Can a Landlord Be Held Liable for Crimes Committed on Their Rental Property?

All property owners are required to protect their tenants from criminal activity to some degree. Not only are landlords liable for criminal acts committed by their tenants, but they also have a responsibility to protect the neighborhood from the illegal activities of strangers.

With that in mind, landlords need to take steps that not only limit the potential for crime, but also reduce the risk of being held responsible if an assault, burglary, or other crime occurs. Here are a few things you should consider, although please note that this is for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice:

  • Review all the state and local security laws that apply to your property, such as deadbolt requirements, locks on the windows, and ensuring areas around the property are well-lit.
  • Take a genuine assessment of the crime in the neighborhood your property is located and use this information to design a security system that will improve the safety of your tenants. Reach out to local law enforcement, your insurance company, and private security professionals to get advice and recommendations.
  • Educate your tenants about neighborhood safety and the types of crime typically seen near the property. You should also go over the security measures you’re providing, including how to use them and any limitations they have.
  • Perform regular maintenance inspections, keeping an eye out for any potential security issues like broken locks or burnt-out floodlights. Check in with your tenants too – ask if they have any suggestions or if they’ve spotted any problems you might have missed.
  • All tenant complaints about suspicious people or activities, dangerous circumstances, or broken security items should be handled immediately. Failing to do so could cause you to take on more liability if a tenant becomes injured after making a complaint.

Although some safety measures can be costly, they’re worth preventing larger issues caused by crime occurring at your property – and potential settlements, which could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. If your safety measures require a rent increase, discuss it with your tenants. Many of them will likely be fine with paying more if it increases the safety of their home.

Another thing to keep in mind: you should be particularly careful when choosing a property manager, especially because they’ll be your tenants’ first point of contact and have access to all the master keys. It’s crucial to run a complete background check on the property manager and pay close attention to their job performance, especially since a tenant could sue you if they have property stolen or damaged because you failed to supervise the property manager closely. If you receive reports of the property manager behaving in a troubling or illegal way, take notice! Investigate the matter and replace the property manager if the claims are valid. Also, you’ll want to make sure that your insurance coverage includes illegal acts carried out by employees.

What if a Tenant Deals Illegal Drugs on the Property?

Liability concerns don’t just involve strangers – sometimes they come from your own tenants. What happens if you have a tenant who is dealing drugs on your property? Unfortunately, this can cause practical and legal issues.

Anyone (whether they’re another tenant or someone in the neighborhood) who’s injured or concerned about a tenant dealing drugs can technically sue a landlord on the grounds of the property being a public nuisance or threat to public safety. In addition, federal or locawl authorities can enact fines on the basis that you’re allowing illegal activity to continue. In some cases, law enforcement may even seek criminal penalties – and in extreme cases, the property can be confiscated. Beyond creating potential legal problems for you, a property where drugs are being dealt can make it difficult to find and retain good tenants, and it could even affect your property value.

How Can Landlords Avoid Liability Caused by Tenants Breaking the Law?

Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to avoid issues caused by tenant-related criminal activity and reduce your liability.

  • Screen your tenants carefully to ensure you’re choosing people who are responsible and law-abiding. Be careful with criminal records, however, since some states have laws regarding when in the application process you can use criminal records. Make sure to review screening laws as they apply to your property to ensure you’re screening everyone legally.
  • Avoid accepting cash for rent payments; instead, choose methods that have a paper trail, such as a check or online payments.
  • Don’t look the other way if a tenant is disruptive in some way. Make sure your lease or rental agreement clearly prohibits selling drugs and other types of illegal activities. If you discover a tenant has violated those terms, begin the eviction process immediately.
  • Stay aware of what goes on at your properties, including any suspicious activities like excessive traffic coming and going from the premises.
  • Be responsive to complaints you receive from tenants or neighbors, especially if they involve drugs or other illegal activities. Once you’ve been notified of the problem, contact the local police department for guidance on handling the issue.

Rental property owners are being sued more regularly for negligence in criminal activity, with many settlements and jury awards ranging anywhere from $100,000 to $1 million, so it’s essential to take the matter seriously and take all steps to prevent problems from arising. You may be at even greater liability risk if similar situations have occurred in the past, so make sure you keep a close eye on your properties and reassess your security measures regularly to keep your tenants – and yourself – protected.

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