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How do I avoid paying my old landlord $5000?
October 3, 2005 10:05 AM   Subscribe

I moved out of an apartment abruptly in January due to extenuating circumstances (a murder in the building), now I have a bill for $5000. Lots more inside.

I was on a lease with 2 other people (three total). In the middle of December there was a horrible murder on the other side of our duplex. One of the people on the lease and I, traumatized, decided to move into a new apartment, out of the area, on January 1st. Person three decided to stay in the apartment, and he ended up living with a bunch of drug addict vagabonds who I assume never paid any rent. It was his intention to get their names on the lease in place of us, but I guess that never happened.

I had a conversation with the head of the mangement company prior to the two of us moving out, and he said that given the circumstances it would be OK for us to break the lease ... he was even willing to wave the typical $50 fee.

I called him in the middle of January, left a message, and never heard back. A few times through February and March the management company would call me looking for rent. I always explained the situation, told them that I'd like to take care of the necessary paperwork to get off of the lease for good, and that I did not indend to pay rent for any time past January 1. The answer was always, "Hmm ... I don't know anything about that, we'll have to call you back." They'd never call back.

They stopped calling, so I stopped thinking about it. Now they send us a letter saying that there's a balance of $5000 that we're responsible for in 30 days or they will take us to court.

Should I send them a letter explaining the situation ... perhaps they'll be willing to look the other way since someone was shot in the head six times about 15 feet from me? It is time for a lawyer before I contact the management company? Do I have any chance of not having to pay this money seeing as I didn't even live in the apartment?
posted by TurkishGolds to Law & Government (17 answers total)
 
Did you give your notice in writing? Did you get the promise that you can break the lease in writing? You told the company that you'd take care of the paperwork to get off the lease - did you ever do this? Effective when? Do you have the name of who promised you could break the lease, and have you spoke with the same person again? This will be challenging to fight without documentation.
posted by raedyn at 10:17 AM on October 3, 2005


1. IANAL, but CALN (call a lawyer now).
2. Have as much info as possible on hand (dates, times, etc.). When did you talk to the head of the company? What exactly did he say? Do you have anything in writing, or is this entirely verbal? Why wasn't your name removed from the lease at the time?
3. In most states, when multiple people sign a lease, each one assumes responsibility for the rent in its entirety if the others fail to pay up. Person #3, who stayed in the apartment, may be the one in the most trouble, but if your name remains on the lease, then you can be dinged for the back rent as well.
posted by thomas j wise at 10:21 AM on October 3, 2005


Where is this? Quebec? Idaho? Massachusetts? England? The laws regarding oral contracts are quite different from place to place. To shed a bit of light, the article says some jurisdictions ... require a contract to be in writing in certain circumstances, and since this involves a lease, my bet is that everything depends on having at least some part of this agreement in writing.
posted by rolypolyman at 10:23 AM on October 3, 2005


It's in Massachusetts.
posted by TurkishGolds at 10:44 AM on October 3, 2005


The laws regarding oral contracts are indeed different, but from what you've told us it sounds like it's going to be a 'your word against theirs' type of situation. Do what the others have suggested - call a lawyer right away or you will be held responsible for the money owed.

I hate to say it, but your inactivity may've cost you five grand.
posted by item at 10:44 AM on October 3, 2005


It probably seemed anal back in January but I hope you gave written notice and saved a copy.

Short of that, anything in writing helps. Go through any old papers that you might have and arrange them cronologically. Fill in a time line of the conversations and date them as accurately as possible. Double check this with anyone who might be able to confirm or deny the dates.

These guys are a good resource.
posted by deanj at 11:01 AM on October 3, 2005


in ny, i owed some money to a landlord for allegedly breaking a lease. (we moved out when the lease was up, but didn't give a full 2 month's notice.) My dad, who is a lawyer, and I sat down with the lease to figure out exactly what I was liable for and what I could reasonably assume I was not.

what it came down to was that, any money I signed a piece of paper agreeing to pay was what I had to pay until I was released from that piece of paper. Ultimately, this meant that I had to pay for the 2 months after I left the apartment to make up for the 2 months notice I didn't give.

However, they were holding my deposit until I paid them that rent. I told them to take it out of my deposit, but they said the lease specifically said they couldn't do that. Which was true.

again however, it's not worth their time to take me to court (paying their lawyers however many billable hours to do so) just so that they can get money from me in a DIFFERENT WAY than I preferred. so they just took it out of the deposit despite what the lease said and that was the end of it.

So, long story short: You're likely liable for whatever your lease says you're liable for, so long as you're still on that lease. But if you can, try to just have them absorb your deposit to cover as much of the money as that deposit can cover. It may not be ok in the lease, but it's better than going to court.

I recommend AGAINST going to court in this case because in all likelihood you wouldn't win. BUT IANAL. Check with one, first.
posted by shmegegge at 11:24 AM on October 3, 2005


1) Call a lawyer before contacting any interested party (management company or former tenant). This page lists some resources at the bottom that may be of use in this regard.

2) Gather any documentation that you may already have; try to determine exact dates and content of previous phone conversations.

