I need advice on a difficult rental situation- what are my rights?
May 15, 2017 8:05 AM   Subscribe

I live in a three-person house. One of my roommates moved out and we found a subletter. The subletter paid deposit and 1 month's rent directly to my landlord. She then changed her mind three weeks later (without ever moving in.) She then threatened the landlord with legal action and he returned her money to her - both the month's rent and the deposit. Now he is trying to hold us responsible for that money. I would like to deal with this without getting lawyers involved. What do we do?

Jeremy, Hailey, and I rent a house together. Our lease expires at the end of June.

In March, Jeremy moved to Australia. He posted an ad on Craiglist, and Jennifer came to look at the apartment. She agreed to move in, and paid the landlords directly (one month's rent + $700 deposit). She paid via Venmo. There was no paperwork. Neither the landlords nor Jeremy asked her to sign a lease. The understanding was that Hailey, and Jennifer, and I would all re-sign the lease together when it expired at the end of June.

Three weeks went by. Jeremy left for Australia. Jennifer only moved in one box of belongings. It was clear her parents were paying her rent and she didn't seem super reliable. There were other things that made continuing to live in the house less than ideal. Hailey and I talked and decided we didn't want to renew the lease after all. I emailed Jennifer apologetically and put her in touch with someone I knew who was interested in moving into the house and willing to take over the lease with her in the hopes she could still move in as planned.

Jennifer wrote me and said: "That sounds like too much trouble, let me know when I can come pick up my stuff and drop off the keys."

I wrote her back, "Okay, but just to confirm, you're walking away from your deposit?"

In my mind, Jennifer had committed to at least staying through June (when the lease expired) but the money she'd put down would cover the cost until we could find a replacement roommate.

The next day, I was cc'd on a long, aggressive (and frankly somewhat unhinged) email from Jennifer's father to the landlords. It accused me and Hailey of reneging on a 'verbal contract' to renew the lease in June, and threatening to sue me in particular for emotional damages from the stress of leaving her homeless (!). It accused the landlords of wrongdoing for accepting the deposit + rent directly from her, instead of having her go through the tenants, and said that they were going to sue in small claims court unless the landlords returned both the deposit + the rent ($1400) within 48 hours.

To me, this seemed like obvious bluster and bullying. I wasn't sure what the rules were about the deposit, but that it seemed absurd to me that we would return her April rent when she'd kept a box of her stuff in the empty room all month. It seemed to me that they were just bluffing so that she could get her $700 back, which didn't seem fully fair but was something we could probably deal with.

Instead, the next day, the landlords called me and told me that they'd paid her the full $1400 and that they were now considering us (the tenants on the lease) "in arrears" for April. At this point, it's not possible to fill the room in June, because there's a ton of housing available for sublease (we live in a university town) leaving us on the hook for $2100. Jeremy, as mentioned before, now lives in Australia, and the landlords made it clear that they considered anyone on the lease responsible for the rent, so that if he refused to pay, they'd come after me and Hailey for the full $2100.

A couple of extra details:

-After some time went by, the landlords came back and offered to 'cover' April, leaving us only responsible for May + June. ($1400)

-Jeremy, right now, is committed to doing the right thing - he's said multiple doesn't want to leave me + Hailey hanging. But it's unclear to all of us exactly what that is, and obviously since he's in Australia he can pretty much just walk away if this gets too messy.

-I am so angry at the landlords (who are just two local guys, not a company or anything) and it's hard for me to see the situation clearly.

Basically, it seems to me that a bully made a bunch of groundless threats towards them, and they decided it was too much trouble to stand up to the bully, and so they decided to bully us instead. It would have been one thing if they'd talked to us, as a group, about what to do in the situation, but just handing it over because (as they told me several times) it wasn't "worth it" to them to deal with legal action just gets me steamed. That's hardly any money to them but it's a lot of money to us; my feeling is that if they wanted to pay their way out of the nuisance of a frivolous lawsuit they had the right to do that, but they ought to take responsibility for the costs. If had been up to me, I would have absolutely allowed the lawsuit to go to small claims (I'm a grad student, so I've got basically no money and tons of time). Plus, the legal reason they cited for folding on April, specifically, was that Jennifer shouldn't have paid them directly, which made them vulnerable to the suit: but that's how they wanted to be paid - why should we be responsible for their error?

