Q: Our one-year lease expired four months ago and we defaulted to a month-to-month tenancy. Our landlord recently gave us notice of a rent increase (11 percent more!) and a security deposit increase. I realize our landlord can increase the rent (with proper notice), but I question his ability to increase the security deposit, too.
I searched the rental laws on security deposits as well as the state‘s Web site with information for renters, but found nothing about collecting additional security when the rent is increased. Is this legal? Should we ask the manager to prove why he needs the additional security? Since we didn‘t sign a new lease, shouldn‘t the original lease terms (including the amount of the original deposit) govern our month-to-month tenancy? —Stacy M.
A: Your landlord’s request for an additional security deposit, given the increased rent, is legal. You’re right that when a lease defaults to a monthly rental agreement, the terms of the lease apply. However, when the landlord increased the rent, he was putting you on notice that a new monthly rental agreement would begin, after the expiration of the notice period. If your state, like many, sets permissible maximum deposits as a multiple of the rent, then the maximum allowable deposit also went up, and your landlord was free to take advantage of the opportunity to increase the deposit. (If your state does not regulate deposits, your landlord may raise the deposit as high as he chooses, with proper notice.) The essential thing to understand is that with new rent came a new rental agreement, which gave the landlord the opportunity to change any term, including the amount of the deposit.
You could ask the landlord to prove his need for more security from you, but he’s under no obligation to answer — state laws don’t require landlords to justify an increase. But this doesn’t mean that you can’t attempt to reason with your landlord. Security deposits are just that — security in case the tenant fails to pay the rent or leaves the rental with damage beyond normal wear and tear. If you do neither, the entire sum comes back to you. During your tenancy, have you given the owner any reason to believe that he’ll need this money to cover unpaid rent or damage? If you’ve always paid rent on time, and keep a clean and damage-free house, the owner won’t need the money. If your state requires landlords to keep deposits in a separate bank account, theoretically the money isn’t even available for his use during your tenancy. Have a friendly conversation and see if the landlord won’t rethink, based on your record as a good tenant. Or, if the increase is hefty, ask the landlord if you can stretch out payments for a few months, rather than pay all at once.
Q: We purchased our rental property two years ago. A tenant whom we inherited began paying rent late, and when we confronted her, she explained that she had just discovered that for 10 months she‘s been paying for electricity that also serves the laundry room and carport. We had those areas submetered right away and as compensation, gave her $250, reduced the rent for two months, and waived late fees — in total, gave her $1,000. Now she‘s breaking the lease and leaving six months early, claiming that by making her pay for utilities she didn‘t use, we are the ones who have breached the agreement. Can she take us to court, even though we have proof of all the credits we gave her? –Martina D.
A: It sounds like your tenant is taking advantage of the utility problem to divert your attention from her own lease-breaking. She no doubt knows that unless you are able to rerent, she’ll be responsible for those six months.
Now, it is true that she should not have been paying for electricity used in common areas, but when you discovered the problem, you took appropriate steps to remedy the situation (had you refused to address it, she would have been justified in leaving right then, with no responsibility for future rent). It would have been better to compensate for her actual overpayments, by estimating the electricity used by the laundry room and carport (after you submetered these areas, that use would have been easy to see). Take a look at your recent bills now and figure out how that $1,000 compares with 10 months of average use.
In the unlikely event that your tenant does pursue a claim, you have proof of what you paid her, a realistic estimate of how much she paid for common-area electricity use, and a simple way to figure out whether you over- or underpaid her. If you owe her a little bit, it’s an easily settled lawsuit. You may even end up with the last laugh if you’ve been unable to rerent — you can countersue for unpaid rent, minus the small amount you still owe her for the electricity, and come out ahead.
Q: When the power goes out in our building, the tenants can‘t open the security gate for the downstairs parking garage. To manually open the gate, we need a key, which keeps the gate open until the power is restored. The landlord holds the key and has refused to give a copy to any of us, saying it‘s too dangerous to allow the gate to be kept in the open position. The landlord doesn‘t live in the building.
All of the tenants are concerned about this situation because it means that we can neither enter nor leave during a power outage, without the landlord manually opening the gate for us. Isn‘t this a health and safety issue because we are basically trapped in the building whenever the power goes out? Can the landlord be forced to give at least one of us a key? –Julia G.
A: You’ve got some strong arguments on your side, both legally and practically. On the legal end, although you may not find a state or local law that requires landlords to make electronic garage gates operable from the inside, you’ll find support by looking at the laws that require door and window grilles to be releasable from the inside. These laws are designed to prevent occupants from being stuck inside a burning or otherwise unsafe structure. True, you can usually walk out of a garage even if the security gate is locked, but suppose the pedestrian exit is too far away, or the route to it is not safe? Also, one can imagine times when having a car to make your escape could be critical (as might happen if you’re transporting small children or infirm adults).
Having a security gate stuck open during an outage is a legitimate concern, but your landlord has missed the flip side: Making tenants park outside, where it’s also presumably dark, isn’t so safe, either. In fact, depending on the neighborhood, the risk of parking and walking to the building might be as great as the fear of unauthorized people in the garage — it’s beginning to seem like this argument is a wash.
This issue isn’t a novel one, and manufacturers of electronic gates have thought of workarounds. Some gates come with auxiliary battery packs, which kick in during an outage, enabling residents to continue to use their remote openers. Depending on its age and type, your gate might be capable of retrofitting.
Get together with the other tenants to plan how you’ll approach your landlord. Both you and the owner share the same concern — security — and there should be a way to reach a resolution. By pointing out the short-sightedness of his approach, you may get the landlord to retrofit his gate, buy a new one, or at least trust one of you with the gate key. At the very least, the landlord should agree to be available at the building any time there is a power outage, so that he can manually open the gate for tenants arriving or leaving the property.
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 .
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