Throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, thousands of residents have to rent their homes, while thousands of others provide rental properties as landlords. When entering into a rental agreement, both landlords and tenants must consider a number of issues. This guide sheds light on some salient rental agreement considerations based on Massachusetts landlord-tenant laws, including rules pertaining to the types of tenancies, payments, habitable living conditions, evictions, and housing discrimination.
It is important that both Massachusetts landlords and tenants understand the laws and regulations governing all aspects of rental arrangements.
Types of Tenancy
The rights and responsibilities of both the landlord and the tenant partly depend on the type of tenancy they are involved in. There are two main types of tenancy in Massachusetts:
Tenancy Based on a Lease
This type of tenancy is based on a written lease. When a tenant signs a lease with a landlord, both parties agree that the tenancy will last for a specific length of time, usually one year. During that period, the monthly rent will remain unchanged, and the landlord cannot unilaterally end the tenancy through an eviction unless the tenant fails to meet the conditions agreed upon in the lease.
On his part, the tenant is committed to paying rent when due and may only end the tenancy before the expiration of the lease term if the landlord consents to an early termination of the lease. A lease is a good option for landlords and tenants craving stability in a tenancy. Since it is a written agreement between the landlord and his tenant, it should encompass all of the rules that will govern the tenancy.
Rather than have a specific timeframe, a tenancy-at-will means that the lease agreement will last for as long as both parties desire. In other words, the tenant pays the agreed rent for an indefinite period. Either the landlord or the tenant may decide to terminate the tenancy by serving notice to the other party. The notice must be served either 30 days or one month before the due date of the next rent payment, whichever is longer. In this type of agreement, the landlord can change the rent, but with the same notice period as when terminating the tenancy (i.e., either 30 days or one month before the due date of the next rent payment, whichever is longer).
Sometimes, a tenancy-at-will can occur without any written agreement. But often, the tenant is asked to sign a form that says “Tenancy-at-Will” or “Rental Agreement” at the top. The form usually includes the amount to be paid as monthly rent and other basic rules. In a nutshell, a tenancy-at-will has no particular duration or certain date of expiration, unlike a lease-based tenancy.
Obligations of the Landlord and of the Tenant
Whether faced with a lease-based tenancy or a tenancy-at-will, a Massachusetts tenant is expected to pay rent when due and follow other rules agreed upon with the landlord, including the responsibility for any damage to the rental unit that is more than just “normal wear and tear” (whether such damage is caused by the tenant or by the tenant's guest).
The landlord must provide the tenant with a safe, clean rental unit that is in compliance with the Massachusetts Sanitary Code. He must also abide by any promises he makes in the lease or rental agreement.
Under both kinds of tenancy, the landlord may gain entrance to the tenant's rental unit in certain circumstances, such as to make repairs, inspect the condition of the apartment, or show the apartment to prospective tenants, buyers, or real estate agents. However, the landlord must arrange with the tenant in advance before entering the unit, except if there is a mechanical or repair emergency that can potentially damage the whole rental property or if it seems that the tenant has abandoned the rental unit (M.G.L. c. 186, § 15AF, §16).
Although not explicitly required by Massachusetts landlord-tenant laws or regulations, it is important for both landlord and tenant to realize that they can negotiate over the terms of a lease. The landlord should not hurry a tenant to make a decision, and both parties should have a very clear understanding of the terms and conditions before signing the lease. Any changes they agree to should be written down in the lease, making sure to cross out any sections they agree to change.
Terms of a Rental Agreement
A rental agreement must contain certain terms and is also prohibited by law from having some other terms (M.G.L. c. 186, § 15A-F, §16). A Massachusetts lease must include the name, address, and phone number of the owner, the individual responsible for the property's maintenance, and the individual to whom the tenant can serve copies of formal notices, complaints, or court papers. If the landlord gets a security deposit, the lease or rental agreement must not only show the amount paid but must also detail the tenant’s rights to that security deposit money (M.G.L. c. 186, § 15B) The landlord must ensure that the tenant receives a legible copy of the lease or rental agreement (M.G.L. c. 186, § 15D).