-The landlords are currently holding $700 security deposits for both me and Hailey. Frankly, it doesn't seem like anyone really has any idea what's happening with Jeremy's deposit.

-Possibly burying the lede: I've lived in the house for two years, and last year, when the time for inspection came around, the landlords showed up and informed me that they were going to move my bed into the basement because the room I was living in wasn't up to code because it doesn't technically have a door. (it's a kind of lofted space.) They moved the bed, covered my dresser with a blanket, did the inspection, and then moved all my stuff back upstairs. Sooooo...my space is totally illegal and I feel like this is maybe a bargaining chip?

I think it's obvious that the landlords are unlikely to take us to court over this (given that they've proven they'll pay significant $$ to avoid dealing with any kind of legal hassle, no matter how frivolous) but I'm afraid they're going to try and keep my $700 deposit unless I figure out some way to deal with it. I'm worried about getting lawyers involved because I think the cost would pretty quickly outstrip what we owe.

Should the three roommates write a threatening email demanding that all three of us be let off the hook for the remaining $2100? Or should we ask Jeremy to pay $700 for June and ask the landlords to cover April and May? If so, how do we frame this? Or do we Jeremy to pay as much as he can afford and split the cost of the rest with Hailey? (I do not know if I am willing to do this or honestly if I can afford it.)

This is in Michigan. Thank you.
posted by pretentious illiterate to Work & Money (17 answers total)
 
-After some time went by, the landlords came back and offered to 'cover' April, leaving us only responsible for May + June. ($1400)

Which is about as fair as this is going to get. Take this 'deal' (and by 'deal', I mean your current lease terms, unchanged), and move on. (And you should ask the original roommate to pay this $1400, but I wouldn't hold your breath).

The landlords probably shouldn't have given this person her money back, certainly not the deposit. But you all (including landlords and new tenant) created the situation by subletting, without anything on paper, and having the subletter pay the landlords directly.

You could find a lawyer to go through this in more detail, and there's some chance you could save some bit of money (for the cost of a lawyer) -- but right now you're being offered the option to just pretend this thing with Jennifer never happened and move on with your current lease. Take it.
posted by so fucking future at 8:33 AM on May 15 [11 favorites]


If you are in a university town you will almost certainly have a tenant's rights group associated with the university. That would be a good place to have the terms of your lease looked at without having to pay a lawyer.

But it sounds like everyone involved dropped the ball on due diligence here with the lack of paperwork. I don't think pursing this will be helpful. I second the "just move on" advice.
posted by pantarei70 at 8:39 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


I guess what's frustrating for me is that of everyone involved, Hailey and I are the only ones who 'did' our paperwork, signed our leases and abided by our agreements, paying our rent on time. So it's surprising to me that it seems so quick to assume that we should be the ones to eat the cost for what seems to me to be mistakes made by the landlords, Jennifer, and Jeremy.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:45 AM on May 15


Hailey and I are the only ones who 'did' our paperwork, signed our leases and abided by our agreements, paying our rent on time.


Kind of? You changed things up on Jennifer, right? It was a verbal agreement, but by my read of this, had you not changed your mind, this problem wouldn't exist.

The understanding was that Hailey, and Jennifer, and I would all re-sign the lease together when it expired at the end of June.

...

There were other things that made continuing to live in the house less than ideal. Hailey and I talked and decided we didn't want to renew the lease after all.

posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 8:51 AM on May 15 [16 favorites]


Jeremy is still responsible for his portion of the rent, morally. It is, in my opinion, his fault he didn't get a signature on a lease, and it was his responsibility to sublet the room. From your landlord's perspective, legally, the 3 of you are almost certainly "jointly and severally" responsible, which means any or all 3 of you owe the rent and (again, legally) it doesn't really matter whose pocket it comes from. If he were around you could probably take him to small claims if he doesn't cover it, but as you know, he's not.

