Unbeknownst to many tenants, a landlord has a legal right to enter his tenant’s rental unit in certain circumstances.  The rental unit is still the landlord’s property and the law provides a landlord with the right to access that property.

Implied in all residential rental contracts is what is referred to as the “covenant of quiet use and enjoyment.”  This covenant basically 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 property, and

2.   That the landlord will not interfere with the tenant’s privacy and right to exclusive possession.

There are important exceptions to this covenant however, and that is the part that many tenants tend to overlook.  Both the Wisconsin Statutes (sec. 704.05(2)) and the Wisconsin Administrative Code (ATCP 134.09(2)) carve out exceptions to the covenant which allow a landlord limited rights of entry to the tenant’s rental unit.

A landlord may enter a tenant’s rental unit upon advance notice and at reasonable times, in order to do the following:

a.   Inspect the premises

b.   Make repairs

c.   Show the rental unit to prospective tenants or purchasers

Advance notice is typically 12 hours unless the tenant consents to a shorter period.  Some municipalities like the City of Madison require a longer notice period of 24 hours.  I strongly recommend that your advance notice be in writing. Having a written 12 hour notice indicating the reason for your entry and the estimated time of entry goes a long way should a tenant later say that you had no right to enter her unit.  You now have some documentary evidence to support your version of events besides just your “word” because rest assured, your tenant’s “word” will be the exact opposite of yours.

“Reasonable times” has not been defined but I would argue that entry during normal business hours between say 8:30 am – 5 pm would certainly be reasonable.  Also entry on a weekend between 10 am and 5 pm by a landlord that works a full-time job during the week, would also appear to be reasonable to me.  I have a nagging suspicion however that 2 am on a Saturday morning would not be considered “reasonable.”

A landlord should only remain in the tenant’s unit for the amount of time reasonably required to complete the repair, showing, or inspection.

Tenants do not need to be present during the landlord’s entry.  Many tenants mistakenly believe that their presence is required.  They are wrong.  A landlord can enter a tenant’s rental property even if the tenant is not present as long as the aforementioned requirements have been met.  If a landlord wants to accommodate a tenant’s request to be present, he can choose to do so, but it is not required.  Personally, my schedule does not always allow me to limit my expenses, showings or repairs to the times of day that my tenants are home.

If a tenant is home at the time that you are trying to enter their unit and refuses you entry what can you do?  Legally, you are still allowed to enter.  The better question is, what should you do?  I would never force myself into a tenant’s unit (even if I legally have the right to do so) if they had changed the locks on me or if they are standing there yelling at me not to come in.  Maybe I am a bit risk adverse but I didn’t become a landlord to have a tenant throw a frying pan at my head nor to have the cops arrive at my rental property with guns drawn because the tenant told them I was an intruder.

If a tenant denies you entry to their rental unit after you provided them with the proper advance notice, then they are in breach of their rental agreement and state law.  This is grounds for an eviction.

Since I may not want to go to the length of evicting a tenant for denying me entry, I have included a provision in my rental agreement that if a tenant denies me entry after I have provided them with proper notice that they will be assessed a fee of $100.  I have never had to assess the fee but it has been helpful to be able to show my tenant that provision in the rental agreement.  After reviewing the provision with the tenant and explaining why it is necessary for me to enter, and how I legally have the right to enter, the problem is usually resolved.  If for some reason it was not resolved, then that tenant would not be living in my rental property much longer.

When entering, I am a big proponent of the “knock and announce” rule.  What is the “knock and announce” rule, you ask?  Here is a dramatization . . . Imagine me approaching a door . . .

KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK (or ring, ring, ring if the tenant’s unit has a doorbell).  I then insert my key and slowly open the door a crack and announce loudly “Hello, this is your landlord, I’m coming in to . . . show the unit . . . unplug the clogged drain . . . make my spring inspection, is anyone home.”  Wait a few seconds and then enter the unit.

Being extra cautious upon entry will hopefully negate the chances of walking in on a tenant showering, being in a state of undress, or engaged in other forms of extra-curricular activity.

Under Wisconsin law, there are even a few situations in which it is not necessary for a landlord to provide advance notice in order to enter a tenant’s unit.  These situations include the following:

1.   When the tenant, knowing of the proposed time of entry, consents in advance to an earlier entry

2.   A health or safety emergency exists

3.   The tenant is absent and the landlord reasonably believes that entry is needed in order to protect the rental unit

An example of such a situation would be if a tenant was not present, and the tenant in the rental unit below her called you and told you that water is leaking from her ceiling. You are legally allowed to enter the tenant’s unit in that situation to determine the source of the water intrusion.  A landlord has every right to enter without notice in that type of situation, to protect his rental property.

There are no published Wisconsin cases that I am aware of that deal with the issue of a landlord’s right to enter a tenant’s rental unit and under what circumstances.  So the only guidance we have are the statutes and regulations mentioned above.  Such situations would be handled on a case by case basis by a court since the specific facts are very important and because there is not bright line rule on when entry is permissible.

If you have a tenant that refuses to allow you to enter your own rental property (or one that has changed the locks to prevent you from doing so) you need to take action.  This is your rental property — your investment.  You have every right to make periodic inspections to insure that your tenants are maintaining your rental property properly.

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