The lease must not contain illegal conditionalities such as:
- The tenant may not join a tenants’ union
- The tenant must bear the cost of repairing ordinary wear and tear to the rental unit
- The tenant must bear the cost of repairs to sections of the property beyond his unit
- The tenant must pay a late fee if his rent payment is even one day late. A Massachusetts lease or rental agreement may allow the landlord to charge a late fee if a rent payment is 30 or more days late
- The tenant may not sue the landlord or report violations of the Sanitary Code
Tenant security deposits must be deposited in a Massachusetts bank, in an interest-bearing account, and within the first month of the tenancy. The landlord is required to provide the tenant with the name and address of the bank where the security deposit is kept, as well as the account number and the amount of the deposit.
The landlord should give the tenant a “Statement of Condition” within 10 days of the commencement of the tenancy or upon receipt of the security deposit, whichever is later. The statement describes the condition of the apartment and any existing damage at that time. The tenant has 15 days to make his own contributions to the Statement of Condition or make changes to it. Both the landlord and tenant should keep copies of the final Statement of Condition.
Security Deposit Interest
A security deposit is the tenant’s asset or property, so if the tenancy lasts for a year or longer, the landlord must pay interest to the tenant on the deposit. The tenant is entitled to the interest amount paid by the bank for the deposit. However, if the landlord does not lodge the security deposit in a bank, the tenant is entitled to a 5% annual interest rate on it. At the end of each year of the tenancy, the landlord should either pay the interest to the tenant or subtract it from the tenant’s next rent payment.
Withholding a Security Deposit
At the end of the tenancy, the landlord must return the security deposit and the interest to the tenant within 30 days. However, the landlord may deduct any unpaid rent or amount needed to repair any damage done to the unit beyond normal wear and tear. The landlord must provide the tenant with a written description of the damage and an estimate of the repair cost within 30 days of the tenant vacating the unit. If the lease conditions permit, the landlord may also deduct the tenant’s share of any increase in the landlord’s property taxes.
Massachusetts landlord-tenant laws do not permit a landlord to take possession of his rented property, physically or forcefully eject a tenant or the tenant's personal properties, or change a unit's locks without court approval. Depending on the reason for the intended eviction, a landlord must serve the tenant either a 14-Day Notice to Quit or a 30-Day Notice to Quit. He must then also file a civil action (summary process) in court, and obtain a judgment that specifies the date the tenant must vacate the rental property with his belongings or face forced eviction.
If the tenant fails to voluntarily vacate at the expiration of the court's deadline, his landlord must arrange for a Sheriff or Constable to serve an executed judgment on the tenant ordering him to leave and, if necessary, transfer any personal properties belonging to the tenant to a licensed public warehouse.
In such a situation, the landlord may pay the associated moving fees but is entitled to be reimbursed by the tenant. However, Massachusetts landlord-tenant law allows the tenant a one-time opportunity to claim items of personal or sentimental value from the storage facility, and all his personal properties after paying any fees charged by the storage facility.
Mediation as an Option
If the landlord and the tenant agree, they may leverage mediation services provided by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office to resolve a dispute that might otherwise lead to an eviction. Additionally, the Massachusetts Association for Community Action or the local housing court can assist in resolving disputes between a landlord and his tenant.
The Eviction Process
The formal eviction process, or summary process, starts when the landlord files a Complaint in court. During the process, the tenant has the right to raise defenses to the eviction itself and present counterclaims for pecuniary damages. Some common defenses against eviction include:
- Failure to properly terminate a tenancy
- The landlord failed to correct known conditions
- Trying to evict a tenant in retaliation for activities protected by law
- Discrimination (see below)
- A landlord's failure to make a reasonable accommodation
It is unlawful for a landlord to refuse to rent a rental unit because of race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, marital status, religion, age, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, military background, or disability. Apart from very few exceptions, it is also illegal to refuse to rent to someone with children.
Get Extra Protection With Steadily
With laws that tend to favor preserving tenant's rights more, Massachusetts is not considered a “landlord-friendly” state. One effective way Massachusetts landlords can cope with this is by making sure they are protected against any liabilities by getting a Steadily landlord insurance coverage for their rental property in Massachusetts. What's more, it's time to take out tenancy challenges and several other forms of risk from your Massachusetts property investment. Steadily offers a level of landlord protection you won't find in a standard insurance home policy. Get a Steadily quote today!