That said though, you and Hailey also screwed Jennifer over - from her perspective she agreed to move into an apartment with 2 known entities as roommates for a fairly long period of time, and then you 2 said "never mind! who knows what will happen in 2 months!". I likely would have backed out also (though I wouldn't have been so brazen with the legal threats and all).

And all that being said, you still may be able to get someone in to cover a portion of the last two months. Post on FB and through your networks - sometimes there are people looking for last minute short-term situations. Post the room on AirBNB and get $100 a night for it for a few nights (or whatever the going rate is where you are...) and you might even end up with someone in there longer term.
posted by brainmouse at 8:52 AM on May 15 [12 favorites]


I don't think you really have much bargaining power here as you three are on a lease that is probably very clear about who is responsible for the rent.

All you had with Jennifer was a verbal agreement, which you did break.

It was your landlord's call to return the money to someone who paid them money directly-- and it was the smart call, as there was no written agreement between your landlord and Jennifer.

I see why you're upset and I do sympathize! But I think all you can really do is ask your landlord for a discount given the hassle-- but expect them to say no. You could also ask Jennifer for a share but she will DEFINITELY say no and you have to accept it when she does. You don't really have legal grounds for either of these avenues but it couldn't hurt to ask if you are very very professional about it and take no for an answer.

Jeremy owes his share since he's on the lease-- and if he doesn't pay it, the two of you are responsible-- and if one of the two of you doesn't pay that, then the other is fully responsible. That's the risk of signing a least with multiple parties. If there's anyone to consider legally pursuing for the rent it's him (though it sounds like he's willing to do the right thing.)

Couldn't you find someone else short-term? And have them sign a written sublease agreement?
posted by kapers at 9:08 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


My (nonlegal) opinion is that everyone here messed up, including you and Hailey. If you hadn't flaked out on Jennifer, she would have probably stayed and signed the new lease. Jeremy was responsible for taking care of the sublet, but again, if you had stuck with your verbal agreement, he wouldn't be in this mess either. So I think the fair thing would be for the three of you to split the cost.

This is assuming there's nothing to be done legally about the landlords. As suggested above, your city probably has a tenants union (if it's Ann Arbor, I know it does). If you are students at U of M, the off-campus housing office will sometimes attempt to mediate landlord/tenant disputes (I don't know what the requirements are for them getting involved).
posted by FencingGal at 9:09 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


I agree that mistakes were made all around here. I think your easiest path forward is offering the room at a discount, as to fill it quickly, and asking Jeremy to cover the balance.

You might be able to push the illegal bedroom issue and ask for reduced rent because of it. Did your lease say 3 bedrooms when really it's legally only 2 bedrooms?
posted by ktkt at 9:14 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Three weeks went by. Jeremy left for Australia. Jennifer only moved in one box of belongings. It was clear her parents were paying her rent and she didn't seem super reliable. There were other things that made continuing to live in the house less than ideal. Hailey and I talked and decided we didn't want to renew the lease after all.

Honestly, I think this all falls on you and Hailey. Jeremy did what he was asked to - he found someone to commit to taking over his lease, they paid a deposit and committed to moving in. She did actually move in (albeit nominally - the amount of belongings is immaterial). At that stage, he has done his bit. Then you and Hailey pulled the rug out from the new room mate and changed the deal - she thought she was getting somewhere to live ongoing, but after she committed to that you switched it around so that she would only have the place for a few months. Regardless of whatever you think of her and her parents, YOU (and Hailey) screwed up the deal with the new room mate, not Jeremy, not the landlord.

Jeremy is completely without any responsibility here, to me. He did his part of the deal, and you and Hailey scared off your new room mate by making the living situation completely different to that which she agreed to. This falls entirely on your shoulders, to me. The fact that the landlord refunded the money is annoying, but you *did* change the agreement after the fact, so you have to take responsibility.

