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RENT WATCH

Tenant's Payment Obligation Lasts the Entire Lease Period

August 20, 2000|From Project Sentinel

Question: I rent a condo, and my lease expires soon. I want to stay but the landlord has suggested that I sign a new lease stating that if I break the lease by moving early, my obligation for the rent will continue until the condo is re-rented. It also states that I agree to keep all the utilities in my name until a new tenant moves in.

I am not planning on moving early, but can a landlord hold a tenant responsible for rent until a new tenant moves in or require a tenant to keep the utilities in his or her name until the unit is re-rented?

Answer: By definition, a lease is a contract for a fixed amount of rent for a fixed period of time. Whenever a lease is broken (i.e., the tenant moves early), a landlord is entitled to collect rent until either the lease expires or the property is re-rented. When a tenant signs a lease, he or she agrees to complete the contract.

Often a tenant wishing to break a lease will offer to find a suitable new tenant in hopes of reducing any financial loss. At the same time, California Civil Code 1951.2 requires a landlord to mitigate financial damages by taking all reasonable steps to keep financial losses to a tenant at a minimum. However, if a new tenant cannot be found, the landlord may demand the remaining rent from the tenant.

Regarding the utility question, a landlord cannot require a tenant who has moved to keep utilities in his or her name until the unit is re-rented. This applies to tenants on month-to-month agreements and on leases. You may explain to the landlord what your plans are and try to convince him that you are entering into the new lease in good faith.

Parties Can Agree to Alter Notice Terms

Q: I am thinking of signing a month-to-month agreement with a property management company. The agreement states the company has to give me only a 15-day notice to terminate my tenancy. I thought the law called for 30 days. Who's right?

A: You both are. Under California Civil Code 1946, the required termination time is determined by the length of time between rent payments--that is, if you pay rent every 30 days, you may give or receive at least 30 days' notice for termination. However, a shorter amount of notice (for example, 15 days), but not less than seven days, is allowed only if both you and your property manager agree to this in writing at the beginning of the tenancy.

Discuss the 15-day notice period with the manager and express your desire for a longer period of time. As a fallback position, you may suggest a compromise somewhere between 15 and 30 days. If the manager refuses, and you feel this issue is important to you, do not sign the agreement.

Integral Fixtures Belong to the Owner

Q: My tenant is moving out next month and has added ceiling fans and shelving without my permission. When we were setting up a move-out inspection date, he said he would be removing the fans and shelves. Can I request that these items stay with the property?

A: California Civil Code Section 1019 states, "A tenant can remove anything affixed to property for purposes of trade, manufacture, ornament or domestic use if the removal can be effected without injury to the premises, unless the thing has, by the manner in which it is affixed, become an integral part of the premises." This means that the fixtures or modifications belong to you unless your tenant can remove them and return the property to its original condition.

Because you did not give your tenant permission, you can request that he not remove them. To avoid any conflict, you may want to offer compensation for these items, even though you are not required to do so.

If the tenant still removes them, you may deduct any damage from the tenant's security deposit if the property is not restored to its original condition.

If you wish, you can contact the local mediation program for assistance.

Minimizing Security Deposit Deductions

Q: I have lived in my apartment for 10 years and am thinking about moving. I have never asked nor received any repairs to my apartment. How I can ensure that I don't receive a bill for items that should be considered normal wear and tear? Also, my rental agreement does not list how long the landlord has to send my refund. Is it 14 or 21 days?

A: On or before your move-out day, it may be a good idea for you and your landlord to do a walk-through of the unit to determine what items, if any, have been damaged and whether the damage resulted from your negligence. At that time, if there are any repairs you feel responsible for, you can offer to do them yourself.

During the walk-through, you may want to have a friend with you, or you can take pictures to document the current condition. In general, any damage attributed to a tenant can be deducted from the tenant's security deposit. The landlord should send the tenant an itemized statement of any money deducted from the security deposit and return the balance to the tenant within the time specified in the lease.

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