Q: I rent half of a duplex on a month-to-month basis. The owners live in the other half. Last month, they gave me a 30-day notice, so that the wife’s elderly mother can move into my unit. Reluctantly, I looked for another place and put down a holding deposit. Now, my landlords tell me that this lady is really not capable of living independently, and they’ve decided to place her in an assisted-living situation. They’re now telling me that my termination notice is rescinded. I want to stay, but what about the $1,000 deposit that I’ll lose if I do? –Kevin A.
A: This question usually arises the other way around — the tenant gives notice, changes his mind, and wants the landlord to consider the notice rescinded. Meanwhile, the landlord has rented the place, or even just sighed with relief, glad that this particular resident is moving on. Must the landlord ignore the notice? No, unless the landlord has accepted rent for the future after having received the notice.
In your situation, the same principle applies — you’d be well within your rights to move out at the end of the 30 days, as long as you had not given future rent to the owners after getting the notice. But it seems that the owners want you to stay, and you do too. So it’s time to deal fairly with that $1,000 you’re about to lose. Since the landlords set your apartment search in motion, and then changed their minds, they should absorb the loss you’re about to suffer. Point out that you understand the difficulty of the situation and do not blame them for this turn of events, but that from your point of view, you did everything that was legally expected of you.
If the owners won’t cooperate, you can move (and not lose that $1,000), or you can stay and take your landlords to small claims court. You’d have a pretty good case, but practically speaking, this may be an instance of winning the battle but losing the war. Who wants to live in the same building as someone who has taken them to court? And with a mere month-to-month rental agreement, you may find yourself at the receiving end of another termination notice (one that won’t be rescinded). Even if your state has an anti-retaliation statute, it may not help you in this situation. In short, if you want to stay, do your best to get some help from the owners, but prepare to swallow that $1,000 loss if you get nowhere.
Q: I rent in a three-unit triplex. The owners live in one apartment, and they’re selling the building. They’ve asked me and the other neighbor to move before they put the property on the market, and have offered to help with moving costs (actually, they’ve offered a lot of money). Neither my neighbor nor I want to move, but we’re afraid that we won’t keep our leases when the building is sold. What’s the smart thing to do? –Larry D.
A: As tenants with leases, you will not get kicked out when the new owners take over, even if they want to live in one of your units. The new owners will simply step into the shoes of the old owners. When your leases are up, you’ll stay and negotiate a new lease or leave just as you would if you were dealing with the former owners.
The sellers are undoubtedly thinking that their property will be more attractive to buyers if it isn’t already full of tenants. Sometimes this is true, especially when the rental market is hot and the current tenants have below-market, long-term leases (or are pains in the neck). Far better, thinks the owner, to get these old timers out so the broker can tell buyers that with very little trouble, they will be able to rent these units at attractive, market rates. Some sellers will realize, however, that even in a hot rental market, it’s a mistake to dislodge current tenants who are steady rent-payers and respectful of the property. Sure, new owners may be able to raise the rent for new tenants, but they’ll be dealing with a set of unknown residents who could be problem tenants.
You’ll want to consider a number of factors before deciding whether to accept the buy-out the current owners are offering. First, when does your lease expire? If it’s almost up, and the market is hot, chances are the new owners will raise the rent to market rates. If you know now that you can’t pay these rates, it might make sense to take the buy-out and move a few months earlier than planned. But if you have many months left on your lease, you may want to ride it out and hope that rents will either stabilize or drop by the time you need to renegotiate.
As you think this over, resign yourself to realizing that you cannot know what the new owners will be like or how they’ll do business. They may have no interest in dislodging good, stable tenants, wisely figuring that in the long run, this is the best way to protect their investment. Or, they may throw caution to the wind and plan to immediately extract every market-rate dime they can from that building.
Q: After my tenant paid his rent late, I imposed a $25 late charge. The tenant refuses to pay, saying that the lease doesn’t include a late-fee clause. But when the tenant pays late, it hurts me — my mortgage can’t be late, and I depend on prompt rent payments to pay that bill. Why can’t I impose this fee? –Wendy G.
A: Unless the lease or rental agreement specifies that a late fee will be imposed, you cannot legally require tenants to pay it. And even when the lease does include a late-fee clause, that’s no guarantee that a judge will enforce it. A late fee must be reasonably related to the actual damage you suffer as the result of the late payment. You must be able to prove, if challenged, that your fee meets this test. A $25 dollar fee will probably meet this standard (though a $100 fee probably couldn’t). But even the most reasonable fee can’t be imposed unless the tenant agreed to this consequence when signing the lease or rental agreement.
Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of “Every Landlord’s Legal Guide” and “Every Tenant’s Legal Guide.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.