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Tenants vs. landlords: The never ending war

The owner’s guide to landlord-tenant law compliance in Massachusetts

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Massachusetts is widely regarded as a friendly state for Boston apartment landlords. Complying with state laws that apply to landlords in Massachusetts isn’t always easy, but state law makes the rights and responsibilities of landlords clear. With the right paper trail, landlords can successfully assert their rights in court.

Let’s start with the basics.

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Terms of Apartment Tenancy in Massachusetts

The rights and responsibilities of both apartment landlords and apartment tenants in Massachusetts depend on the terms of tenancy. The tenancy can be based on a lease, or landlords and tenants can operate under tenancy-at-will.

Tenancy by Lease in Massachusetts

When an apartment tenant and a landlord sign a lease, they agree to comply with its provisions for the time period the lease specifies, usually a year. The tenant must pay the rent agreed to in the lease. The landlord cannot raise the rent for the term of the lease. Tenants are obligated to pay rent for the term of the lease unless their landlords agree to early termination.

This written agreement should also contain all the rules and regulations the landlord requires the tenant to observe.

Tenancy-at-Will in Massachusetts

Tenancy-at-will in Massachusetts lasts as long as both parties want to do business with each other. The amount the landlord charges for rent can change from month to month, but tenants can also move out any time they choose. Rental agreements for tenancy-at-will do not have to be recorded in writing, but most landlords will want to establish an evidence trail by getting their tenant to sign an agreement marked “Tenancy-at-Will” or “Rental Agreement” on top.

In this type of agreement, landlords typically only need to give notice of changes in the amount of rent charged or the quality of accommodation they provide at the beginning of the period for which the tenant is paying rent, usually 30 days in advance.

The Massachusetts Sanitary Code

What appliances are landlords required to provide in Massachusetts? Who is responsible for shoveling snow? What does a landlord have to do when a rental property is damaged by storms or fire?

These and many other questions are covered in the Massachusetts Sanitary Code. The code specifies minimum standards for habitation in great detail, but here are the highlights:

  • Kitchen facilities. Not every leasehold will have kitchen facilities, but when they do, they must provide  “suitable space to store, prepare and serve foods in a sanitary manner.” The landlord must provide a working kitchen sink and clean surfaces for food preparation. Landlords have to provide space for a stove, oven, and refrigerator, if not the appliances themselves.
  • Bathroom facilities. Every landlord must provide a toilet in a room that is not used for other living purposes. The washbasin must be in the same room or in close proximity to the toilet. Every dwelling must provide a bathtub or a shower in a room with a door. In rooming houses where the bathroom is “down the hall,” the landlord is responsible for sanitizing the facilities at least once every 24 hours. Privies, outhouses, and chemical toilets are not allowed.
  • Every landlord must provide potable water for drinking and hot water delivered at a temperature of not less than 110°F (43° C) and not more than 130°F (54° C).
  • Landlords must provide heat for every room they lease, including the bathroom. Portable heaters, kerosene heaters, and other heaters that may pose a fire hazard are not allowed. Landlords are required to heat their properties to at least 68°F (20° C) between 7:00 A.M. and 11:00 P.M. and at least 64°F (17° C) between 11:01 P.M. and 6:59 A.M. every day other than during the period from June 15th to September 15th, both inclusive.
  • Every room except bathrooms and the smallest kitchens (under 70 square feet) must have a window.
  • Every apartment must provide 150 square feet of floor space for its first occupant, and at least 100 square feet of floor space for each additional occupant. 
  • In Massachusetts, landlords are always responsible for providing a way to get out of their properties. They have primary responsibility for snow removal, no matter what a lease says.

Massachusetts Rental Agreements

In Massachusetts, every rental agreement must have certain terms, and cannot contain other terms.

Every Massachusetts rental agreement must list the name, address, and telephone number of the owner. It must name the person responsible for maintenance. The rental agreement must identify the person who receives the service of legal papers and other notices.

If the apartment landlord charges a rental deposit, the rental agreement must state the amount of the deposit, and the terms under which it can be returned.

Massachusetts legal agreements must not include any term requiring the tenant to pay for ordinary wear and tear of the dwelling space. It must not require the tenant to pay for repairs to any part of the building beyond the tenant’s apartment. It must not forbid filing lawsuits against the landlord, prohibit joining or forming a tenants’ union, or require the tenant to pay a late fee if the rent is even one day late. In Massachusetts, landlords are only allowed to assess a late fee when the rent is 30 or more days late.

There are limits to the fees that can be collected with a rental agreement. The landlord can ask for first and last month’s rent, plus a security deposit not greater than one month’s rent. The rental agreement can also require the tenant to pay for a new lock and key for the apartment.

Landlords in Boston have to comply with additional rules. Landlords everywhere in the United States have to comply with rules from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Asserting your property rights as a Massachusetts landlord is too important to leave to chance.  EZlandlordforms.com is every Massachusetts landlord’s one-stop-shop for exactly the rental agreement you need.

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Richard Vetstein, who writes the terrific Mass Real Estate Law Blog, says it’s time to reform tenant-landlord laws that too often lead to abuses:

The laws which favor tenants so dramatically were passed decades ago in the 1970’s when tenements and slumlords still existed. Those days are long gone, but the outdated laws remain on the books, giving Massachusetts the reputation of being one of the most unfriendly places to own investment property. I believe the time has come to level the legal playing field between small property owners and tenants.

Richard via Rona at Boston Real Estate Now.

Contact me to find to set up an appointment to start your Boston condo buying process.

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Updated: Boston Real Estate Blog 2022