Q. I own a small apartment house with an old but surprisingly efficient heating system, so heat and hot water have always been included with the rent, but now, with the oil prices getting so bad, it’s becoming a problem. Changing the system so each apartment has its own meter will be expensive, and I’m afraid that it will some-how mess up how efficient the system has been to date. So I have raised the rent a couple of times, and the tenants have taken it well. But one couple keeps leaving windows open “for fresh air,” because one of them smokes and the other doesn’t like it. Can I charge them more than the other tenants? Or can I evict them for wasting heat? They aren’t bad people otherwise, but asking them to be conservative hasn’t worked.
A. Landlords are not required to treat all tenants equally, as long as the basis of the distinction complies with other applicable law. Fundamentally, landlords are in business and can make appropriate business decisions. However, if your tenants have a lease, you are bound by the lease. If they don’t have a lease, you (or your attorney) can serve your tenant with a 30-day notice to quit (which meets all the legal requirements) for no reason whatsoever. If the tenant does not move 30 days after service, you can begin an eviction case.
If your tenant does not have a lease, you can raise the rent, but you have to provide the tenant with 45 days’ written notice. You may use a rent increase to “encourage” a tenant to leave but you cannot illegally discriminate. For example, you cannot say, “Now that I know this guy is from Fiji, I’m boosting the rent.”
Please remember that evictions are highly technical lawsuits. Do each step perfectly, in order, and you get the right result. If you do something almost right, the judge will make you start over. Working with an attorney to get it done right the first time will most likely save you time and money.
This column is a service of the Lawyer Referral and Information Service of the Maine State Bar Association. Its contents are a general response to the question and do not constitute legal advice. Questions are welcome. E-mail AAL@mainebar.org, describe your question and note you are a BDN reader. Written questions mailed to “Ask a Lawyer,” Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329 will be forwarded to the LRIS.