Q: My state requires landlords to disclose to prospective tenants whether the property is serviced by a pest control company. My landlord failed to do that, and when I learned of it, I was very upset. I don’t want to live in a place that gets sprayed every month, but the landlord won’t let me out of the lease. What can I do? –Marly

A: Many states require landlords to make specific disclosures to the tenant about the property before the tenant is asked to sign the lease. The federal government, too, has weighed in by requiring disclosures about known lead-based paint and lead-based-paint hazards. The purpose of these disclosures is "buyer beware." A tenant who reads them and doesn’t like what he sees can walk away from the lease, without ever having signed it.

So you’d think that if the landlord fails to deliver the disclosure, it would only be fair that the tenant be able to walk away after he’s signed the lease, too. But such is not the case with every disclosure law.

In California, for example, which has a similar provision regarding periodic pest control, the statute does not specify that failure to disclose will entitle the tenant to consider the lease at an end, with the option of moving out without responsibility for future rent.

But even if "lease over" is not an enumerated remedy in the disclosure statute, you may still have a way to get out. You would argue to a judge that you signed the lease under the misapprehension that there would not be pesticides applied regularly to the property; that had you known this, you would not have become a resident; and that only the landlord and the pest control company could have given you the information you’d need. Most importantly, you would have to convince the judge that this piece of information is important, not just a minor detail that shouldn’t derail a proposed tenancy.

So, how will all of this theory unfold in practice? If you move out, your landlord will need to find another tenant. In most states, until he does, you’ll be on the hook for the rent. Landlords commonly keep the entire deposit at least, so to recover it, you’ll have to sue in small claims court. That’s where you’ll make your argument, and if the judge agrees, you should get the deposit back.

Q: An elderly lady in one of our rental units passed away after a long illness. We have secured the apartment, but no one has come forward to claim her belongings. What should we do? –Martin and Margo

A: Surprisingly, few states have laws on the books telling landlords what to do in such a situation. Here are a few examples:

  • In Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, landlords may ask tenants for the name of someone whom they authorize to act (landlords may do so in a lease clause, for example). In New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, if the tenant hasn’t provided this information, the landlord has basically no safeguarding obligations.
  • Oregon has a much better approach: Tenants can name someone in their wills to be their personal representative (or a court can appoint someone); that person has the same rights as the tenant, and may take the property.
  • In Virginia and North Carolina, if no one is authorized by the court, the landlord must notify the person who was the tenant’s "emergency contact."

Landlords in states that have not passed specific laws on what to do must proceed cautiously. You don’t want to give access to people who might loot the estate; but you don’t want to endlessly store personal property either. And you risk liability if you dispose of belongings on your own.

Your best bet is to contact the probate court in your city and explain that no one with authority (no one bearing documents signed by a court, establishing that person as a legal representative of the estate) has come forth. Chances are, you’ll find a helpful clerk who can tell you the practice in your state.

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