Can A Landlord Tell You How Clean To Keep Your Apartment?

One of the issues that tenants run across is the matter of cleanliness, and how clean is clean.  Obviously, just by being in the world, we know that different people have a different yardstick when measuring cleanliness, but what happens when your landlord or manager tells you that you have to clean up your apartment.   Can they do that?? 

Your landlord has the right to maintain his property and the obligation to keep other tenants safe from health hazards.  If your apartment is getting to where a landlord needs to say something about it, more than likely, it needs to be cleaned. 

I am going to walk you through the different questions that tenants usually have regarding this issue, and the issues that I have had to deal with as a landlord.  If you are having an issue with cleanliness in your apartment, this is the article for you! 

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What Happens If You Fail Your Apartment Inspection?

So, your landlord came over to your apartment, and during his normal walkthrough that they do once or twice a year, they have deemed your apartment “Dirty” to “Uninhabitable”.   So… what now?

If not taken care of immediately, your landlord can begin the eviction process due to your apartment being a health hazard.  Normally, a tenant has between 24-48 hours to rectify the situation before any additional action is taken. 

A timetable is normally given because there needs to be some impetus put on the tenant to make sure they get their apartment cleaned up to at least the bare minimum for habitability.   Now, we aren’t talking about habitability like in 3rd world countries, this would be the Western World’s definition of “clean and habitable”.  

Tenant’s rights groups are always on the march to improve the living standards for tenants.  What they DON’T advocate for, or educate tenants on, is how to TAKE CARE of an apartment once they have been accepted.  Why can’t the landlord just spend more money making their units nicer?  Because they are spending all their money on fixing things that people have destroyed or ruined, but I digress. 

Your landlord will usually come by each apartment once or twice a year to make sure the apartment is still standing and is in good order.  Most of the time, your landlord will send out a notice, giving people time to tidy up a bit before they get there, but landlords don’t necessarily have to do this.  I have written an entire article on Apartment Inspections, and what your landlord is looking for when they do them. 

If your landlord deems you have failed the inspection, which is essentially 100% up to them as to what it looks like, then you will have a given amount of time to rectify the situation.  If you think that all the power is in the hands of the landlord for this, then you would be right.   It is their property, therefore, they get to set the rules, however arbitrary one may find them. 

Keep in mind that your landlord not only ISN’T your mom, but they also don’t WANT to be either!  As in many articles I have written on things a landlord does, the same thing applies here.  While wanting to maintain their property, your landlord has MUCH better things to be doing than worrying about if you washed your clothes yesterday or not.  

What they ARE worried about is if the apartment gets into such a state that there are bugs and pests and mold growing in your apartment that is not only bad for you but bad for anyone living around you as well.  This is why inspections are done, and if you failed one, it is because the apartment isn’t “messy” it is bordering on uninhabitable.

What Happens If The Apartment Becomes Uninhabitable?

If an apartment becomes uninhabitable, then it is up to the landlord to take whatever steps are necessary to make sure that the apartment isn’t a danger to both the original tenants and people living around them.

If you think that an apartment cannot become “Uninhabitable”, you are dead wrong.  They absolutely can.  The things I have seen with my own eyes when walking into some apartments make me want to pour bleach in them just so I never have to see anything like that ever again.  

Everything from hoarding to not doing the dishes for months on end to bugs and pests and rodents living in the apartment.  The incredible thing to me is that the look and appearance of the person doesn’t necessarily correlate with the shape of the apartment at all.  People of all walks of life I have seen live in those conditions, but those were conditions of their own making.  I gave them the apartment in perfect shape, not a trash heap.  

If your landlord is telling you that your apartment is uninhabitable, then something must be done IMMEDIATELY.  Do not pass go, do not collect $200 dollars.  That apartment needs work and it needs work NOW.  

Usually, if a municipality hears about the conditions someone is living in, they will request a walkthrough themselves, not to come down on the landlord(unless that is necessary), but to prompt the person to clean their apartment up so it doesn’t continue being a health hazard for the other tenants living around them.  

Whether or not you or another tenant doesn’t mind living like that, the landlord doesn’t want their property trashed, and other tenants aren’t paying for the privilege of living next to a health hazard.  That’s not what they are paying for.  If it gets bad enough where the words “Health Hazard” and “Uninhabitable” are being thrown around, you know something must be done immediately. 