I guess what's frustrating for me is that of everyone involved, Hailey and I are the only ones who 'did' our paperwork, signed our leases and abided by our agreements,
The issue to me is that you believe - for some reason - that you two did everything right. You didn't. You significantly changed the scope of the lease right after the person agreed to it - verbal contract or not, you completely changed the agreement after the fact. They didn't put a deposit down on a three month temporary let because you two don't like it, they put a deposit down on a place to live ongoing. If you hadn't told her you wouldn't sign the lease, yo'd all three be living there right now. The thing that changed? You and Hailey changing your minds. You need to take responsibility for being the flakey part of that deal, not Jennifer, Jeremy or the landlord.
posted by Brockles at 9:23 AM on May 15 [36 favorites]


Another reason your landlord may have so readily returned Jennifer's deposit, if it helps you see this annoying situation more clearly, is because they should not be holding a $2800 deposit on a $2100 apartment. If they didn't return Jeremy's $700 to him, then they were holding too much deposit.

Jeremy really should have done an official sublease where he got the deposit from Jennifer which is why I feel he should still be on the hook for his part of the rental agreement. He took a big risk not officially subletting, and it did not pay off.

Upon rereading, definitely don't pursue anything with Jennifer. People whose dads generate threatening documents often have dads with lawyers-- you can't assume it's bluster.
posted by kapers at 9:42 AM on May 15


You tenants are a single unit that together agreed to pay the rent (...I'm assuming, based on the impression of the lease that you gave). If your third person had moved out and the two of you who remained had decided to make their room a guest room, you could have, so long as the [$2100 or whatever] was paid every month, right?

Similarly, it was (most likely) your responsibility, not your landlord's, to find a renter. But:
Problem #1 is that your first friend moved out with only three months left, a difficult amount of time to find a sublease tenant for.
Problem #2 is that you all found a flaky replacement whom you didn't actually want to live with.
Problem #3 is that nobody made her sign anything. You guys could've done this yourselves, even absent a requirement from the landlord.
Problem #4 is that you changed the long-term plan on her, causing her to change her plans. Why would she want to move in for just a couple months?

Now, I'm not sure it was really right for the landlord to give her back the money then charge you for it; it's arguable (at least morally, if not legally). But they've agreed to give up $700 -- of the $2100 in total possible damages here, and the five people involved, they've agreed to cover 1/3, so that sounds pretty fair to me.

You even agree the LL shouldn't have received that money directly. The LL has rectified that error. I'm a bit flabbergasted that you agree Jennifer's claims against the LL are correct in some way, and you want the LL to let themselves get sued over it. But since you like the legal approach so much, you could now try to receive payment from Jennifer through the appropriate channels by taking her to small claims court for having failed to pay you for April and thereafter, as specified in your verbal contract. Good luck with that. But you seem to think it's no big deal to waste time and money in court, so have at it.

Now you guys have to either find a new roommate or figure out how to split up the missing rent between you, Hailey, and Jeremy (and / or Jennifer). I tend to agree that Jeremy did his part already, but a bit of the weight could fall on him.

Overall though, I think you're a bit too focused on who's going to pay and legal bargaining chips and whatnot, and not enough focused on hustling to find a new tenant. You've known about this problem since the third week of April, it sounds like, so it's past time to get moving. Even if this were to get resolved in the courts, you would be expected to show that you tried to mitigate the financial damages rather than just sitting back and figuring out at whom to point the finger of blame. Your landlord can't go out and find you a new housemate; that wouldn't be appropriate. You're the only one who can do it. So I'd focus your first pulse of effort there.
posted by salvia at 9:48 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


You might also look for win-win solutions. E.g., if you moved out by June 1, would the LL let you off the hook for June? Maybe they could go ahead and fill the full space. I doubt it, but it's worth asking.

Also, if graduation is coming up, you might be able to get a nice price for the room during that time on Air BnB especially if the hotels have filled up.
posted by salvia at 10:47 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


You significantly changed the scope of the lease right after the person agreed to it - verbal contract or not, you completely changed the agreement after the fact.

No, this is literally not possible. Like most states, Michigan has a statute of frauds requiring a written agreement for leases exceeding one year. The parties did not enter into a fourteen-month (much less indefinite!) oral lease (nor could they, without the agreement of the landlord for at least the last twelve months!).

