Is it a pet or service animal? There’s a difference!
If your recent tenant applicant told you they have a service animal, you’d likely looked into what that means, especially if they didn’t have an obvious need.
According to HUD, Service animals and Emotional Support Animals (E.S.A.’s) are not pets, they are working animals who have a purpose with their human owner. Tenants who have them are protected by these HUD laws. Much like you wouldn’t ask someone what their prescription is for, you can’t ask the tenant what they suffer from that requires an animal. Here’s how to handle service animals versus pets:
Service animals don’t need to be certified.
But there should be some other form of proof like a note from a doctor. However, if the disability is obvious then that’s all the proof you need; i.e. If they are blind and have a seeing eye dog, this shouldn’t even be a conversation. However, if the disability isn’t obvious you may ask for documentation.
If they don’t have verification of the animal’s status, then it is considered a pet, and you can charge a pet deposit and pet rent. But with a note or certification you cannot charge anything for the animal
Service animals come in all shapes and sizes.
You might have heard about the United Airlines scandal when they didn’t let a Service Peacock on the plane – That was a violation of the A.D.A. laws. Keep this in mind when someone says their snake is a service animal. Also, keep it in mind when they say their Pit Bull is a service animal. You cannot judge for yourself whether an animal is or isn’t qualified, but you must instead rely upon the documentation.
What you can do:
As landlords, you are able to ask for documentation in a professional manner. Something along the lines of “Please include the certification of your service animal or E.S.A. with your application,” is an appropriate way to ask the tenants to prove the need for the animal. This certification might also come in the form of a letter from their doctor or therapist as a prescription. This is another acceptable document that you can use to prove the need for the animal without asking the tenant what they need the animal for, which is prohibited.
Now, this begs the question: what if their animal causes damage at the rental property or a nuisance?
The answer: you may hold the tenant liable per the terms of their lease. Use the tenant’s security deposit to fix any damage to the unit as you would with any other tenant.
Always work according to your local and state laws regarding discrimination. We are a firm based in King & Snohomish Counties of Washington State and are constantly watching the pertinent laws in our market to better understand how to work with people with disabilities, and how to keep landlords in compliance.