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Q: A friend asked me to co-sign on her one-year lease. A few months later she disappeared. Even though I never lived in the place, the landlord is now threatening to sue me if I don’t pay the back-rent due. Am I financially bound to pay?

A: Possibly, yes. Understand that when you sign a lease you are signing a legal contract. Whether you ever stepped foot in the place or not doesn’t usually matter. Assuming you are not under the age of 18, the fact that you voluntarily signed a legal document addressing that location is what counts. Most leases contain clauses designed to go after any adult who signs on the bottom line, in effect making you a guarantor of the lease. If there’s no denying your signature, the next step is to decide how to defend yourself and your credit.

Unfortunately, you may need a lawyer to unravel this yarn. You should seriously consider speaking with an attorney who specializes in landlord-tenant matters. If you are unable to afford legal counsel, mediation may be an option. Your local city attorney may be helpful. Also try the department of consumer affairs, either for your state or county, for links to legal aid.

Be sure to have all documents available when contacting someone for advice. Co-sign or guarantor agreements vary from a signature at the bottom of the original lease to elaborate separate forms detailing your obligation. Usually referred to as “joint-and-several,” the obligation is part of the agreement. The more specific the agreement, the more difficult to invalidate or argue. Some agreements stipulate that if any legal proceeding arises as a result of the agreement, the prevailing party shall recover “reasonable attorney’s fees, court costs and any costs reasonably necessary to collect a judgment.”

Once you’ve spoken to someone familiar with the laws in your area, you can decide if you want to fight the landlord on some level, or simply negotiate a settlement with him or her and put the whole mistake behind you.

No matter what avenue you decide works in your favor, don’t repeat the same mistake by co-signing or guaranteeing anyone’s legal commitments.

Q: I dropped off my 30-day notice to the management office of my building, but didn’t keep a copy. When my deposit letter came, an extra week of rent was deducted. When I called the manager, she said I owed the week’s rent for moving out prior to my 30-day notice and hung up. She won’t give me a copy, and refuses to speak to me. How can I get back my week’s worth of rent?

A: Normally I would suggest you start with a phone call to the manager, but since you’ve already made the call, it’s time to move on to plan B.

Start with a detailed letter to the management, requesting a copy of the 30-day notice for your files. Send a copy of the same letter to the owner of the property as well, letting management know a “cc” or carbon copy was sent. If you don’t know who owns the property, the county can provide a copy of the public record from the tax rolls. Certified mail is also a good way to send such correspondence. Be sure to keep a copy of the letter.

What should the letter say? The California Department of Consumer Affairs ( Web site suggests the tenant, “Tell the landlord or landlord’s agent why you believe the deduction from your security deposit is improper.” You should also explain the dollar amount you think is due.

In your case, you think rent monies were improperly withheld for rent that was not due. Explain you gave a 30-day written notice, and would appreciate a copy of that notice sent to you within a set time limit (such as two weeks). You may want to include a self-addressed stamped envelope, or fax number.

No response and time has passed? While no one likes to threaten use of the law, you may want to include some language in your next certified letter indicating that if the matter were to be taken to small claims court, the management would have to produce a copy of the notice to uphold the rent deduction in the accounting. Perhaps that fact will help pry the document from their files.

If the response is still silent and the value is worth your time to proceed, you may want to consult your local court regarding the filing of a small claims action. Dollar limits are set by area, and cases are presented without legal counsel.


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