Smoking Ain't Allowed In School... How About Your Rental?

Strange.  This topic always starts me singing the 70’s classic Smokin’ In The Boys Room.  For rental property owners, smoking is not some sophomoric high school challenge.  It is an issue that must be addressed.  The final decision on smoking in your rental is an owner’s prerogative, but from a manager’s perspective, it can be complicated.  Thankfully, smokers are not a protected class so an owner or landlord can place whatever restrictions on smokers they desire.

Options for the smoker when renting:

There are only three options for what to do about smoking at your rental.  If you have another one please write me and tell me about it and I will update this post.

  • No Smoking
  • Smoking Only Allowed In Designated Areas
  • Smoking Allowed
No Smokers

It is not illegal for any owner to refuse to rent to smokers.  If somebody identifies that they smoke in the application process, then it seems likely they will need to smoke sometime when they are on your property.  The only way to avoid this issue is just not rent to smokers.  This eliminates a portion of your applicant pool.  It is also always a possibility that they will take up the habit after renting the home, or they will have a friend over lights up.

Designated Smoking Area

In my experience the best solution is to always assume somebody will enter the home who wants to smoke.  Just like public buildings, make it clear no-smoking is allowed in the home.  Designate how far from the actual residence smoking is allowed and, even more specifically, where. If you have a non-smoking property and feel that you are losing tenants by maintaining this position, one option is to permit smoking outside the premises.  Depending on the level of your concern you can even request  a “smokers damage deposit.”  This deposit is for the extra cleaning that will be required if the smell of cigarette smoke is detected in the home.  The ability to smell or suspect cigarette smoke is subjective but difficult to argue.  The deposit is enough that the smoker thinks long and hard about smoking inside when it is really nasty outside.  This might also keep the smoker in tune to make sure their friends do not smoke inside.  Your deposit will likely never be enough to provide reimbursement for a thorough cleaning and air ionization.  Deposits are never enough to cover all risks.  They are a deterrent from negative behavior.

Smokers Allowed

Maybe your property has already been damaged by cigarette smoke and you do not wish to incur the costs of covering up the smell?  Just continue to rent to smokers.  Be aware though, that is all you are going to rent to.  Come to think of it though, what an interesting market niche in today’s anti-smoking environment.  Homes for smokers would definitely have an advantage. Making the decision to allow smokers does come with a number of significant issues (which is why the majority of landlords do not allow smoking).

Risks of allowing smoking in a rental

Third-Hand Smoke: Landlords are the target of an increasing number of lawsuits by non-smoking tenants who are affected by second-hand smoke.  The claims are that landlords either don’t enforce a no-smoking policy or don’t have a good enough ventilation system to take care of smoke. You can avoid this altogether when your property is smoke-free. New evidence is even pointing to the dangers of “third-hand” smoke.  Not second-hand, but third-hand!  Could this be a risk for owners of multi-family properties?  The effect of the toxins that come off of the hands and clothing of smokers builds up on surfaces (shared doors, hallways and common areas) and can be harmful to those who regularly come in contact with them. Fire: Besides the known health concerns, the risk of a fire from a smoker is significantly increased.  Reports of people smoking in bed, starting fires that destroy property and possibly lives, are common.  Smoking creates a new liability issue. According to the United States Fire Administration:

  • Most fires caused by smoking materials start on beds, furniture, or in trash.
  • People close to where a smoking material fire starts are harder to save, because the fire spreads fast.
  • About 1,000 people are killed every year from smoking material home fires.
  • Of the fatal victims who were not the smokers:  34% were children of the smokers, 25% were neighbors or friends of the smokers and 1 in 4 people killed in home fires are not the smoker whose cigarettes caused the fire.

Odor: The smell does not come out.  Once a property owner allows smokers, the only next tenant will be a smoker unless significant clean up costs are incurred. Cigarette odors permeate the carpet, walls and ceilings.  A home that has occasional smoking can sometimes be returned to normal with carpet cleaning, new painted walls and ceilings (first washed and then using a stain blocker).  The more the smoking, the greater the problem.  To rid the home of the odor you will likely have to hire a professional such as a smoke restoration company.   Professionals use ozone generators (in addition to air ionizers) but ozone can’t be used at the levels needed to remove the cigarette residue if other people live in the structure (such as a multi-family building).  Note- air ionization is distinctly different from ozone generators utilized by professional cleaners. It is impossible to eliminate all of these risks.  As a landlord these are just more reasons to think long and hard about allowing smoking in your property.

Why smoking must be addressed in the lease

It is prudent to back up your policy with specific language and guidance in your lease.  If the current lease agreement does not include language that prohibits smoking, you cannot force a tenant to stop smoking at the property. Your only option is to wait until the lease expires, then add language about the smoking restrictions. Whatever you choose, you will eliminate some potential tenants.  Just remember, you can’t please all the people.  These are your customers.  Decide what you are willing to allow and then do everything possible to limit your risk.

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WILMOTH Group is headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana and Fort Myers, Florida. We focus on providing creative local solutions for a variety of residential real estate needs including, properties for sale, property management services in Indianapolis, and short-term management services in Tampa and Fort Myers.