Laws & Regulations on an Apartment Complex Hiring a Towing Service

By Leslie Bloom - Updated October 29, 2018
Man preparing car to get towed

Just because your car is parked at an apartment complex, it doesn't mean it can’t be towed. If you are parked illegally at an apartment complex – which is considered private property – your car may not be where you parked it if you don’t comply with the apartment complex’s rules.

The laws around an apartment complex hiring a towing service vary by state and even municipality. One thing they tend to agree on is that, if you violate the stated parking rules at an apartment complex, there is a good chance that your car will get towed.

Is It Legal to Tow a Car From an Apartment Complex?

Most apartment complexes have rules when it comes to parking. There may be numbered spots that only tenants can park in, or guest parking that is available only during certain hours. Parking may just be allowed in certain areas of the complex or not at all.

These rules are usually clearly posted around an apartment complex, and are often required by law. If not, the rules are generally told to you by the apartment manager or are stated in your lease agreement. If you violate one of the parking rules, your car can legally be towed.

When is it legal to tow a car from an apartment complex? That depends on the laws in your state. You car may be towed from a private apartment complex if you:

  • Park in a clearly marked tow-away zone
  • Park in a clearly marked fire lane
  • Park anywhere with signage indicating that unauthorized vehicles will be towed, including numbered tenant spots
  • Park in a marked handicapped space illegally
  • Obstruct another vehicle, access gate, dumpster or entry or exit
  • Have a vehicle that is leaking hazardous fluid

Not only is it legal to tow a car from an apartment complex, but you don’t even need to be given notice if you are illegally parked, as long as the signage is sufficient.

Most states do not allow emergency vehicles such as fire trucks, police cars or ambulances to be towed.

Most property owners have contracted relationships with one or more local towing companies that they can call on as needed. These towing companies must comply with their own set of rules, and cannot tow vehicles in certain circumstances (such as when an unauthorized person orders a tow). Property owners can even have a towing company regularly patrol their lots to tow improperly parked vehicles.

The owners or managers of an apartment complex must exercise due diligence in selecting a towing service to remove vehicles. Important requirements include screening the service to determine its reputation for reliability and ethical business practices. An apartment complex exposes itself to liability if it selects a disreputable towing service, because it failed to do any sort of background check on that company.

Can a Tenant Have a Car Towed?

When you live in an apartment complex, it’s not just the landlord you have to deal with. You have dozens of neighbors who may be unhappy with where you park your car, especially if you take their spot or block entrance to their apartment.

A resident of an apartment complex who elects to park somewhere else on the premises and not in her assigned spot is subject to towing. The authorization to park on the premises extends only to the assigned space. Some states give tenants the right to have a car towed in certain circumstances.

In California, for example, tenants living in small complexes with no landlord onsite may tow cars that park in their assigned space. The property owner must specify that this is permitted in her contract with the towing company. The tenant must first make a written request to the property owner that the property owner needs to authorize before the car is towed. There are even rules around what the written authorization needs to include, such as the car’s VIN and license number, why the car was towed and the time the car was first seen parked on the property.

If you are the tenant of an apartment complex and want to have someone’s car towed, check your lease agreement or with your landlord for the rules around it. Failing to comply with the rules and having a car towed improperly may result in a costly violation for you.

Can an Apartment Complex Tow Your Car for Expired Tags?

Sure, an apartment complex can tow your car for violating its parking rules. But can an apartment complex tow your car for expired tags? You may be surprised that the answer in some states is yes.

If your car has expired tags, it can be towed, depending on the rules of your state. Unlike other towing situations, you must usually be given some notice that your car will be towed if your tags aren’t renewed. In Texas, you must be given a 10-day notice before your car is towed, in the form of a hand-delivered or certified letter.

In Nevada, there must be a note attached to the vehicle that explains why the vehicle is being towed, such as for expired tags. Tags on the car of a resident of the apartment complex must be expired for more than 60 days before the car can legally be towed. If the expired tags are on a non-resident’s car, the car can be towed no matter how long the tags have been expired.

