A fine line: The landlord’s right of entry vs. tenants’ right to privacy

Amanda Maher
Amanda Maher | 5 min. read

Published on November 10, 2016

Just a few weeks ago, a friend called in desperation. She was at wit’s end with her landlord for a number of reasons, but was particularly upset that he called her late on a Sunday evening to tell her that he was planning to send a contractor over the following day to install a new front door. She didn’t need to be there, but she was also uncomfortable allowing her landlord and the repairman into the home alone given her previous issues with him. Making matters worse, she had plans for the following day and would need to bail at the last minute—something she really didn’t want to do, but what other option did she really have?

It led to a conversation about the landlord’s right to enter the premises. Can he come into the apartment unannounced? If he’s required to give her advance notice, how much does he need to give her? And what if she were to refuse?

Plain and simple: She felt like her landlord was taking advantage of her accommodating nature, but didn’t know her rights otherwise.

Implied in all residential rental contracts is what is referred to as the “covenant of quiet use and enjoyment.” This covenant essentially means two things:

  1. That the landlord guarantees that the tenant can take possession of the rental unit and has the right to privacy and exclusive use and possession of that rental unit; and
  2. That the landlord will not interfere with the tenant’s right to privacy and right to exclusive possession.

But of course, a landlord has a vested interest in maintaining the property in good condition. After all, the tenant might have exclusive possession of the unit during their rental period, but the landlord still owns the property. And there are rights associated with homeownership, too.

So, how do we reconcile these two sets of rights?

Although laws vary from state to state, landlords (or an agent on their behalf, like a property manager), tend to be able to enter a tenant’s rental unit for 5 major reasons.

5 Situations When a Landlord Can Legally Enter a Rental Unit

Routine Inspections

Most landlords will want to make a yearly, semi-yearly, or quarterly inspection of the property to ensure the tenants are maintaining the property in accordance with the lease. It also helps to shed light on any repairs or safety issues that need to be addressed. Advance notice must be given to the tenant before routine inspections occur.

When Repairs or Service Are Needed

Landlords will need access to the property in order for repairs or maintenance to be conducted. Once again, landlords must give tenants advance notice before entering the unit for these reasons.

In an Emergency

Sometimes, there are emergencies that require immediate attention (e.g. heavy rain causes a basement to flood, or extreme cold has caused frozen or burst pipes). These issues need to be addressed immediately and cannot wait for a landlord to get permission from the tenants or work around their schedules. As such, landlords are not required to give tenants advanced notice in the case of an emergency (although notifying tenants of your plans to enter the premises ASAP is a recommended courtesy and gesture of goodwill).

To Show the Unit

In order for landlords to sell or rent the property to someone else, they need the ability to show the unit to prospective buyers. In this case, landlords are required to give tenants advance notice before showing the unit and cannot show the property excessively.

Try to remember what it’s like to be in the tenants’ shoes—would you want strangers traipsing around your home, poking and prodding, on a regular basis? When possible, it’s advisable for landlords or property managers to set up an open house during set hours to show groups of prospective buyers/renters the property at once.

During an Extended Absence

If a tenant is planning to be away for an extended period of time, or if the landlord suspects a tenant has been gone for an extended period (usually 7 days or more), a landlord typically has the right to enter the property to make sure everything is okay inside.

Now that we know when landlords have a legal right to enter, let’s take a look at “advance notice” (which can also be referred to as “proper notice”). In any event, what exactly does this mean?

Once again, it can vary from state to state. At a minimum, advanced notice usually requires landlords to give tenants at least 24 hours’ notice before entering the property. Some states require landlords give tenants two days’ notice. But almost all states allow landlords to enter without any notice in the case of emergency, as described above.

There is an exception to these rules, however: Landlords may enter without any notice, or in non-emergency situations, when the tenant gives permission. So, in the case of my friend, because she was unaware of her legal rights, she would routinely allow her landlord to enter the property virtually unannounced—thinking she had no choice otherwise. She’s finally asserted herself to her landlord, and if he fails to give her proper notice in the future, she’s already indicated her willingness to bring him to housing court. She wants some peace and quiet, once and for all.

Balancing the rights to ownership with tenants’ rights can be tricky. Landlords and property managers often have to walk a fine line. Balance your legal rights to entry with respect for the tenant’s privacy in order to maintain a successful landlord-tenant relationship well into the future.

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Amanda Maher

Amanda Maher is a self-proclaimed policy wonk who dabbles in real estate law. She holds a B.S. in Political Science and Sociology from Boston University, as well as a master's in Urban and Regional Policy from Northeastern.

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