Can Landlords Limit the Number of Occupants in a Rental Property?

When and how landlords can set occupancy limits for their rentals depends on local, state, and federal law as well as the rental's unique characteristics.

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

Nearly every diligent landlord wants to take steps to preserve the good condition of their rental property. One concern many landlords have is about the number of people living in a unit—an overcrowded apartment can quickly take on damage and might increase the chance that neighbors will complain about noise. Landlords need to tread carefully when setting occupancy limits, though, because limiting the number of renters might get a landlord into fair housing hot water.

When Is It Okay for a Landlord to Limit the Number of Occupants in a Rental?

Landlords can set a limit to the number of people who can live in a rental—as long as they comply with all relevant housing laws.

State and local health and safety codes that set maximum limits on the number of tenants (based purely on the size of the unit and number of bedrooms and bathrooms) might support a limit on the number of occupants. However, landlords aren't free to set unreasonably low figures (for example, two people for a two-bedroom flat) in order to maintain a quiet atmosphere or to reduce wear and tear.

Fair Housing Concerns

So why can't landlords simply place a limit on the number of people living in their rental? It comes down to fair housing and the fact that placing strict occupancy limits on a rental can be a form of discrimination against families.

The federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the federal Fair Housing Act Amendments Act of 1988 prohibit discrimination on the basis of familial status, which includes families with children under the age of 18 and pregnant women.

If an occupancy policy limits the number of tenants for any reason other than health, safety, and legitimate business needs, the landlord risks charges of discrimination against families.

What Is a Reasonable Occupancy Limit?

The law allows landlords to establish an occupancy policy based on genuine health and safety considerations. In addition, they can adopt standards that are driven by a legitimate business reason, such as the capacity of the rental's plumbing system. The landlord's personal goals (such as reducing wear and tear or ensuring a quiet, upscale environment), however, aren't valid reasons for limiting occupancy.

HUD advises that in general, limiting occupancy to two people per bedroom is reasonable in most situations. The reasonableness of a limit varies, though, depending on the specific characteristics of the unit, such as its size and configuration of sleeping areas. And state or local occupancy standards may allow even more people in the rental than the federal law does.

Before setting an occupancy limit, landlords should contact their local and state housing authorities or reach out to the local office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for more information about applicable laws.

How Landlords Can Enforce Reasonable Occupancy Limits

The best way for landlords to enforce a reasonable occupancy limit is to make sure that their lease or rental agreement includes a "Limits on Use and Occupancy" clause. This clause states that the only residents in the rental will be the adults signing the lease and their minor children. Landlords should make sure that every adult who will live in the unit has signed the lease or rental agreement.

The occupancy limits clause should specify that the tenants can't move anyone else into the rental unit or add a roommate without the landlord's consent. It should also make it clear that a violation of the clause is considered a breach of the lease and is grounds for the landlord to terminate the tenancy.

Limits on Guest Stays in Rentals

Another legally valid way for landlords to control the number of people living in a rental is to include a time limit on guest stays in the "Limits on Use and Occupancy" clause of the lease or rental agreement. For example, the lease might allow guests to stay for up to 10 consecutive days in any 6-month period, with additional stays requiring the landlord's permission.

A lease clause that limits guest stays will help prevent a tenant from having a friend or relative stay for so long that they gain legal status as a tenant despite not being named in the lease. To avoid claims of illegal discrimination, any restrictions on guests shouldn't be based on the age or sex of the guest.

Additional Resources

For details on how landlords can set occupancy limits and avoid discriminating against families, see Every Landlord's Legal Guide or (if the rental property is in California) The California Landlord's Law Book: Rights & Responsibilities. Also check out Nolo's section on Housing Discrimination and Retaliation.

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