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Does my landlord have the right to inspect my apartment unannounced?
December 9, 2010

Dear Cecil:

My landlord recently sent out a newsletter broadcasting the fact that he is making unannounced apartment inspections. He went on to mention how filthy some apartments were and so forth. Since when do tenants need to start dusting just in case the landlord pops by? More importantly my problem is this is completely creepy and, I thought, very illegal. How can he just announce this in a newsletter?

— running4cover, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil Adams replies:

He can't.

I'm making several assumptions here. One is that, since you posted this on the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board, you live in Chicago. If in fact you took a seriously wrong turn on the Internet and you actually live in Boise, you're on your own. The second is that you live in a building with (a) more than six dwelling units, OR (b) your landlord doesn't live in the building. I say this because if the building has six units or less, AND — to repeat, AND — he lives in the building, he's exempt from the Chicago ordinance I'm about to cite. Assuming you're a Chicagoan, I'm guessing there's a high likelihood you're covered. The alternative is to believe your landlord lives in the same building as you and yet feels the need to communicate via newsletter, in which case he's got pathological shyness and God knows what other issues, probably peeks in on you when you shower, and will soon slit your throat.

Still with me? OK, the law of interest here is the Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance, which spells out in detail what Chicago landlords can and can't do. I call your attention to Section 5-12-050, Landlord's Right of Access. The pertinent passages are as follows:

A tenant shall not unreasonably withhold consent to the landlord to enter the dwelling unit: …

(g) to determine a tenant's compliance with provisions in the rental agreement …

The landlord shall not abuse the right of access or use it to harass the tenant … [T]he landlord shall give the tenant notice of the landlord's intent to enter of no less than two days. Such notice shall be provided directly to each dwelling unit by mail, telephone, written notice to the dwelling unit, or by other reasonable means designed in good faith to provide notice to the tenant.

Section (g) gives the landlord a pretty broad right of inspection. Chances are your lease includes a clause saying you must keep the place in a reasonably sanitary condition, throw out the garbage, and generally refrain from being a pig. Dusting, in my experience, isn't usually the subject of concern. Filth — you know, as in the state of disorder that leads to rats and cockroaches — is. Assuming you aren't yourself a pig, you and your landlord have a certain commonality of interest in ensuring that nobody else in the building is either. Indeed, my baseline advice to you is to quit being a paranoid dipshit and realize that an arguably worse situation is to have the landlord never inspect, in consequence whereof your neighbors are free to keep goats, sell crack, and pee on the floor. 

In short, let's not go into this assuming the worst. You've got a guy who's interested in keeping up his property, which is good. However — and here we get back to your question — it doesn't mean he can drop in unannounced.

Let's talk about that. The law says the landlord needs to give you two days' notice. Notice, in this case, doesn't mean he puts a squib in the newsletter. Having hashed this out at some length with Douglas Pensack, associate director of the Illinois Tenants Union, I'd say it's reasonably clear he must schedule a specific time for the inspection — it can't just be sometime in the next two weeks. The law doesn't spell out the process, but presumably you and your landlord can conduct a civil conversation, and if he sends you a note saying he wants to inspect next Wednesday sometime between and noon and 2 p.m., you can call and say, sorry, that's when your coven meets, and make other arrangements. At the agreed-upon hour he shows up, takes a quick look around, compliments you on the lava lamp, and that's that.

Conceivably, of course, points of friction may arise. For example:

The landlord claims the lease gives him the right to walk in any time he wants to. Doesn't matter — the law supersedes the lease. (Be sure you're covered by the law; although I've given the basics, there are a few fine points.) I quote from Section 5-12-140, Rental Agreement:

[N]o rental agreement may provide that the landlord or tenant:

(a) agrees to waive or forego rights, remedies or obligations provided under this chapter
…

A provision prohibited by this section included in a rental agreement is unenforceable. The tenant may recover actual damages sustained by the tenant because of the enforcement of a prohibited provision. If the landlord attempts to enforce a provision in a rental agreement prohibited by this section the tenant may recover two months rent.

Besides, what's the landlord worried about? He gives a messy tenant two days' notice of inspection and the guy frantically cleans up? Problem solved! Fact is, even if the landlord catches the tenant unawares and finds the apartment is a sty, the law requires that he then give the guy 10 days' notice to put things right before he can terminate the lease.

The landlord thinks he doesn't have to knock. In the discussion on the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board about this subject, one poster, who I gathered was female, told of a landlord who would let himself in with his key with no advance warning. Creepy, right? That's what I thought. What's more, when I consulted the city ordinance, I found this in Section 5-12-060:

If the landlord makes an unlawful entry or a lawful entry in an unreasonable manner or makes repeated unreasonable demands for entry otherwise lawful, but which have the effect of harassing the tenant, the tenant may obtain injunctive relief to prevent the recurrence of the conduct, or terminate the rental agreement.

Surely, you think, the landlord walking in on you while you're standing there in your skivvies qualifies as unreasonable, right? As it turns out, not necessarily. If the landlord (a) is legally obligated to give you notice of inspection, (b) hasn't notified you, (c) inspects the apartment anyway, and (d) in the process unlocks the door and strolls in without knocking, he's already in trouble at (c) and (d) merely confirms his detestable nature. On the other hand, if he has properly notified you, shows up at the specified time, and merely neglects to knock before unlocking the door … well, you may say a reasonable person would attempt to ascertain if someone was home before entering. But the law doesn't specifically require it. If he were to make a habit of walking in on you without warning, then you've got more of a case.

Enough of these fine points. Your landlord has announced he's going to make unannounced visits. What do you do?

You could just wait to see if he tries it. If he shows up when you're home, you're within your rights to refuse to let him in. If he won't be deterred and barges in, you can call the cops. Assuming they understand the law, not a 100 percent guaranteed proposition, they'll take your side, and even if they don't, the typical cop response to a screaming domestic dispute is to get the parties separated and tell them to calm down and go home. You are home; your landlord isn't. You win.

Personally, however, I'd rather avoid such icky confrontations — so uncivilized. My preference would be to call or write the landlord beforehand and patiently explain the law. I'm betting he'd appreciate my calm demeanor and in-depth legal knowledge and we'd be able to work something out, realizing we're all in this together and hey, how 'bout dem Bears? And if he then proceeded to inspect the place unannounced anyway, why, then I'd sue the son of a bitch.

— Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil
 

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