FAQs of Georgia Landlord and Tenant Law
Most Georgians will be involved in some sort of landlord and tenant dispute in their lives. The majority of these disputes can (and should) be resolved by a reasonable conversation between the landlord and tenant. However, all too often a stubborn landlord or tenant requires that the parties review Georgia landlord tenant law. Below are the answers to the questions on renters’ law I’ve been asked most frequently by my clients. Every case is different and the following information is not a substitute for the advise of an attorney who knows about your particular situation. However, this information should provide you with some guidance about what to ask an attorney.
Yes, you must always pay your rent unless the needed repairs make the housing unsafe and uninhabitable. Georgia law is very clear that a renter’s duty to pay rent is separate from the landlord’s duty to repair. If the landlord fails to make necessary repairs, the tenant may have an action against the landlord for the diminution in value to the rent, i.e., how much less your monthly lease is worth because of the needed repairs.
Additionally, Georgia law does allow for constructive eviction in limited circumstances, which occurs when the premise is in such a state of disrepair that the dwelling has become an unfit place to for any person to live. Generally, however, a tenant cannot claim constructive eviction as a basis to withhold their rent unless the condition of the property has gotten so bad that the tenant actually has to move out.
In most situations, such as when a tenant has failed to pay their rent, the landlord must make an oral or written demand to the tenant to vacate the premises or become current with their lease before the landlord can start eviction proceedings. See O.C.G.A. § 44-7-50. If the tenant refuses the landlord’s demand, the landlord can then go to the magistrate court of the county in which the premise is located and seek a dispossessory warrant. The warrant must be served upon the tenant by the procedures set out in O.C.G.A. § 44-7-51.
The tenant has only seven days to file an answer and defenses to the dispossessory warrant. If the tenant has any counterclaims related to the lease or premise, the compulsory counter-claim rule requires that the claims be brought at the same time as the answer is made. Therefore, if the landlord has failed to keep the premise in a reasonable state of repair, the tenant must assert this claim at the same time as the answer.
Additionally, if the dispossessory warrant is based on the non-payment of rent, the tenant has a complete defense to the action if they pay the full rent, including the landlord’s court costs, within the 7-day time period. However, a tenant can only use this defense once per year. O.C.G.A. § 44-7-52. If the case isn’t resolved between the parties, the landlord and tenant must make their case to the judge at a hearing scheduled by the court. The judgment of the court is appealable within seven (7) days of the judgment.
If a member of the military is on active duty the lease can be terminated early if there is a permanent change of station orders or a change to temporary duty orders exceeding three months. However, thirty (30) days written notice and proof of assignment change should be given to the landlord, including payment for any damages caused to the premises. O.C.G.A. § 44-7-37.
Yes. An oral lease agreement is valid as long as the lease’s duration is for less than one year. O.C.G.A. § 44-7-2. However, the details of this kind of agreement will be difficult to prove in court. Generally, if there is an oral lease or no formal lease at all, a tenancy-at-will will be presumed, which is commonly referred to as a month-to-month lease. For those with an unwritten month-to-month lease, the renter will only have the rights, remedies, and responsibilities afforded to all renters by statute and common law. A very good and free guide to these rights and responsibilities is the Landlord Tenant Handbook provided by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. A copy of the handbook can be reviewed for free at www.dca.ga.gov.
Landlords must give their tenants 60 days notice before they can end a month-to-month lease. Tenants must give their landlords 30 days notice before they can end a month-to-moth lease. Of course, both parties can agree to end their relationship sooner.
Regardless of what’s in the lease agreement, a landlord is responsible for the following:
• A landlord must comply with city or county ordinances requiring them to repair or close buildings unfit for human habitation. O.C.G.A. § 36-61-11.
• A landlord must keep the premises in a reasonable state of repair, and they can be required to reimburse renters for necessary repairs. However, renters take note that these repairs must be necessary, not just desired. And the renter cannot cut down or destroy trees, remove permanent fixtures, or otherwise alter the property unless doing so is absolutely necessary for the safe inhabitance of the dwelling. Also, the landlord is not expected to fix things they do not know about. Notice to the landlord is required. Certain repairs may be the tenant’s responsibility depending on what is in the lease.
• A landlord may be liable when someone is injured because of defective construction or dangerous condition on the property. A landlord can even be liable for criminal violence that happens on the property so long as they knew an attack was likely and they failed to take appropriate measures for security.
• A landlord should not suspend the furnishing of heat, light, or water service to lawful renters. However, they may evict a renter for nonpayment of these utilities where payment is the renter’s responsibility.
A landlord is permitted to take a security deposit. However, the landlord must keep the security deposit in a special escrow account for the term of the lease. They must return the security deposit to the renter within one month after the lease ends or after the property is surrendered by the tenant, or whichever occurs last.
A security deposit cannot be withheld for repairs amounting to ordinary “wear and tear.” However, a landlord can keep the deposit if there was some accident, negligence, carelessness, or abuse of the premises by the tenant or his guests. In the event there is cause for retaining the security deposit, the landlord must provide the tenant with a written statement listing the exact reasons for not returning the deposit. If the reason for not returning the security deposit is damage to the property, the exact damages to the property should be listed, and the difference between the cost of repairs and the deposit should be returned to the renter. A landlord can also retain a security deposit for nonpayment of rent or late fees, abandonment of the premises, nonpayment of utility fees, cleaning, or other reason listed in the lease.
Disputes often arise about what constitutes ordinary wear and tear. This must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. For example, a giant bleach stain on the carpet probably is not ordinary wear and tear, though small scratches in the floor from daily walking probably are. If you think your landlord is taking advantage of this provision, you have the right to dispute the charges in court.
The Georgia Fair Housing Act and the Federal Fair Housing Act prevent a landlord from discriminating against renters on the basis of race, color, religion, sex (or pregnancy), family status, national origin, age, disability, or handicap. This restriction on discrimination applies not only to current renters, but also prospective renters. For example, it is illegal for a landlord to tell a potential renter that there are no vacancies when the landlord does not want to rent to a person in a protected class. Similarly, a landlord cannot discriminate against a class by having differing standards for security deposits, policies for acceptance of late rent, or other polices. A landlord also cannot refuse to rent to someone because they have children. Families are protected too.
There are a few exceptions to these discrimination rules. However, if you believe you’ve been discriminated against, you should discuss your situation with an attorney immediately. The Georgia Fair Housing Act and the Federal Fair Housing Act have strict deadlines for filing complaints.
For more information, check out the Georgia Landlord Tenant Handbook provided by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. A copy of the handbook is provided for free online at www.dca.ga.gov
Califf Law Firm LLC is an Augusta, Georgia law firm that handles cases in personal injury, premises liability, and landlord tenant disputes. If you have a question related to landlord and tenant law in Georgia, contact us today for a free consultation.