Being a good landlord means more than just being a nice person or even being fair. Whether you are just starting out or have been a landlord for a period of time, laws and situations change. There are a number of ways you can legally protect yourself as well as provide a good living experience for your tenant. Charity Day, Director of the Housing Consumer Education Center  in Turners Falls, MA, offered some good tips for being a landlord.
“All landlords should take classes whether they have been a landlord for a while or are new,” said Day. Day said that housing laws vary around the country and “if you are not in compliance it will cost you a lot more in the long run.”
Before the tenant moves in
Be aware of what is legally allowable to charge your tenant. For example, in Massachusetts, you can charge a first and last month’s rent, and a security and key deposit – nothing else. You can’t charge anything additional for pets nor can you charge an “application fee”.
Day said that landlords should begin by being careful screening the prospective tenant. “Landlords should be doing a thorough and fair application process. They should be checking references and either requesting documentation of income or a release (of information) to contact their employer,” she said.
Before the tenant moves in, Day said to make sure to do a careful walk-through with the tenant and to make note of any maintenance or concerns the tenant may have. “The property should be in the condition everyone involved is anticipating,” said Day.
Leases and expectations
“You want to make sure the tenant understands your expectations before they move in,” said Day. While some landlords opt for what is an acceptable “standard” lease (which can be found online and at some office supply stores) for their state, you may also include specific stipulations. “Trash is a big one – where does it go and where is it stored,” said Day.
Other stipulations may include specific “quiet time” hours, or rules relating to smoking in or near the property, or even rules about children’s toys blocking entryways. “It’s better if everything is in writing. You can’t enforce something if it isn’t in writing,” said Day.
I have been a landlord for over 12 years, and I found it is also a good idea to be very clear about when the rent is expected to be paid. If you live in the same building with your tenant (s), timing of rental payments can be a thorny issue if not made very clear from the start.
“If you want to be a landlord, you may want to consider how you feel about being woken at two o’clock in the morning for emergency maintenance,” said Day. You will want to make sure tenants know phone numbers to call for any needed maintenance, inlcuding plumbing  and electrical repair . If you are personally taking on the responsibility for much of the maintenance, you need to follow through in a reasonable amount of time. “If there are health and safety violations, a tenant can withhold rent,” said Day.
Just like your own home, it is naturally in your best interest to keep your rental property well maintained and up to code.
When your tenant is moving
If your tenant has decided to move, Day said to be sure to get a forwarding address. Again state laws vary regarding last month’s rent and security deposit. Generally, it is best to keep both (if you chose at the outset to charge them to begin with) in an escrow account. You will have 30 days to return a security deposit. Many states have stringent laws regarding withholding of any of the security deposit. “Be sure to do a walk through with the tenant before they leave and mark anything that exceeds normal wear and tear. Be very clear, and it is best to create a document regarding any damages,” said Day.
She added that being very clear about what will be withheld due to damage will go a long way to reducing friction or possible legal action from the tenant. “If they are expecting a thousand dollars and they only get five-hundred back, problems could arise,” she said.