Everybody loves pets, right? Well, that’s true if we’re talking about your own pets. If you’re a rental property owner concerned about scratches on floors or lingering pet odors, you may not be such a fan. Pets are both a benefit and a burden to Boston rental property owners. We recommend considering pets because owners can often earn more and reduce vacancy days. But those pets come with risks. We understand that it’s not always worth it for an investor who really cares about the pristine condition of their property.
And then there are service animals, which are not pets at all. There’s less flexibility when it comes to allowing them in your property. Actually, there’s no flexibility at all – you have to permit them or face discrimination claims.
Understanding the nuances of service animals and even companion animals is a huge part of staying compliant with fair housing laws. Educating yourself on those requirements is a lot different from deciding whether you’re okay with pets.
Let’s take a look at how different pets and service animals are when we’re talking about Boston rental homes.
Pets and Service Animals: The Fair Housing Act and the ADA
You won’t find any federal, state, or local laws that say landlords must allow pets into their rental properties. A pet is completely unregulated and as a landlord, you can make your own rules. However, service and companion animals are governed by two specific federal laws: the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Both of these laws protect people with physical, emotional, and intellectual disabilities against housing discrimination. According to these laws, you cannot deny a tenant the use of a service animal or a companion animal, which is most frequently an emotional support animal or a therapy animal. You have to allow those animals because they are accommodations, not pets. Think about it the same way you’d think about a wheelchair. You cannot say “No wheelchairs” when you’re renting out a home. This is the same reason you cannot say “No service animals.”
Pets are up to you. If you do allow pets in your rental property, you can charge a pet deposit or a pet fee. You can also charge extra rent every month and call it pet rent. These additional charges are not permitted when your tenant has a service or companion animal.
Why a Pet-Friendly Boston Rental Home is Good Business
Before we dive into the do and don’t lists for service and companion animals, let’s talk about the area that you can control – pets. Why should you allow pets into your Boston investment property?
Maybe you have some beloved dogs or cats of your own. If you do, you likely understand how important they are. People consider them family members, and no one with a pet is going to move into a home that doesn’t allow animals.
A large majority of households in the U.S. have at least one pet. So, if you’re renting out a property that doesn’t allow pets, you’re eliminating a huge part of your tenant pool. That could lead to longer vacancy periods. Pet-friendly rental homes in Boston, on the other hand, will rent faster because you’re opening up your home to a much larger population of potential renters.
It’s not just the vacancy loss that may inspire you to allow pets. You can also earn more in rent.
Pet-friendly homes often have a pet fee, which tenants are more than willing to pay. This fee is nonrefundable. You have it in case you need to pay for damage and if you don’t – it’s extra income for you. There’s also the option to collect pet rent. Generally, tenants expect to pay between $25 and $50 per pet when they’re renting a home. So, if you have tenants moving in with two cats and a dog, you’re earning $75 to $150 more per month than you would on a no-pet property.
Better tenant retention is another benefit to allowing pets. Your residents won’t want to go in search of another pet-friendly property or pay another pet fee elsewhere. They’ll stay put.
Managing the Risk of Pets
While pets can mean more revenue and fewer vacancy days, they can also open you up to greater liability. You may worry about property damage, particularly to floors, walls, appliances, and landscaping. It can be difficult to clean and remove lingering pet odors. Any future tenants with allergies may react to the previous pets no matter how well you clean. Animals can also be unpredictable. Dog bites are a big source for lawsuits.
You can mitigate this risk by creating a pet policy that protects you and your investment property. A good pet policy will explain the fees and pet rent that will be charged and also list the tenant’s responsibilities as far as the pet goes. You can require your tenants to keep their pet’s vaccines up to date, you can ask for information on their veterinarian, and you can require tenants to clean up after their pets and keep dogs on leashes and cats indoors.
Restrictions are also a good way to reduce the chances that something terrible will happen in or to your property. You can set limits on size, number, and breed. Perhaps you only want to allow one pet per tenant or pets that are under 20 pounds. You can say no to kittens and puppies but allow full-grown dogs and cats.
How to Handle Service and Companion Animals
For a clear definition on service animals, check with the federal government. According to the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.
Since 2011, only dogs can be designated as service animals. No tenant should claim their horse or pig is a service animal. It has to be a dog.
Service animals will do a specific task for someone who needs assistance. They provide:
- Guidance for people who are blind
- Alerts to people who are deaf
- Wheelchair pulling for someone who cannot walk
- Protection for a person who is having a seizure
- Reminders to take medications
There are other duties a service animal may perform, depending on the person and the disability.
You may have heard of emotional support animals or therapy animals. These are considered companion animals, and they’re a bit different from service animals.
Companion animals may be dogs, but they can also be cats, guinea pigs, reptiles, birds, and other animals. These animals are not trained in any specific work or tasks, and they aren’t certified. A companion animal’s job is to provide comfort or emotional support. They do not qualify as service animals under federal law, but they are still protected and must be allowed in your rental property by tenants who struggle with mental health issues.
This definition of a companion animal does not affect or limit the broader definition of “assistance animal” under the Fair Housing Act, even if it’s not a service animal. Assistance animals can serve different roles and may be an emotional support animal, companion animal, or therapy animal.
How Are Service Animals Different from Pets?
As we’ve said, pets are not protected by any laws. Tenants have no rights when it comes to pets and while we have explained that pet-friendly properties often rent faster and for more money, we respect your decision and your right not to allow pets if that’s what you choose.
Service animals are different because the law does not see them as pets. The law sees them as accommodations, which tenants with disabilities are legally permitted to expect from their landlords.
When you’re renting your Boston property to a tenant with a service animal, remember:
- You must allow a service dog into your rental home even if you have a strict no-pets policy.
- You cannot disallow the breed of dog. A service animal is a service animal, whether it’s a tiny terrier or a German shepherd.
- You cannot collect a pet fee or a pet deposit for a service animal.
- You cannot charge pet rent for a service animal.
Tenants are Still Responsible for Service and Companion Animals
While you cannot collect a pet fee or pet rent, you’ll still collect a security deposit for any tenant moving into your property. You can use the security deposit at the end of the lease term to repair any damage that was done by the service or support animal. You can also require your tenant to clean up after the animal and ensure it isn’t a threat or a nuisance to other tenants or the property.
Understanding how pets are different from service and support animals is not always easy. Fair housing laws are always changing and it’s important to stay up to date on the latest when it comes to pets and service or companion animals.
We can help with any questions you may have about these laws and requirements. If you’d like some assistance when you’re working through the requirements of fair housing and anti-discrimination laws, please contact us at Platinum Realty Group. We’re your best Boston property management resource.