Property Management Q & A, Summer 2018

RE Magazine — Summer 2018

Question:

We have a problem we are trying to sort out with a group of tenants sharing an apartment. Roommate “A” and “B” are on a month to month agreement and are not getting along. On April 16th, roommate “A” emails and says she wants to leave and then moves on April 20th. She returned keys on May 2nd. Roommate “B” then gives notice for the end of May. Roommate “A” doesn’t think she is liable for rent for May. The way I have always handled this is roommate “A” isn’t released from the lease until Roommate “B” financially qualifies for the unit themselves or they find roommate “C” and roommate “B” and “C” qualify together. I have told both roommates that they are equally liable for the rent and they need to work it out between them. Roommate “A” is complaining and says she has spoken to a lawyer. What (if anything) have we done wrong?

Answer:

From what I am seeing here, I don’t think you have done anything incorrectly. It is my opinion that there are two tenancies and two tenants, each of which can act independent of the other. There is a single tenant (made up of two persons and a single tenancy). I do suppose that some might argue that there is a “gray” area here, because the Residential Landlord Tenant Act (RLTA) refers to a “tenant” issuing a termination notice. Theoretically, this might imply that the individuals can act independently from each other. In a case like this, we want to be able to argue that the “tenant” is both of them. One unilateral notice on behalf of only one of them is void and unenforceable. Were it otherwise, the clock would have been ticking on return of the deposit (how much belongs to ”A” v “B”?). Instead, there is one tenancy and one deposit which the two residents jointly and severally share (please also note that there is an exception to this general rule when one roommate vacates unilaterally due to a report of domestic violence under RCW 59.18.575). Please also note that even under the facts you describe (the tenant’s version of the facts), giving notice to terminate a tenancy requires 20 days before the end of the month, so a notice given on April 16th wouldn’t be effective for her to vacate on May 2nd. The foregoing all being the case, this is still a relatively common problem and residents often want to split up and go their separate ways. In addition to the general legal principles, it is a good idea to have express language in a lease clarifying the “one tenancy” rule. While you often see this in the boilerplate verbiage of a lease agreement, I know some property owners and managers use a separate addendum to make this clear (something more likely to draw in their attention). I’m not implying that such a clause or addendum is required, only that it makes explaining the landlord’s position easier when you can point to specific lease language. Another argument that comes up is whether you somehow “waived” the general rule that I am reciting above by accepting the keys. You don’t say what happened when the keys were dropped off, but you want to avoid anything that implies some “agreement” or release on your leasing agent’s part. I often simply recite something like (and confirm in an email), “you are handing me these keys, but this does not in itself terminate your tenancy or rental agreement.”

 


 

About the Author


Christopher T. Benis

Christopher T. Benis is an attorney with Harrison-Benis, LLP with offices in Seattle. The information contained herein is not legal advice. You are encouraged to consult with your attorney before relying on anything contained herein.

 
 

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