The Rand Guide to Renting May 3, 2017

How to Resolve Disputes with Your Landlord

Hopefully, your tenancy will be uneventful. You’ll enjoy living in the property, you’ll stay through your full term, and you’ll move out when the lease is over. But what happens when you want to get out early, stay late, or not live there at all? Here is a guide to resolving common disputes with your landlord.

In some cases, tenants end up in unavoidable disputes with the landlord. It might not be the fault of either party, but you might have a situation where you want to move out early, stay in the tenancy longer than your term, or move out because of livability issues in the property.

When you have an issue with your landlord, try to resolve it amicably and collegially. You don’t need to immediately start a fight with your landlord, or assume that the landlord is acting in bad faith. Generally, you always want to have good relations with your landlord, so the landlord can act as a reference for your next tenancy. You also, if possible, want to be able to recover your security deposit, which becomes more difficult if you generate animosity with your landlord. Most issues can be resolved fairly, even difficult ones, if both parties work in good faith. Your landlord does not want a fight any more than you do.

Here are some major issues that come up in tenancies, and how to deal with them.

Livability Issues
Every residential lease carries with it an implied right for tenants to live in a “habitable” property. This means that the property has to have structural integrity, have a lock, and be free of defects such as smells, vermin, or continual loud noises that might make it impossible to live in. Even if those defects are not technically the landlord’s fault, the landlord has an obligation to provide you with a livable property in order to collect your rent.

This “implied warranty of habitability” is legally imputed to every lease, so it does not need to be spelled out, but it generally applies to serious defects, not minor annoyances. A roach problem that can be resolved with an extermination or over-the-counter bug spray does not rise to the level of a breach of the landlord’s duty to provide a livable space.

If you do have problems with the condition of the space, it’s a good idea to send a letter (or an email) to the landlord spelling out the problem and asking for help. Your communication should not be aggressive or accusatory. Rather, simply point out the problem, and ask for the landlord’s help in resolving it. Most landlords are open to fixing these types of problems to maintain good relations with tenants. Trust that your landlord will act in good faith when you make your request for assistance.

If that does not resolve the problem, and if the property is truly uninhabitable, that can give rise to your right to terminate the lease without further obligation. If you think it’s serious enough to force you to consider breaking the lease, you can then take more aggressive action by sending a formal written letter to the landlord spelling out the problem and demanding resolution. In the letter, state that if the problem is not resolved in a reasonable time, you will be forced to vacate the property for breach of the implied warranty of habitability. Hopefully, this will get the landlord to act.

If you need help resolving these issues, approach the agent who helped you lease the property, who will have experience handling these problems and might be able to assist you. Landlords want good relationships with real estate agents and brokers, so an agent stepping in to help you negotiate a resolution to the problem might compel the landlord to take you more seriously.

Breaking Your Lease
Sometimes, tenants want to break their lease before the end of their term for personal reasons. Maybe they got transferred, or fell in love and want to move in with their new significant other, or they lost their job and cannot afford the rent anymore. In these cases, it is paramount that you approach your landlord with honesty, because you essentially are asking the landlord to do you a favor.

In these cases, the best thing to do is approach the landlord as soon as possible, explain the situation honestly, and ask to be released from your lease obligations. In fairness, you should be willing to cover the rent obligations until the landlord is able to find a replacement tenant, or at the very least for the rest of the current month and one month longer. You should also be willing to forego the security deposit if the landlord is not able to find a replacement tenant within several months of your early termination.

In most cases, the landlord going to be amenable to your request to leave early, and is not going to try to keep you in a lease against your will. The last thing most landlords want to do is chase a defaulting tenant through the legal system, so they will usually try to find a replacement tenant as soon as possible. In a fluid rental market, landlords can usually find tenants. In cases where the landlord has to drop the rent in order to attract a new tenant, you might be asked to make the landlord whole through the end of your lease term.

Again, the most important factor is a good relationship with your landlord. Your landlord does not have an obligation to let you out of the lease, so approaching the landlord in an angry or demanding fashion is likely to be unhelpful, and could result in you ending up in court, a black mark on your credit, and a landlord who will not be at all a good reference for you in future leases. But if you resolve the situation fairly with your landlord, you can save yourself, and the landlord, both money and hassle.

Holding Over After Your Term
Most leases are for a fixed term, such as for one year. What happens when the lease ends, but you’re not ready to move out? That is, you don’t want to stay for another full year, but you need another month or two until your new place is ready. Or perhaps you are sure you do not want another full year, but you’re still looking for a new place.

In practice, when tenants stay beyond their lease, they become a “holdover tenant” under a month-to-month term. If you stay past your term, pay the monthly rent, and your landlord accepts that rent without objection, you can stay on that month-to-month tenancy paying the same rent you were paying during your lease. Sometimes, the lease will specify a higher rate of rent for holdover tenants, so you should look for that term in your lease. It is not unreasonable for the landlord to ask for a higher rate, but sometimes the leases specify a punishing increase in the rent to discourage holdover tenants. Make sure you check for that in the lease.

Also, be careful that you do not get trapped into staying longer than you wish. If you stay even one day beyond the term of your lease, you immediately become a month-to-month tenant who is liable not just for that month’s rent, but also the next month’s rent. And if you do not give notice by the end of your current month of your intention to vacate at the end of the next month, you will be liable for yet another month. That is, if your lease ends September 30th and you hold over, you are liable for October and November’s rent at the same monthly rate you were paying. If you then give notice of your intent to leave by the end of November, your month-to-month lease ends on November 30th. But if you do not give notice until October 1, technically you are responsible for the rental obligations through December 31st.

As always, if you are fair and honest with your landlord, you can probably negotiate a fair short-term rental at the end of your lease. The most important issue to the landlord is having a rent-paying tenant in the property at all times, so if you let the landlord know that you want to stay beyond your lease, but not for another full term, the landlord will probably accommodate you.