree or pond does not fall into this category. The most common nuisances include water-filled features, from hot tubs and spas to pools. Other appealing items are play equipment (trampolines, climbing walls, swings, etc.) and improperly stored appliances (which could lead to entrapment).

Protecting yourself starts with a good lease agreement that outlines what your tenant can and cannot add to the property and gives you a legal way to cope with unwanted additions. A strong lease agreement is the best way to protect yourself and your home from this type of problem.

Understanding that your tenant's behavior, belongings, and even their pets could impact your own life in a surprising number of ways can help you avoid problems. Addressing some of these key components in your lease agreement can protect your property and your assets from potential liability and legal troubles.