I agree that this was a self-inflicted injury, but more because it was entirely predictable that the thwarting of informal expectations can provoke the same reaction as the anticipatory breach of a contract, even if the remedies available are not the same.
posted by praemunire at 12:32 PM on May 15


So the landlords have $1400 in deposits and want $1400? I would tell them, "Keep the deposit, I'm moving out" and get out and just be done with it that way if you can. I know money seems like the most important thing in the world when you're young and forced to have roommates because you have no money, but it will be fine.

Otherwise, work fast and furious to get new tenants who will take over the lease and thus your payment responsibility.

I think making Jeremy pay for any of this would be a little shitty, personally. It's not his problem -- he found a roommate and you guys apparently all agreed to not put her on the the lease because the three of you would sign a new lease together. Then you changed your mind -- Jennifer thought she was moving in with you and then you turned around and said, "Nope, nevermind." But Jeremy had done his part, unless you guys had reservations about Jennifer but he forced her upon you or he didn't really try to find a replacement roommate. If I were Jeremy and did my part and you guys agreed to it, I'd be a little annoyed that you were then asking me to pay.
posted by AppleTurnover at 6:06 PM on May 15


Talk about buried ledes!

last year, when the time for inspection came around, the landlords showed up and informed me that they were going to move my bed into the basement because the room I was living in wasn't up to code because it doesn't technically have a door. (it's a kind of lofted space.) They moved the bed, covered my dresser with a blanket, did the inspection, and then moved all my stuff back upstairs.

The landlord rented you an unsafe space and then actively lied to the inspector by moving your bed out on inspection day?! That is illegal, unethical, and unsafe. You're right they don't want anybody taking a closer look! Look up the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland. Everybody thought it was fine until it wasn't.

Sure, The moral high ground is admitting that you pulled the rug out from under the new sublessor and paying extra bucks out of a sense of reponsibility. Even so, this doesn't put the landlord in the clear as far as collecting rent (for two years!) on an unsafe dwelling space.

Why would you be obligated to pay extra rent for a hypothetical 3rd tenant in an space that accommodates 2, just because they've gotten away with charging for 3 people before?

What you are within your rights to do is to find a new place to live ASAP, and then, once that's arranged, say to the landlord "Hey landlord, we are moving out on Day X, and we'll pay the agree-upon rent ($700 per person per month) for the time we spend here. We want our deposit to be applied to our last 30 days here, so the remaining rent works out to $Y."
posted by metaseeker at 8:31 PM on May 15


Split the cost with Hailey and recoup what you can via AirBnB. Quit being mad at people, yesterday; you and Hailey screwed up -- your views on who is behaving well here are bizarre.

Trying to leverage the problem with a room not being up to code after apparently cheerfully living there for two years is a dick move. As is being furious with the landlords, or looking for extra $ from Jeremy. Did the landlords even say, "It is a three-bedroom. This room here without a door is a bedroom and should be used as such," or...?

Did you tell Jennifer about the issue with the room? Why do I feel like the answer is no...?

I am sorry; you are in a lousy spot. But you need to stop dwelling on being in a lousy spot and flailing about trying to get someone else to take responsibility. Figure out a responsible course of action for yourself and Hailey (cheap sublet? AirBnB? seeing if landlords will let you walk ASAP?) and take it.

I feel rather badly for Jennifer and am glad she got all her money back. On some level you know that a brief sublet and no guarantees and new roommates (maybe; somebody is "interested," which isn't a thing you can take to the bank) is NOT the same as a sublet that was going to turn into a regular rental with yourself and known entities in the house. No idea why she would have done it through daddy, but I think pretty much everyone would have told you to piss off at that point and been furious over the flaky waste of time.
posted by kmennie at 4:15 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


+1 to contact your local tenants rights group. Tenancy laws are a very localized thing. They've probably seen this all before and can quickly inform or explain the situation. It's not the same thing as getting lawyers.

You can ask a question like this on an internet forum, but, as you can see, you're going to get a huge range of answers that combine (or confuse) moral arguments with what your actual legal rights/responsibilities are. You could follow all the "morally, you should do X" and still end up in a mess if someone changes their minds again and wants to go to small claims court. Best bet is to ask the tenants rights group for their read of the situation.
posted by Sockin'inthefreeworld at 4:31 PM on May 16


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