Experts offer tips on how to avoid landlord-tenant disputes

Lawyer George Davis and West Tisbury health agent John Powers discussed landlord/tenant laws and regulations at a mediation workshop on May 16.
Photo by Nathaniel Horwitz

Lawyer George Davis and West Tisbury health agent John Powers discussed landlord/tenant laws and regulations at a mediation workshop on May 16.

Dispute mediators recommend checklists and written contracts.

With the summer rental season in full swing on Martha’s Vineyard, disputes between landlords and tenants are not uncommon. At a recent workshop hosted by the Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program (MVMP), those familiar with landlord-tenant laws and regulations recommended checklists and written contracts as commonsense ways to help prevent problems.

The workshop, held on May 16 at the Edgartown town hall meeting room, began with an overview of current Massachusetts laws governing l seasonal and year-round residential rentals, and transitioned to a question and answer session with 12 landlords, many of them mediators for MVMP, and four tenants.

“Sometimes tenants will not let landlords in,” West Tisbury lawyer George Davis said, citing one of many common disputes. “Do not force entry, even though it’s your right to enter,” Mr. Davis advised. “A lot of trouble can result from that, so you should go to court. It’s an unfortunate road to take, but it could save a lot of difficulty down the road.”

Other common issues highlighted during the session included tenants refusing to leave or pay for damages, and landlords mishandling deposits or forcing tenants out by shutting off utilities or changing the locks, tactics that can legally entitle the tenant to three months worth of rent for each offense. One of the most damaging and easily avoided disputes occurs when a tenant refuses to leave at the conclusion of their lease.

Start early

“We’re a resort destination and a lot of people rent their properties, so the opportunity arises for disagreement,” MVMP president Roland Miller said in a conversation with The Times. “The MVMP tries to help people with all sorts of disputes, between tenants and contractors, in small claims or others, and between contractors and other contractors, but often between tenants and landlords.”

Mr. Davis said the Vineyard presents a unique set of problems tied to the seasonal shift from winter to summer rentals.

“If the tenant doesn’t leave for whatever reason, it can wreak havoc on a landlord, who then has to deal with renters coming up with nowhere to stay,” said Mr. Davis in a conversation with The Times following the meeting. “It gets complicated on the Vineyard, as a vacation destination where summer rates are, you know, four times higher, with tenants paying $1,000 per month in winter but $4,000 per month in summer. The best way to prevent this dispute is having a tenant at will, who doesn’t have a lease and only requires 30 days notice to move out. Then the process can be started earlier, to get the tenant to leave by May 31.”

Peter Meleney, a MVMP outreach coordinator, said that the MVMP deals with eviction less often, because evictions go to court rather than small claims or mediation, but stressed checklists and good landlord-tenant relationships.

“Our view is that both landlords and tenants need a checklist, not the same checklist, before entering into any sort of agreement,” he said in a conversation with The Times. “I see disagreements which never should have happened. We had one family coming for a vacation rental, looking at a three-bedroom house, but they showed up and it was only two bedrooms. That could be avoided if there was a checklist that included confirming the listing matches reality. Another case, a family came in December, and it was cold and the heat didn’t work. This wouldn’t happen if there was a checklist with a utility check.”

He suggested local boards of health become involved in this process, creating an inspection checklist that covered common sources of landlord-tenant disputes.
“An inspector would look at the exterior, yard, locks, kitchen sinks, stove, refrigerator, outlets, window and door screens,” he said. “This is something you can do yourself, or get a town office to come and do it. From both a landlord and tenant standpoint, it would be nice to know the house has been inspected for health code standards, and I know that would help, even if not with the two-bedroom three-bedroom case. I don’t know if a town office would take something like that up, but they could charge for it and it would be in everyone’s best interests.”

He suggested that a checklist was a simple, commonsense solution.

“Surgeons do it, pilots do it, why don’t homeowners do it?” he said. “Even if you’re an expert, you need a checklist, because you can forget and make mistakes.”

He also stressed the importance of a written contract, another common-sense aspect of a successful landlord-tenant relationship that he says is often overlooked.

“Having a contract that both parties sign, and is clear, responsibilities of both parties in the contract, is common sense and prevents many disputes,” he said.

All three men recommended two booklets distributed by the Office of Consumer Affairs & Business Regulation when it came to preventing and resolving disputes. The booklets, a green one for landlords and a red one for tenants, are titled “A Massachusetts Consumer Guide to Rights and Responsibilities.” They can be acquired from the MVMP, which has a part- time office between Mondays and Fridays from 9 to 11 am across from the Black Dog Cafe on State Road (508-693-2999), or online at http://www.mass.gov/consumer.