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Rental Roundtable

A Tactic to Get Long-Term Commitment

March 11, 2001|ROBERT S. GRISWOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Question: I signed a one-year lease for a condo 14 months ago and have been residing in it since then. I was sent a new one-year lease to sign, and it included a holdover provision of $200 a month, meaning that after one year the rent will increase by $200 a month. I do not wish to sign it. I am told that if I do not sign this lease, my rent will increase by $200 next month. Am I obligated to sign this lease or pay this increased amount?

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Attorney Steven R. Kellman replies:

Such a rent raise of $200 a month is probably valid as long as you were given a proper written 30-day notice to raise the rent. You are not obligated to sign the proposed lease, although maybe you should.

In most areas of Southern California, a landlord may charge whatever rent he chooses (except in certain rent-controlled areas or subsidized housing and mobile home parks). Further, a landlord may charge different rates for month-to-month as compared to long-term leases. He must, of course, apply his pricing policy equally to all tenants. If you are unfairly singled out for special treatment, it could then be illegal.

The good news is that such an offer may be to your benefit. Unless your landlord is living in a cave, he must know that there is now a distinct abundance of tenants. Thus, a long-term lease is not necessary to protect against long vacancies.

Such a lease, however, would give you valuable benefits over a month-to-month agreement. Your rent would be fixed and you would not need to worry about those pesky 30-day notices to raise your rent or terminate your tenancy. Further, if you needed to move before the expiration of the lease, you or your landlord may find it rather easy to get replacement tenants.

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Attorney Ted Smith replies:

You can move if you want to, but you can't stay if you don't want to pay. Absent rent control, your landlord has every legal right to raise the rent and there is no ceiling in California on either the maximum or frequency. By not signing the lease, your tenancy is now characterized as month-to-month.

Verbal Agreement Is Binding for Both

Q: I rent a house. My original one-year lease expired a few months ago. I talked to my landlord and we agreed to extend it for one year with a rent increase of $75 per month and a promise that she would fix a nagging, but not urgent, plumbing problem.

She later sent me a letter describing our agreement but she did not mention fixing the plumbing. Also, she did not ask me to sign a new lease. Our original lease stipulated that once the one year ends, the agreement reverts to a month-to-month lease.

Can I give her a one-month notice and leave before the one year is over? If my verbal agreement is binding, then what about her verbal promise of fixing the plumbing?

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Kellman replies:

The law allows agreements to lease property for one year or less to be made orally without the necessity of a written contract. Leases for a period of over a year must be in writing. You have agreed to the lease and should honor your word.

If the landlord has not repaired the plumbing, you have certain rights, as do all tenants with plumbing problems. You may ask for the repair to be made. If there is no response to your request, and you have waited an appropriate length of time, depending on the severity of the problem, you have an option to pay for the repair and deduct the cost from the rent.

Unless the problem causes a material (serious) breach of the lease, you may not declare the lease broken and move. Further, one-year leases may not be terminated with a 30-day notice. I suppose that the situation may be different if you specifically agreed to a one-year lease on the condition that she repaired the plumbing. Since this does not appear to be the case, you should honor your obligation and she should honor hers.

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Smith replies:

It'll be up to the court to decide whether you have a written lease or a verbal lease at this point. Either way, it's legally valid with the $75 per month raise. A verbal one-year lease is valid, but the landlord could have a tough time proving it in court.

As to the plumbing, California landlords must meet minimum standards of habitability. While it may be true that plumbing problems fall within that, you mentioned that it's not an urgent problem. I take that to mean that the plumbing is satisfactory.

Only the worst defects in rental property constitute a violation of the habitability law. Therefore, I recommend that you not make the mistake of trying to withhold rent based on this problem.

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This column is written by property manager Robert Griswold, host of "Real Estate Today!" (KSDO-AM [1130], 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays), and attorneys Steven R. Kellman, director of the Tenants' Legal Center, and Ted Smith, principal in a law firm representing landlords.

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If you have a question, send it to Rental Roundtable, Real Estate section, L.A. Times, 202 W. 1st St., L.A., CA 90012. Or you may e-mail them at rgriswold.latimes@retodayradio.com. Questions should be brief and to the point and cannot be answered individually.

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