No-pets policy doesn’t apply to service animals

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Nov. 3, 2016 – Question: I am renting my house and don't allow pets under the lease. Now my new tenant is telling me he needs to get a service dog. I feel suckered because he rented knowing there were no pets allowed. Do I have to let him? – Bud

Answer: Yes. While there are some small exceptions to the rule, such as if you rent only a single room in your house, you must allow the use of a service animal for your renter with disabilities. Under Florida law, for example, a service animal can be any animal that is trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.

The law is clear that a service animal is not a pet, so your lease's restriction against pets does not apply. The legal definition of what tasks the service animal performs is very broad, such as guiding the visually impaired or alerting the owner about an impending seizure.

You may ask your tenant for documentation of his need and should make the request in writing to avoid any appearance of discrimination. The documentation most likely will be a letter from his physician, but it can be from almost any health-care professional. You may not ask about the nature or extent of your renter's disability, other than the existence of one.

Because the service animal is not a pet, you can't require a pet security deposit. However, if the service animal damages your house, your renter will be responsible for fixing the damage, and you still can require a general security deposit, as with any other renter. Your tenant also is responsible for controlling and caring for the animal. While you need to make reasonable accommodations for the service animal, you are not required to provide more facilities than you would for a renter without a disability.

The law gives great discretion to tenants on this issue. I advise landlords to treat every prospective tenant as the potential owner of a service animal.

About the writer: Gary M. Singer is a Florida attorney and board-certified as an expert in real estate law by the Florida Bar. He practices real estate, business litigation and contract law from his office in Sunrise, Fla. He is the chairman of the Real Estate Section of the Broward County Bar Association and is a co-host of the weekly radio show Legal News and Review. He frequently consults on general real estate matters and trends in Florida with various companies across the nation.

Copyright © 2016 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.), Gary M. Singer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.