You rent an apartment, so your apartment is your home and your home is your castle, right? Not exactly. As a tenant, you do have a right to expect peace and quiet in your home. That means that your landlord should respect your privacy and not enter your apartment without your permission. And there is a statute which prohibits a landlord from interfering with a tenant's right to "quiet enjoyment", which presumably includes barging into your apartment unexpectedly while you're still in the shower. But from your landlord's perspective, your apartment is his or her property, and your right to live in it is subject to his right to enter it. Who's right? You both are. Here's the lowdown on how a tenant's right to privacy is balanced against the landlord's right of entry.
Our starting point is the Massachusetts General Laws. Chapter 186, section 15B controls a landlord's right of entry and a tenant's right to refuse entry. This law states that your landlord can only enter your apartment for certain specific reasons, which include
• (a) inspecting the apartment;
• (b) making repairs;
• (c) showing the apartment to a prospective new tenant or buyer;
• (d) in accordance with a court order;
• (e) if the apartment appears to have been abandoned; and,
• (f) inspecting for damage within the final 30 days of a tenancy.
Check out your lease because that's where the landlord will list reasons to enter your apartment. If your apartment needs repairs, the State Sanitary Code requires tenants to give landlords access upon reasonable notice. This makes sense since the landlord is required to maintain the apartment in accordance with the standards of the Code. But what's "reasonable notice"? First thing in the morning may be okay for most people but very inconvenient if you work the late shift and sleep until noon. For reasons other than for making emergency repairs, landlords should give tenants 24-hours advance written notice of the need to enter your apartment. As a practical matter, landlords and tenants with a good relationship will often simply talk on the phone. If you're a landlord, it's a good idea to respect your tenant's schedule and to arrange a mutually convenient time to enter the apartment. The best landlord-tenant relationship is one where both parties try to accommodate the needs of the other without unnecessary protesting. A good landlord-tenant relationship is one that works for both parties and is based on reasonableness and common-sense instead of legal formalities. If a landlord insists on entering an apartment at time which is objectionable to the tenant, he's asking for trouble. Similarly, if a tenant flatly refuses to let her landlord into the apartment at any time, she's forcing him to haul her into court. What about having a key? If you're a tenant, can you prevent your landlord from entering your apartment by changing the locks? Yes and no. Other than for the purpose of making emergency repairs, there's no law that entitles the landlord to a key. But your lease probably does. For example, in most leases tenants agree not to make any alterations or additions without the landlord's consent. Changing the locks is an alteration. Some landlords take the direct approach and require, in clear and express language, that tenant provide landlord with a key that works. A tenant's failure to comply with these provisions of the lease would be a breach of the rental agreement. One circumstance in which no landlord may enter an apartment without a court order is for "self-help" eviction. In the old days, landlords evicted tenants simply by putting a tenant's belongings on the street or sidewalk. Not true today. Nowadays, a landlord may not attempt to evict a residential tenant, regardless of the reason, without going to court and getting a court order. Nothing in a lease can change this ironclad rule. Apartment life is a series of compromises, and it works best when reason prevails over emotion. The law can provide an effective shield or sword for both landlords and tenants in extreme circumstances or when one party needs to be protected against the other. For example, repeated, unnecessary or unscheduled intrusions by a landlord or landlord's agent into an apartment almost certainly violates a tenant's right to quiet enjoyment. The rule of reason, however, requires that landlords and tenants recognize each other's legitimate needs. Landlords should respect their tenants reasonable expectation of privacy, and tenants should acknowledge that landlords have a right to safeguard their investment.
Donahue Grolman & Earle is a full-service law firm located in Boston, MA. (617) 859-8966; http://www.d-and-g.com