Can My Landlord Walk Into My Apartment Unannounced? 

But can your landlord just walk into your apartment without telling you first? 

Your landlord can only come into your apartment unannounced if there is an immediate issue that needs to be addressed whether you are in the apartment or not. 

Things that would qualify for an emergency of this sort would be a broken pipe or a clog in some plumbing causing major problems… a fire… or some other calamity that has the potential for getting much worse if the landlord waits for the person to come home.  These are essentially the only cases that would qualify them just barging in.  

What your landlord CANNOT do, is just come over unannounced to do a walk-through.  They must give you a notice for that. Usually, a landlord will send out a paper letting the tenants know a period of time when they will be dropping by, or scheduling a time during the coming days.

Can A Landlord Inspect Your Bedroom?

Your landlord can inspect your bedroom, but only for normal walk-through purposes.  They cannot dig through your drawers or come in looking for something specific.  

While I have never had to deal with anyone accusing me of coming into their apartment to look for anything that is against the lease agreement, or potentially illegal, I HAVE found, on my own, these things anyways. 

I have seen drugs and drug paraphernalia lying out in the open, which makes it pretty hard for the tenant to argue when I say there have been reports of smoking from inside their unit.  I have seen pets just wandering about like they owned the place even though we don’t allow pets.  

So, what is the lesson here? 

If you don’t want your landlord to see something, especially something that isn’t allowed by the lease, or that is just straight-up illegal, then just don’t leave those things laying about…  Just common sense.  

It is your landlord’s right to be able to stop by for an inspection, but that doesn’t mean that they can just rifle through your things looking for anything and everything they want.  There are certain things that they are supposed to be looking for.  These things include overall cleanliness, that the smoke detectors have batteries and are working, and that the furnace and A/C have a good filter in them and that they are working properly.  

This is what an apartment inspection is all about.  If you are sensing that your landlord is in there for something other than those reasons, then you have a legitimate issue to gripe about.   

Can My Landlord Sue Me For Not Cleaning?

While a landlord may not take the steps to sue a tenant for an unclean environment, they can and will take legal steps, including eviction and collections, to make their property whole again if it has been impaired due to the treatment it received from a tenant. 

It never amazes me at how legal happy our society is getting.  Every other remedy offered online seems to say “SUE because of ANYTHING!!”  This is not realistic. 

Yes, people have emotions and sometimes emotions can drive a situation from bad to worse.  That is just humans being humans.  The real issue still needs to be addressed, and in almost every situation I can think of, a landlord suing a tenant to clean their terrible apartment probably isn’t going to get it done.   

Here is what WILL get it done, though. 

A landlord will give you a couple of warnings to clean up your apartment.  If you refuse, they will start the eviction process, which will take time depending on what state you are in.   

Next, they are going to see how much it will take to make their apartment whole again.  This amount WILL be charged to them either in small claims court or through collections, which essentially is going through the court system as well.  

These are not ideal for either the landlord or the tenant, and most times the situation can be nipped in the bud as long as the problem is identified before it gets out of hand.   

So, while most landlords aren’t going to straight-up sue you for an uninhabitable apartment, they WILL come after you for the money it takes to make the apartment whole again.  

A landlord DOES have the right, to a point, to tell you how clean you must keep your apartment.  They are doing this not only to protect their own property but to also keep the other tenants in the building safe and happy as well.  Remember, they aren’t paying to live next to a health hazard no matter what you personally want to live like. 

Your landlord will more than likely come over at least once a year to do an inspection on the apartment you are staying in to make sure you are keeping it up.  If you aren’t, they will ask you to fix the situation or be in breach of the lease. 

And while a landlord may not go straight out and hire a lawyer to handle the situation, it CAN and DOES happen, as well as other means used by collections and the courts to make the apartment whole again for the landlord. 

A good rule of thumb to use is whether or not you would feel OK to have your grandma come into your apartment in the state it is in.  If the answer is “Yes, absolutely!”, then you probably have no problem.  If you don’t know how to answer that confidently, then you may have some cleaning to do on the horizon.

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John Boettcher

Co-Founder of Apartment School and a previous renter turned owner of many multi-family properties across the United States, with many years of experience in all aspects of the apartment, real estate, and investing world.

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