Landlord-tenant relationship

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By Lawrence Enyoghasu

Many Nigerian landlords are not finding it funny with many of their tenants. Cases of tenants refusing to pay their utility bills or their elapsed tenancy are on the rise. What’s the way out for aggrieved landlords?

Mr Agomoh David, a lawyer, analyses the steps to take to lawfully eject a stubborn tenant. It is important to know that failure to pay one’s rent is not the only rationale for eviction. Other grounds for eviction may include: a breach of any covenant in the tenancy agreement signed by them before renting the property. Some of the covenants include: to pay rent, an agreement to keep the property in a good state of repairs, and an agreement not to use the premises for immoral or illegal purposes; not to use the property as a brothel or to grow marijuana; not to use the property to harbour criminals or commit crimes, and not to use the property for fraudulent deals.

The landlord can also issue a quit notice on the grounds of abandoning the property to rot; lack of maintenance of the property, making the premises unsafe, keeping the premises in a state of disrepair, allowing the premises to become a death trap for visitors and neighbours, tenants constituting a nuisance to the environment or their immediate environment, constantly fighting and constituting nuisance generally.

Tenants are protected by various tenancy and rent control laws in Nigeria. In Lagos, the tenancy law of Lagos State is used. Caution must be taken when drafting the tenancy agreement.

Mr. David says he will always advise that a lawyer should be engaged when making this agreement to ensure that necessary clauses are not omitted. The laws on tenancy provide that a tenant who pays rent every month is given a month notice before quitting. Those who pay every three months are given three months’ notice before eviction. Tenants who pay every six months are given three months’ notice before eviction, while those tenants who pay every year are given six months’ notice before they are evicted.

The first step to take in evicting your tenant is to have your lawyer serve him with a notice to quit if he is already six months in arrears of rent or according to your agreement with him. The notice to quit is a statutory requirement for the termination of all forms of periodic tenancies. A notice to quit must contain the type of tenancy (yearly or monthly, etc); the date to give up possession; the description of the property and address; the capacity in which the lawyer is writing.

The next step to take if the tenant still refuses to vacate is to serve him with a notice of the owner’s intention to apply to recover possession. This notice is to inform the tenant of the intention of the landlord to apply to court and recover the premises from the tenant. It is given for seven days, within which the tenant must vacate or prepare to go to court.

For the notice to be valid, the seven days must be clear and not short of one day. This is also a statutory requirement and must be given after the effluxion of the term and the notice to quit has expired.

This notice must contain: the type of tenancy; the description of the property, grounds, and particulars of the claim; the seven clear days within which to vacate; the capacity in which the lawyer is writing, and the outstanding rent to be paid. At this point, the tenant may decide to move. But, if he persists and refuses to leave, the next step will be to file a claim to a magistrate court within the jurisdiction of the property for recovery of premises.

The landlord will need to prove that the tenant is in arrears of rent, though this is not a prerequisite if the relevant notices were properly issued and the content and length of the notice are in line with statutory requirements. After the magistrate has heard the matter, the court will make an order to evict the tenant if it is proven that he has breached any of the covenants or is in arrears of rent.

The court will also award damages and mesne profits to the landlord. The mesne profit is the accumulated rent during the trial period. It begins to count from the moment the tenant becomes a statutory tenant; a tenant that can only be evicted by order of the court. It is not fixed, but, according to the value of the property, as the value increases, the mesne profit increases also.

Another very common problem with tenants and renters is the matter of property damage. These include unapproved improvements, negligence, and property abuse. In the olden days, property managers used to go through each rental unit holding a clipboard and pen to record all the issues among the tenants.

Taking pictures and videos will enable a property manager to archive ‘before’ pictures that they can use as proof of legal matters. You can also take current photos and upload pre-and-post tenancy photos to the inspection report. With this precaution, any kind of property damage will be apparent once you show the evidence at hand.

Illegal subletting

Subletting isn’t illegal per se. But it can be a lease-breaking activity if the landlord or property manager doesn’t allow it. Now that we have different services, too many people are taking advantage of booking rentals and passing them on for short-term vacations to other people.

Some places might have a law against this practice. If the practice is legal in your property’s area, you don’t want multiple strangers to be using your property in a very short period. These guests would not face the same tenant screening with which you vet your renters.

The same goes for long-term guests, unapproved roommates, or general subletting. Speak to your legal advisor about adding a clause to your lease that prevents unauthorized subletting or unapproved long-term guests.

Expert complainers

Tenants have all the right to complain if something isn’t working properly. But property managers should draw the line as soon as possible. If you’re not careful in setting limits, certain kinds of people are all too eager to place constant calls and send outrageous requests. Prioritise your maintenance request to use your time efficiently. If you think they’re taking advantage of your eagerness, remember that, while your rental must be legally habitable, you don’t have any legal obligations to immediately attend to every small issue. Furthermore, when the time comes to offer renewal incentives, consider whether you truly would like to renew a lease with this type of tenant.

The lawbreakers

There are many rules that one has to follow when they rent a property. Signing the lease on an apartment means that a tenant has to agree to abide by these rules or risk eviction.

One of the most commonly broken rules is a no-pet policy. Tenants might try to make you feel guilty about not allowing a beloved pet in the rental units, but remember to apply the same rules to all tenants to ensure fairness. If your rental does allow pets, periodic inspections are necessary to ensure that they are not causing damage. As a tenant, you must abide by the rules so that you can enforce your rights when necessary. You should consult a lawyer when entering into any agreement so that the lawyer can properly advise you on the steps to take and interpret the agreement and its implications. As Nigerians say, prevention is better than cure. Act prudently and avoid future litigation.

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