3) Document everything, in writing, from here out. Take notes on phone conversations. Send all written correspondence certified mail.

Best of luck.
posted by googly at 11:56 AM on October 3, 2005


Adding my voice to the "Call a lawyer" chorus. I work in the property management/real estate field and have always understood the lessee to be responsible for initiating and confirming any required change in paperwork. Ordinarily, all parties on a lease need to fill out a form indicating the change in responsibility for the apartment, and whomever is remaining in the apartment often needs to re-apply (to determine financial qualification and creditworthiness) before the revised lease will be prepared. Until that time, all parties on the lease remain liable. I hope that the situation works out in your favor, but I don't think you have a chance without the assistance of a lawyer -- management companies generally have all their i's dotted and their t's crossed when it comes to these matters, because they already have a binding lease on their side. They don't *need* to be accommodating or get the wheels rolling on any new arrangements (which, of course, isn't to say that they shouldn't. I'm sorry you went through such a traumatic situation.)
posted by justonegirl at 12:07 PM on October 3, 2005


I hate to be pessimistic, but from what you describe, you might as well save some money and skip the lawyer altogether. If your name's still on that lease, you're fully liable for the bill. End of story.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:16 PM on October 3, 2005


The consumer protection division of your state will probably have a website re: landlord tenant issues, usually it's a division of the Office of the Attorney General. You might want to call them too. Depending on the facts surrounging the murder, you might have an argument that the landlord was not providing a habitable (i.e., safe) residence. It's really fact sensitive so, as everyone has said, contact a local attorney -- if you don't get any good advice from your AG's office.
posted by probablysteve at 1:17 PM on October 3, 2005


If you made calls from a cell phone or long distance, or otherwise can document that you called back, you improve your chances in court (and in negotiations). The fact that you did leave a phone number is definitely a plus.

Note that person three is probably jointly responsible for the money that is owed, as well as the two of you that moved out (if the lease was in all three names; of course this depends on the lease language). Even if he did pay his "share", his failure to get paying roommates is a factor; if he couldn't find them, he should have terminated the lease himself as soon as he realized that. That's something a lawyer might be able to help with; in any case, don't just assume away his responsibility.

I don't disagree with the advice to get a lawyer, but do keep in mind that the threat to take you to court in 30 days is just that - a threat. If you have any sort of justification (and it sounds like you do), the management company has all sorts of reasons to negotiate rather than refer the case to a legal firm (who would probably start by sending you a letter, anyway, rather than spending time and money drawing up papers and paying court filing fees.)

I do suggest sending the management company a letter (maybe registered mail, which is a few more bucks) saying that you've received their letter, that you are contacting a lawyer, and that you or your lawyer will be in touch with them soon to discuss the case. If this does end up in (say) small claims court, you want to show that you were fully responsive and didn't ignore the letter you got.

P.S. You don't mention the monthly rent, or when the apartment was actually vacated (if person three moved out, or is he still there?). These are relevant facts. Also, did you just give up on your part of the security deposit? And in January, did you pay rent before you left, or did you assume that your last month's payment would be used for January rent? (I'm trying to figure out why, if the full rent wasn't paid in January or February, for example, it took the management company until October to decide to bill you. It can be argued that they had a duty not to just keep the meter running, if that indeed is what happened.)
posted by WestCoaster at 1:41 PM on October 3, 2005


I had a similar problem once - I had moved out of an apartment, and while the guy who sublet from me paid all of his rent, some of the other people on the lease did not. When the lease was up, long after I had left, I got a letter stating that I owed a large sum of money. Since I had written documentation stating that I had a subletter, and he had documentation that he had paid his share of the rent, I was fully prepared to go to court to make my jerky ex-roommates pay for it all.

In my case, I got lucky - the landlord didn't take care of the paperwork/filing until after the time allowed under Michigan law, so not only did I not have to pay, I also got my full security deposit back.

See a lawyer, and from now on get EVERYTHING in writing, especially when it comes to landlords.
posted by sluggo at 1:51 PM on October 3, 2005


I'm no lawyer, but doesn't a murder violate the inherent Right of Quiet Enjoyment found in all leases? Just curious.
posted by johngoren at 2:40 PM on October 3, 2005


If you and your former roomates all work together, it'll be 3-on-1 in court, and I dobut the landlord would risk perjury over $5k. I think you sand a very good chance, but you'll need to get a lawyer.
posted by delmoi at 5:52 PM on October 3, 2005


What everybody else said. And make a list of anything your landlord violated while you lived there. You can always counterclaim and maybe reduce your payment.
posted by acoutu at 6:14 PM on October 3, 2005


johngoren: probably not, unless the landlord was somehow responsible for the murder.

TurkishGolds: Did you have bills (power, gas, phone, cable) in your name and change them when you left? If so, either dig out copies of statements form the companies or contact them to request new ones. Anything you can find to show you ceased being a tenant there.

I too hate to be negative, but ikkyu2 might have a point above. In many states, laws protect landlords before tenants. It's not right and I feel for you. Please let us know how this turns out.
posted by item at 8:58 PM on October 3, 2005


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