Question: I live with my boyfriend in a loft apartment where we have signed a two-year lease that is actually a sublease. The original tenant has a long-term lease with the landlord but moved when he bought a home eight months ago. The building is not secure, and the building management is not doing much to keep the building safe or in good repair. The area seems to be becoming more dangerous so we want to move out. How binding is our sublease? What rights do we have? Does the guy we are subletting from have any legal right to keep the deposit we gave him if we break the lease? Please let me know. I feel frustrated and stuck in a bad situation.
Property Manager Griswold replies:
Your sublease is just as binding as the master lease since, legally, there is no real difference in the duties of your “sub-landlord” (the master lease holder) from if you had a lease directly with the actual owner of the building. The only exception is if the actual lease and sublease documents contain different rental rates or clauses, but generally speaking, they should be the same for most of the basic terms. Just as if you had a lease with the actual owner of the property, the burden of proof would be on you if you were to break the sublease claiming the issues you present in your question. You should put your “sub-landlord” on notice of your concerns about the building and the area so that if it becomes worse, or if you need to move, you have at least put him on notice. Yes, your “sub-landlord” does have the right to keep your security deposit if you breach the lease, but also has to return or account for the security deposit as required by law.
Question: A coworker of mine said I could move into his apartment. My name was not on the lease but I was paying him rent. Three months later he told me he wanted me to move out and also said I owed him $150. Since I owed him the money I agreed to leave my belongings there until I paid him. Due to circumstances, it was close to four months before I could get him the money. I then found out he sold or gave away all my property. Is there anything I can legally do? I was not on the lease but friends and family knew I was living there.
Landlords’ attorney Smith replies:
I first note that you had a bona fide sub-tenancy in the premises, even though you were not a tenant of record with the landlord. Your possession of keys and payment of rent together with continuous occupancy established your right to co-possess the unit with your coworker roommate. Keep in mind that both of you could be in trouble with the landlord, since this sublease or roommate addition was without permission.
As to your personal property, it is difficult to predict with precision the legal outcome of this case–your agreement with the roommate is both verbal and vague. On the one hand, you acknowledge the $150 debt. There apparently exists some kind of agreement to hold your items as security for repayment. However, given the nature of this relationship, I do not believe the security agreement to be valid.
When you paid the balance due, you found out that he had sold or given away your property. He did not have the right to do this. Nothing in the verbal security agreement permitted him to suddenly dispose of all the items. He should have followed a specific procedure, giving you notice before giving them away. Since he has failed to do this, he is responsible to you. Your measure of damages would be the fair market value of the converted items. Further, he has illegally locked you out without due process.
As stated, your right to possession on the sublease may not be terminated without proper procedure. Since he’s tossed out your possessions, it’s too late to retrieve them and your only remedy will be a money damage claim against him for the value of the goods. In small claims court, you may sue for claims such as this. Once you obtain a judgment, you will have to collect it. Make sure you pick your roommates carefully in the future, and maintain your standing directly with the landlord as a tenant of record.
This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold, author of “Property Management for Dummies” and co-author of “Real Estate Investing for Dummies,” and San Diego attorneys Steven R. Kellman, director of the Tenant’s Legal Center, and Ted Smith, principal in a firm representing landlords.”
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