If you live somewhere where cars are towed for expired tags, it’s generally required that this information is stated somewhere in your lease or property contract so that you have notice that it may happen.

If you’re wondering why an apartment complex would bother to tow your car for expired tags, it’s often because its insurance wants all vehicles parked on the property to be registered.

Can a Landlord Tow Your Vehicle?

Laws and ordinances regarding an apartment complex engaging a towing service are rooted in the theory of trespass. In the United States, the laws of trespass permit the owner of real estate – or an agent of the owner – to remove an unauthorized person or item of property from the premises. Apartment complex owners, managers and landlords are vested with authority to remove vehicles parked on the premises without authorization based on these laws and ordinances arising out of the concept of trespass.

In many states, a landlord can tow your vehicle from an apartment complex whether or not there is a sign indicating that your car may be towed. Other states require there to be signage before a landlord can tow your vehicle.

In some states, there are even exact specifications for what that signage must look like, including the measurements of the sign and the size of the lettering. Tennessee requires signs to be placed at all entrances to the apartment complex. The signs must be at least 18 inches by 12 inches, with lettering of at least one inch high. Signs in Tennessee must state that the vehicles will be removed at the owner’s expense, and that a citation may be issued for a violation of the parking rules.

The parking signs at an apartment complex usually need to include the phone number of the local police department and the contact information for the towing companies that contract with the property owner.

If no parking sign is required, ordinances may require that the car first be ticketed by local law or parking enforcement before getting towed. In either case, towing is done at the owner’s expense, and the car may be impounded until the fees are paid. Some states require the landlord to notify the local police department within a specified time before having a car towed.

Can You Get Towed if There Are no Signs?

While most states require there to be clear signs before a car is towed from an apartment complex, some permit a car to be towed in the absence of signs. So, the answer is yes. In Wisconsin, for instance, you can be towed from an apartment complex if there are no signs as long as the car is first ticketed by parking or law enforcement.

California requires a visible sign to tow a car from an apartment complex unless the car was given notice of a parking violation four days before towing or the car is missing parts and the property owner let local law enforcement know before the tow.

It’s harder to claim the your car was wrongly towed if there are clear signs placed around the apartment complex. However, even if there are no signs, you should still use common sense when parking around an apartment complex so that you don’t find yourself without a car. That means to park only in appropriate spots, don’t block entrances and exits, stay away from fire hydrants and never park in a handicapped space unless you are permitted to do so. If you obey the rules of the road, you won’t need to wonder about getting towed with or without signs, since you will not have done anything wrong that leads to towing.

What Should I Do If My Car Was Towed?

Generally, you should familiarize yourself with the parking rules at your specific apartment complex. You assume the risk of getting towed if you park somewhere you know you shouldn’t park, even if it’s for a short period of time. Since state law around towing on private properties varies, it’s important to know the laws of your state so that you don’t end up paying expensive towing and recovery fees.

If you do get towed, either at your apartment complex or someone else’s, contact the towing company that towed your car and pay the required fees. It’s likely the towing company was required to send you a written notice of the tow and the grounds for removal, so you have its contact information. If not, check with the apartment complex or call the local police department.

If you think your car was improperly towed, you can file a complaint with the local police department. Bring any documentation showing why you believe your car should not have been towed. If you have a legitimate claim, you may not have to pay the fees or be able to get them refunded. There will likely be a hearing to determine if you should have been towed or not.

If, for whatever reason, you opt to not pick up your car once it’s been towed, it will be considered abandoned after a certain amount of time and sold at auction or otherwise disposed of.

About the Author

Leslie Bloom earned a J.D. from U.C. Davis’ King Hall, with a focus on public interest law. She is a licensed attorney who has done advocacy work for children and women. She holds a B.S. in print journalism, and has more than 20 years of experience writing for a variety of print and online publications, including the Journal of Juvenile Law and Policy.

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