Landlord–tenant law is a part of the common law that details the rights and duties of landlords and tenants. It includes elements of both real property law (specifically conveyances) and contract law.
Residential and commercial leases
Landlord–tenant law generally recognizes differences between residential and commercial leases on the assumption that residential leases present much more of a risk of unequal bargaining power than commercial leases.
The modern concept of landlord-tenant law includes duties beyond simple conveyancing of the lease:
Duty to deliver possession
In England and according to the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act in America, the landlord has a duty to deliver possession to the tenant at the beginning of a lease. The justification for placing this burden on the landlord is the idea that the landlord has more resources than the new tenants to pursue legal remedies against wrongful holdovers (former tenants that will not give up possession of the lease).
Covenant of quiet enjoyment
By virtue of the contractual aspects of a lease, modern leases in America include an implied covenant of quiet enjoyment. This means that the landlord will not interfere with the tenant’s possessory rights to the lease.
Landlord–tenant law also includes protections for tenants:
In an action for unpaid rent brought by a landlord against a tenant, a tenant can offer constructive eviction as an affirmative defense. A constructive eviction means that the tenant is no longer able to occupy the lease, but that the tenant was not physically evicted by the landlord.
Breach of covenant
Leases include dependent covenants – if the landlord fails to perform their duties, the tenant will be relieved of paying rent. The breach of these covenants can be used as an affirmative defense by the tenant in an action for unpaid rent or eviction. These covenants include the warrant of habitability (keeping the premises habitable) and the covenant to repair (requiring the landlord to repair damage to the premises). In American law, the warrant of habitability was established by the D.C. Circuit case Javins v. First National Realty Corp.
A landlord cannot evict a tenant in retaliation for reporting health and safety code violations. A tenant can use retaliatory eviction as both an affirmative defense against an eviction and as a cause of action against a landlord. The defense of retaliatory eviction was first recognized in the D.C. Circuit case Edwards v. Habib.
Tenants also have duties attached to their possessory interests:
Duty to preserve the premises
Leases usually include a limited covenant to repair for the tenants, and this essentially equates to refraining from committing waste. When tenants move from the premises, if they want to get their security deposit returned to them, most statutes require the premises to be returned to the landlord in the same condition to was in when they moved in.
Duty to operate
In commercial leases, a duty to operate may be written into the lease. This means that a commercial tenant cannot leave a rented property vacant without operating the business for which the lease was made. A duty to operate does not exist unless written into the lease or obviously in line with the intent of the lease.
Duty to pay rent
A tenant’s duty to pay rent was traditionally thought of as an independent covenant, meaning that the tenant was required to pay rent regardless of whether the landlord fulfilled their duties of performance. Now the duty of a tenant to pay rent is considered to be a dependent covenant, and the tenant can be freed from the duty to pay rent if the landlord breaches the covenant of repair or warranty of habitability.
Landlords also have a variety of available remedies to reclaim possession or claim unpaid rent:
Before statutory eviction processes, landlords could use the common law remedy of forfeiture to reclaim possession of a lease. Forfeiture was generally achieved by adding a condition subsequent to the terms of the lease.
Landlord self-help remedies require no governmental intervention or legal procedure, and include forcible entry and physical removal of the tenant. Self-help remedies have been limited by forcible entry and detainer (FED) statutes.
Landlords can also recover monetary damages for unpaid rent, and the methods of obtaining the rent and the amount that can be obtained are dictated by state statutes.