Q: Our family is looking for a new apartment. This morning, after I saw a good one advertised in the paper, I called and was told that the unit had been rented. About 15 minutes later, not realizing that I had called already, my daughter called and got an appointment to see it right away! I think there’s something going on here — I speak with a Latino accent, but my daughter has none. Am I being too suspicious? –Delia J.
A: Although it’s possible that the unit somehow unrented itself in those 15 minutes, it sounds more likely that you experienced what academics (and lawyers) have described as "linguistic profiling." Studies have shown that people are astonishingly capable of differentiating race and ethnicity just by the sound of a speaker’s voice — in one such study, 72 percent of the listeners correctly identified the speaker as black, even though he said only one word: "hello." Of course, being able to differentiate between a black and a non-black voice is one thing; proving that the person who heard the voice used this information as the basis for a discriminatory decision is quite another.
For this reason, most fair-housing groups, when presented with an instance of possible linguistic profiling, will send testers to the property. Had you contacted a fair-housing group, they might have sent a white woman to inquire about the apartment, closely followed by a Latino woman. If the landlord welcomed the white tester but discouraged or turned away the Latino prospect, that would be solid evidence on which to build a racial discrimination claim.
Q: My tenant is planning on being away for three months, and has informed me that she will have a housesitter for the house and to take care of the yard and dog. I told her that I’d need to meet, screen and approve this person, but my tenant says that’s ridiculous. She’s adamant that she has a right to have someone watch the place and doesn’t need my approval. Who’s right? –Paul M.
A: In this situation, it’s reasonable for you to insist on knowing who will be living in your property while your tenant is away. You tenant isn’t going to be gone a mere week or two, and the housesitter isn’t simply collecting the mail and watering the plants. A three-month, full-time resident is an occupant, not a mere visitor or guest. This person has plenty of opportunity to damage your property and cause problems, and although your tenant would legally be responsible (along with the sitter) for any damage, that will be cold comfort to you if you end up having to deal with repairs, unhappy neighbors and possibly an eviction.
Hopefully, your lease has a clause that prohibits unauthorized occupants — people living in the rental without your consent. This clause gives you the authority to insist on screening and approving any long-term occupant. Even if the lease simply recites the name of the tenant, this alone gives you the leverage you need (by implication, you’re renting to only this person). Explain to your tenant that you will be prompt and reasonable, and be sure to follow through. Chances are, if this is a stable, conscientious tenant who takes pride in her home, she will have chosen a similarly minded friend whom she knows well to tend her nest while she’s away (in this respect, the two of you share the same goals). But if your tenant got the housesitter’s name off a Web site bulletin board, there’s no telling what you’ll get unless you do some checking.
Q: My daughter signed a 12-month lease agreement a couple of months ago (I signed for the first six months as a guarantor, so I have a personal interest). At the time she signed the lease, her workers’ compensation attorney assured her that a large settlement would be awarded to her, which would have carried her through the lease. Now it appears that the settlement has been drastically reduced. Repeated phone calls to her attorney get her nowhere, and she is frantic that she will not be able to continue to pay the rent.
She wants to talk to her landlord about getting out of the lease, but is afraid the landlord will sue her or something. Aside from throwing herself on the mercy of the landlord, I don’t know what advice to offer. Can you help? –Carol M.
A: As tempting as it may be to focus on the misleading information your daughter’s attorney gave her, it will probably do you no good with respect to your rental problem. The lawyer may have had good grounds to expect a certain sum, or may have been misled by the insurer. On the other hand, perhaps the case wasn’t worked up as well as it should have been, or the lawyer foolishly predicted a large award in an attempt to placate his client. If you feel that the case wasn’t handled properly, you’ll need to raise this with the attorney or complain to the state agency that licenses attorneys, usually known as the state bar. But even if you have a case against the lawyer, nothing will happen fast enough to help you with the landlord and the rent.
Your daughter’s options depend on her relationship with the landlord, the condition of the market for rentals like yours, and the state where you live. Let’s start with the personal side — the landlord. No landlord appreciates having to dun tenants for the rent, and all hate to get into evictions. When a tenant foresees trouble paying the rent and brings it to the landlord’s attention, they often are able to work out a compromise that works to everyone’s advantage. Sometimes, the landlord agrees to accept less rent for the balance of the lease, figuring (correctly) that he’s losing less than what he’d have to spend on advertising and showing the rental to get a new tenant, let alone pursuing an eviction. And more often than you might think, the landlord simply lets the tenant out of the lease. There are, after all, plenty of understanding property owners out there who will react sympathetically to a good tenant’s honest tale of woe. Naturally, the chances that a landlord will do so go up if the market is relatively hot (he’ll have no trouble finding a new tenant). And ironically, this is one situation in which historically poor tenant behavior may actually pay off — landlords who have been dealing with tenants who are always late with the rent or who have otherwise been a pain might jump at this chance to get rid of them. But if the market is flooded with vacancies, even a decent landlord might be tempted to hold both good and poor tenants to the lease, especially when there is a guarantor in the background, and hope that the tenants manage to come up with the rent.
Suppose your landlord will not let your daughter out of the lease, and she breaks it by leaving early (under no circumstances should she fail to pay the rent and end up with an eviction case filed against her, because having this in her rental background will make it difficult to secure rentals in the future). In most states, the landlord must take reasonably prompt steps to rerent, and once the unit is rerented, your daughter’s responsibility for the rent will end. If the rental is attractive, the landlord sets the rent at market rates and the market is not awash in rentals, you may end up responsible for only a month or two of rent. But if the unit is not attractive and the market is soft, it may well take the landlord more time to rent it. In that case, you could be on the hook for several months or more.
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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