Q: I’ve been renting my house for about two years. At first, I had a year’s lease, and when that was up, I stayed on as a month-to-month tenant. Two days before the end of the month, the landlord came over with a yearlong lease at a higher rent, set to begin on the first of the next month, and asked me to sign. I did, and paid the higher rent a couple of days later, but now I want to get out of the lease. Because he didn’t give me adequate notice, do I have the right to get any rent back, or to break the lease? –Pat G.
A: When your landlord came to visit, what he was really doing was terminating your month-to-month tenancy and asking you to sign a lease for a new tenancy. In most states, tenants are entitled to 30 days’ notice when landlords terminate a monthly tenancy. Had your landlord done things right, he would have given you a termination notice, effective in 30 days (or whatever the notice period is in your state), and also handed you a lease, to begin in 31 days, at the new rent.
You would have been on solid ground to object at that point and attempt to convince your landlord that his new rent was premature. Had the landlord refused, you could have legally stayed for 30 days, but would have had to move after that. But you didn’t raise the issue, and by signing the lease, you effectively agreed that your monthly tenancy would end in a few days.
Interestingly, you’ve asked not just whether the landlord might owe you some premature rent, but whether the landlord’s short cut entitles you to break the lease and leave without legal consequences. That’s doubtful. Some landlord mistakes — such as renting to a minor, who has no legal capacity to enter into a lease — are so serious as to render the lease void when brought to a judge’s attention. But this maneuver, though illegal at the time, has a remedy that should have been asserted then.
Q: We have recently been notified by our landlord that our apartment complex will be tented for termites for an entire weekend. Because we have no choice in the matter, I wanted to know if our landlord is required by law to pay for hotel accommodations for the period that we will be displaced. If so, what are we entitled to: Motel 6 or a weekend at the Four Seasons? –Jamie B.
A: Do not pack your bags with your golf clubs and tux just yet. You are entitled to compensation for the two or three days that you cannot live in the rental. But you cannot turn this fumigation event into an opportunity for a paid vacation.
If your rent is relatively modest, expect your landlord to divide your monthly rent by 30 and offer to pay you this rate times the number of days you had to live elsewhere. The problem with this approach is that it may not cover even a modest hotel or motel and meals. On the other hand, if your rent is sky high, it might do just fine.
Another way to establish the relocation benefit is to ask for the cost of staying at a hotel or motel that is comparable to the quality of the unit you rent — plus compensation for the money you spend at restaurants above what you would have spent for food prepared at home. This method is really more fair, both to you and the landlord. Take a realistic look at your apartment, its amenities and the features of the community, such as a pool and exercise room, and try to find a match in a nearby hotel or motel. This means that if you do, in fact, rent a penthouse in a fancy part of town, you might be quite justified in choosing an upscale hotel or motel. But if your unit is more utilitarian than stunning, look for more moderately priced lodging.
If your landlord balks and refuses to compensate you, do not withhold your rent or deduct the cost of the weekend from the next rent check. Your only safe recourse will be to sue in small claims court for your expenses. If you end up in this unfortunate situation, find out whether a court in your state would have had the power to order the landlord to compensate you for your relocation expenses if the court had ordered the landlord to fumigate. If so, you have a solid case. Your chances of winning are likely to go way up if you can show the judge that you chose reasonably and did not take advantage of the landlord’s repair problem by living it up at the Ritz.
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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