Q: I was renting month-to-month and decided to move in with my girlfriend. I gave written notice mid-month, which included an acknowledgment that I’d be responsible for a pro-rata portion of rent into the next month. But when I spoke with the manager, he assured me that my responsibility for rent would end with the current calendar month.
He repeated this when I saw him again. Based on this, I hurried up and left the unit, empty and spotless, at the end of the month; and I began my new rental two weeks earlier than planned.
Then I got an email from the manager, who had spoken with the owner, saying "it turns out" that his understanding of my rent obligation was wrong — I would indeed be charged for rent into the next month. Is this legal? –David G.
A: The property manager is your landlord’s legal agent when he handles the duties that he was hired to do. The owner (known in legalese as the "principal") is responsible for the agent’s acts as long as the agent acted within the scope of his duties.
For example, an agent who disregards state privacy law and enters tenants’ homes without notice or for impermissible reasons will expose the landlord to liability, such as having no legal defense to a broken lease when the tenant justifiably leaves in protest.
Because an agent (manager) and principal (landlord) are so closely intertwined, it behooves landlords to train their managers well, both in the law and in the landlord’s policies. If the landlord has done neither, and the manager makes a mistake, the landlord will be bound. And that’s what appears to have happened here.
The manager repeatedly assured you that your correct assumption of the law (that the landlord is entitled to a full notice period and rent for the entire period) would not apply in your case. Had this in fact been the landlord’s policy, there would have been nothing wrong about it.
Landlords who have easily rentable properties, expect no extensive work upon turnover, and would like to get a new tenant into the property as soon as possible often waive this rule. You were justified in relying on the manager’s assurances that you would get such a break.
Based on what the manager told you, you spent extra time and effort to get the unit ready for vacancy two weeks early. In addition, you began your next rental two weeks early. If the law were to require you now to pay rent to the old landlord for those two weeks, you’d be facing double rent for two weeks, plus wasted efforts to move out early.
In legal lingo, you relied "to your detriment" on the manager’s statement, in that you spent time and money you would not otherwise have spent. In other words, you didn’t just accept the manager’s assurances; you took steps that you would not otherwise have taken based on them.
Of course, having a legal claim and having your full deposit back are two different things. In this situation, you can anticipate that the landlord might withhold part of your security deposit to pay the rent that the manager said you would not be responsible for. If your arguments to the landlord fall on deaf ears, you’ll have to go to small claims court to get that money back.
Should you have followed up with an email or letter to the landlord, repeating the manager’s statement and thanking the landlord for his generosity? You probably would have gotten a speedy reply that the manager was wrong. Unless you could show that you had already relied to your detriment upon the manager’s statements, you would have been out of luck.
For this reason, some tenants would say that "getting it in writing" is precisely the wrong approach in this situation. They’d want to rely on the legal rules of principal and agent, and not give the owner a chance to correct his wayward manager. But they, like you, will have very little in the way of solid proof when they go to small claims court to argue for the return of that part of their deposit that was retained to cover those two weeks’ rent.
Perhaps it’s better to get things clear at the outset, rather than set yourself up for a lawsuit in which you may have the law on your side but have only people’s memories of conversations to prove your case.
Q: We live on a farm, on which we have several residences that we rent out from time to time, usually to migrant farmworkers. Our local government is considering an ordinance that would require us to register the units, pay a licensing fee, and have them inspected. The sponsors say that this is necessary to prevent landlords from taking advantage of tenants. I think it’s unfair, and will severely cut into our profits. –Ralph R.
A: Registering rental units has become very popular in the last decade. You’ll hear at least two rationales put forth when cities consider implementing a registration scheme: First, say proponents, registering units gives the city a good idea of how many rentals are out there, and where; and it is the first step towards inspecting these rentals for structural integrity and safety.
Inspection will hopefully encourage landlords to take proper care of their properties, making living conditions safer and healthier for tenants and heading off legal fights surrounding withheld rent, repairs and broken leases.
A second reason, which is not too loudly expressed except, perhaps, in city council chambers, is that registration generates income for the city. True, some of that income will be spent on the inspections and on running the program generally, but many cities hope to operate the program in the black, with excess funds going into depleted city coffers.
Landlords who already have top-notch property management practices naturally see these fees as unfair, punishing them for the sloppiness or heedlessness of other property owners. To answer this complaint, some cities inspect only infrequently or when there’s a complaint, or absolve properties from future inspections after they have passed one or two with high marks.
Landlords, in turn, have been known to pass on the registration fee to their tenants in the form of higher rents, which is practical only when the market can absorb higher rents and leave the landlord still competitive.
Your situation may be addressed by your ordinance. Many states, in fact, exempt worker housing from large parts of their landlord-tenant laws.
Whether it would be good public policy to completely exempt farmworker housing from local inspection is another matter, however.
Opponents of such an exemption can point to a number of situations in which migrant worker housing has been exposed by the press as dismal, to put it mildly. They also point out that migrant workers are traditionally less likely to avail themselves of their legal rights, such as complaining to health inspectors, than tenants in general.
If you need to argue for an exemption, you might consider a more politically palatable alternative. Press for an ordinance providing that worker housing be inspected initially, and if it passes, exempted from further (or frequent) inspections in the future.