Keeping things running smoothly in residential real estate depends partly on knowing local, state and federal laws relating to landlords and tenants. A property owner’s efforts to screen out problem tenants and keep the property in tip top shape can collide with those laws in unexpected ways. Case in point: accommodating the needs of renters with disabilities or special needs.

The Fair Housing Act was updated in 1988, with protected categories including sexual orientation, familial situation, national origin, race, gender – and disability. The Act seems straightforward: it’s illegal to discriminate against or deny housing to individuals with any kind of disability, or to fail to make reasonable accommodations for those disabilities. But those provisions are so wide ranging, landlords may find themselves embroiled in legal actions without realizing they’re in violation.

It’s not legal to use the provisions of a lease to deny disabled renters. In other words, you can’t include provisions about things like parking or access that would limit a disabled individual’s ability to rent the premises. Landlords must also show that the property meets basic standards for access, such as doorways wide enough for a wheelchair.

But beyond that, things can get a little fuzzy. Take the question of assistive animals, for example. Assistive animals are not pets, and a “no pets” policy can’t be used to exclude them. It’s not legal to impose additional deposits or fees for potential damage done by an assistive animal, either.

The problem, though, is what constitutes an assistive animal. Everyone recognizes a guide dog for a blind person. But the definition of “assistive” or “therapy animal” can include sugar gliders serving as companions to keep a mentally ill person calm, potbellied pigs for companionship and even miniature horses as guides. Properly documented, these creatures are part of an individual’s medical treatment. But a landlord isn’t obliged to accept every claim that a creature is an assistive animal; potential tenants need to provide that documentation of the relationship.

The question of reasonable access also creates confusion – and lawsuits. Though it’s a landlord’s responsibility to make sure rental premises meet the basic requirements of access, tenants also have the right to make reasonable changes to the premises to make them more accessible, such as installing lights or railings near steps. Landlord tenant experts urge landlords and tenants to work out issues about any changes to the premises in advance – but it’s not legal to refuse to make reasonable changes for a tenant’s safety and comfort.

In a housing market where home ownership is plummeting and the pool of renters continues to expand, landlords face more and more challenges in keeping up with housing laws, local ordinances and other kinds of regulations. That’s why Jason Hartman’s first commandment for successful investing – Thou shalt become educated – helps investors safeguard their investments – and themselves.  (Top image:Flickr/macedward)

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