In talking with my clients and potential clients over the past year, I have also noticed that more and more landlords are allowing tenants to keep pets. I am not sure if this is because of the many pet owners that were also homeowners that have since lost their homes to foreclosure and have been forced to become renters or if it is because landlords are trying to be more accomodating to their tenants’ wishes in order to keep their rental units occupied during a difficult recesssion — or a combination of both.
Whatever the reason for this trend, if you are allowing your tenants to have pets then you must make sure that you are using a strong written Pet Agreement. Unfortunatly too many landlords do not use such a document – and it typically is to their detriment. Let’s face it, “man’s best friend” (if never trained or poorly trained) can cause A LOT OF DAMAGE to a rental unit. Don’t even get me started about cats. While I personally have a cat that I am very fond of my experience with cats in rental units has not been good. Can you say “personal litter box?” Here is a Wisconsin Court of Appeals case about the damage that pets can cause to a rental unit.
Whether or not you choose to allow pets in your rentals is a business decision that all landlords must grapple with at one point or another. All animals, even rabbits, birds, reptiles, and fish can end up causing damage to a rental unit. If you have made the decision to allow pets then you need a good Pet Agreement.
Pet Agreements are considered to be part of the Nonstandard Rental Provisions document. Despite this your Pet Agreement should be a separate written document and not just a numbered provision within your NSRP.
A good Pet Agreement should have 4 key componants. First, it should specifically identify the pet that is being allowed to reside in the apartment. Second, it should set forth all charges/deposits for the pet. Third, a Pet Agreement must include the terms and conditions relating the keeping of a pet – the rules. Finally, the agreement should clearly explain what the consequences will be if any of the pet rules are violated.
1. Specifically Identify the Pet:
A client of mine had allowed his tenant to keep a dog as a pet – it was a fairly small dog - small enough to fit on a person’s lap or a woman’s purse (OK someone will need to explain to me the purpose of keeping a dog in your purse – I just don’t get it). Anyways, that small dog eventually died and the tenant decided to buy another dog. Problem was the replacement dog could not fit in a purse as it was the size of a small car. It was too big for the rental property and it scared the neighbors and other tenants because of its gigantic size. While my client was using a written Pet Agreement, the agreement did not specifically identify the pet that was allowed to reside in the property – it merely said that the tenant could keep 1 dog. While the original (little) dog had passed away and was replaced with a much larger canine, the tenant still only had one dog — problem was it was not the dog that the landlord wanted in his property and there was nothing he could do about it as the tenant had not violated the Pet Agreement.
A good Pet Agreement should clearly identify the animal/s that are being allowed to reside in the unit In order to do this the Agreement must identify the following:
- The type of animal (dog, cat, iguana etc.),
- The breed of animal (beagle, labrador, border collie),
- The name of the animal (you know . . . . Fido, Scrappy, Puss ‘N Boots),
- The color of the animal,
- The age of the animal, and
- The weight of the animal.
If there are any other distinguishing characteristics of the pet then you should list them as well.
The Pet Agreement should clearly restrict the tenant to keeping the identified animal only. Should the “allowed pet” pass away during the tenancy then the tenant will not be allowed to replace that pet unless the landlord consents to the replacement pet by entering into a revised Pet Agreement.
2. List All Charges For Keeping A Pet
A second componant of a good Pet Agreement is that it should clearly state what charges will be required in exchange for keeping the pet. A landlord has many options in this regard. You can charge the tenant an increased monthly rent, a non-refundable pet fee, and/or refundable pet deposit. You also may charge all of the above or any combination of the above. There are no restrictions in this regard but their are some suggested guidelines.
I have allowed past tenants to keep pets in my rental property. I opted to charge a non-refundable pet fee and a refundable pet deposit. The non-refundable pet fee was set high enough to cover the cost of having the carpets professionally cleaned at the end of the tenancy. Remember, a pet deposit is different from a security deposit (as long as you clearly delineate it as such in your rental documents) so you are legally able to charge a tenant a pet fee that will be used to clean the carpets. You will run into problems however if you do not clearly refer to the pet fee as a pet fee and instead just increase the amount of the security deposit. Do not do this.
Additionally, I required my tenants to post a refundable pet deposit to cover the cost to repair any damages that their pet may cause to my property. If there are no damages then the tenant gets this money back. Once again since this is a pet deposit, and specifically identified as such in my Pet Agreement, I am not bound by the ATCP 134 requirements regarding security deposits. Despite not being required to return the pet deposit within 21 days a landlord shouldn’t hold onto this money for a lengthy period of time if there is no damage as it is the tenant’ s money. If there are damages to the unit that were caused by the pet then I would use this money to repair the damage. While not technically required, it is good practice to send the tenant a letter explaining how the pet deposit was applied and why it is not being returned if that is the case.
I have never charged increased rent for the keeping of a pet, but I do know of landlords that do. Nothing is wrong with charging additional rent for the pet – the reasoning for using this option is that there will be increased “wear and tear” to the unit as a result of the pet and even if that wear and tear is not “damage,” the landlord should be compensated for that additonal use.
Pet Agreements should also clearly state that the tenant’s financial obligations for the pet are NOT limited to the non-refundable pet fee, the refundable pet deposit, or the increase monthly rent. If Sparky uses the baseboards in the unit as his personal rawhide bone and/or the Kitty unrinates and defecates all over the carpet and hardwood floors, you should be able to recoup all of the damages from the tenant and not be limited to only the amount of any fee or deposit.
3. List All Rules For The Pet
The third componant to a Pet Agreement is to list all of the rules that pertain to the keeping of the pet. Possible rules could include:
- The dog must be keep on a leash at all times when outside of the unit
- The cat’s litter box must be changed twice per week and the contents of the litter box must be disposed of in a sealed bag and placed in the dumpster located outside of the rental unit
- The iguana must remain properly caged at all times and any waste must be cleaned or removed on a frequent basis so as to prevent odors
- All waste must be removed from the yard immediately.
4. Explain What The Consequences Are If The Agreement Is Breached
Finally, your Pet Agreement needs to include what I call “The Hammer” — essentially you need to explain what will happen if the tenant and his/her pet are in violation of any of the rules. Will they be fined? If so, how much? Will a violation of the rulesbe considered a material breach of the agreement such as to give rise to the termination of the tenancy and an eviction lawsuit? Could a violation result in the removal of the animal? Obviously the consequence will depend on the nature of the violation and its severity. A tenant needs to clearly understand that they do not have a right to keep a pet in your rental unit – the keeping of a pet is a privilege – and there are consequences if the animal or the owner violates the rules.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that a service animal or an animal that is needed to ”reasonably accomodate” a disabled tenant is NOT a pet. If a person meets the definition of “disabled,” under federal, state or municipal law, and otherwise meets any other requirements for the use of an assistance animal or a companion animal, then they are legally entitled to keep that animal in their rental unit. Think of such an animal as a device that assists a disabled person live their life rather then a pet. An assistance animal is similar to a wheelchair, hearing aid, crutches, or medication. The difference between a pet and an assistance or companion animal will need to be covered in a future post (or many posts as it is a somewhat complicated topic).
If you would like to see an example of a good Pet Agreement visit Wisconsin Legal Blank Co. which sells a Pet Agreement that I have authored.