Lease breaker - need advice

9 Replies

Hello all,

I know there have been multiple threads regarding lease breaks but I was hoping to get some feedback from some of you more experienced landlords with my particular situation.

There are two issues I have with my current tenant:

1) He wants to break his lease two months early due to the fact that I would not let him have a cat 8 months into his lease that specifies NO PETS. I verbally said that I wouldn't have a problem with it until I went into the unit to do a maintenance check and saw that he was a slob and that having a cat would only intensify the uncleanliness of his situation so I told him that I would like to stick to the original "no pets policy". So now, he is willing to uproot his life to search for a cat friendly apartment requesting to break his lease. I told him that I have no problem with this but I told him that he would be responsible for any down time for re-renting the apartment (this is my only concern - I just don't want to lose any rent income due to his breaking the lease). This is a desirable in-law unit in a very desirable area of SF bay area so I am not worried about not being able to rent it out. There will be a bit of time & money exhausted on my part after he leaves painting, cleaning, screening tenants, etc. He has given me 5 weeks notice to vacate. I'm not sure how to handle negotiations with him.

2) To complicate matters, before he moved in I tore out the kitchen cabinets and installed brand new cabinets and brand new granite counters. The granite counters were sealed with a water based sealant with 2-3 coats in the appropriate recommended manner per manufacturers instructions. I stressed to the tenant to just please take care of the kitchen because it is BRAND NEW and that if he ever has any maintenance issues of ANY KIND to please let me know ASAP. 8 months roll by and I finally decide after him asking to have this cat that it might be time to do a maintenance check (originally I plan to do quarterly but it got away from me) and I go in and find the granite with multiple stains of water that had penetrated into the stone. I think from him being paranoid about damaging the granite so he has been all this time covering it with huge pieces of plexiglass cut to fit on either side of the sink. I think what has happened is that the stone has not been able to breath and caused moisture to be trapped inside. So now, he has ruined the counters and wants to break his lease. He stated the counters were not sealed properly (which infuriated me) and I told him that he should have come to me right as he noticed this happening. On each side of sink - their are literally about 15-20 three inch circular stains. By the way, we live on the same lot - I live in the main house and he lives in the in-law unit with a common backyard that is shared. So there is no reason for not properly communicating to me. I would even ask him at times how are things going back there and he would always reply "fine".

I live in the San Francisco bay area in California if it matters. Please advise of what you would do. He seems pretty amenable considering the circumstances. I just want to be fair to both parties.

Thanks in advance for any and all recommendations.

To me, it sounds like this guy is almost doing you a favor (key word: almost) in wanting to break the lease. The longer he stays, cat or not, the more damage he will do. Did he agree to pay for the time to re-lease? If not, you can go through the legal process (check with your attorney, I don't know California law) to garnish his wages. To make things simpler and get your money up front instead of chasing him on the back end and probably paying some legal fees to boot, ask (or rather demand) a buyout. Maybe two months (we put three months in our lease, if we re-rent it earlier than three months, we refund the remainder).

If for whatever reason you want him to stay, ask for a pet deposit and pet rent. We ask for $250 non-refundable pet deposit and $25/month pet rent. But, given Kansas City is much cheaper than San Francisco and he's already damaged your unit, you should probably ask for more.

Read up on CA laws at http://www.dca.ca.gov/publications/landlordbook/catenant.pdf

You need to do a pre move out inspection 15 days (but no earlier) and give him a list of things to repair before he leaves. If he doesn't it comes out of the deposit. I'm not sure what rent control rules you have in Oakland, but I'm sure he is doing you a favor by leaving on his own. This does not mean that he is not responsible for damages! Make sure to get an accounting to him in a timely manner-the law says 21 days I prefer 15 so there is no question. Page 53

It will not take your time and money, it will take his money and your time, which you can be paid for! If you hire it done, you need to have receipts. Make sure you take excellent photographs, I hope you have photos at move in.

Since it will be easy to re-rent you could ask for an early termination fee equal to one months rent. Be sure to also charge rent for the time it takes to clean up his mess.

Thank you Andrew and Mark. I should not need more than one full month to take care of the work needed to have the unit up to snuff and ready to rent out again. Although my lease was pretty thorough, I did not include a lease break clause - next time for sure. Am I legally able to ask him to pay for those two months that he is bailing on? I'm thinking meet in the middle and just demand one full month's rent plus damages for the granite (which he has already agreed to pay for) and let him slide on one month. As I said, it should take me no more than one full month to clean up and get some back in there. What a hassle... What good is a lease if you can't hold them to it - this is the second tenant that bailed on their lease.

Please advise. Thanks

@Maya V.  ,

From a fellow Bay Area landlord, a few words, and a few questions.. 
"Am I legally able to ask him to pay for those two months that he is bailing on?"

He is only technically responsible for any damage beyond normal wear and tear, and any actual expense and vacancy until you release it - not technically the whole 2 months until the end of the lease - to address one of your questions.

I agree with @Mark B.  regarding damages and hope you have pictures. I would tell him: "You can pay what you owe for any damage, and for cost of lease-up, and I will let you out of the lease to accommodate you, or if you do not pay for any damages and abandoning the lease, I will be forced to pursue the additional funds, tarnish his credit (making it even harder to rent in the future), etc etc." Also, before this, get him to agree in writing to whatever he has verbally agreed to pay for!

IMHO, you're lucky to have this tenant gone a month or two early. He's trashing your place! Is the property in SF, Oakland, or Berkeley? Even better to not have him locked in there.. No matter where it is in the Bay, rents are strong and up in the last year, so you should be happy, especially if you're under rent control. And if he's paying the expenses to cycle up to a better tenant, possibly at higher rents, great!

I have another question for you though.
What is your screening process? 

Having two early lease breaks makes me suspicious of the screening process. One? OK. 2 in a row? Highly unlikely with a strong screening process, and clearly communicated expectations, IMHO. 

the water stains on the granite may not be a big deal. In our case, the stains disappear after the counter dries out thoroughly- several days to a week. (You can research this online too.) Maybe yours are different, but you could ask him to take the plexi off and see what happends. Saving the counter replacement would be a win-win for both parties. 

If you used a standard CAR lease, it has a clause about early termination, as @J. Martin   describes above. If you don't have that language, then I am not sure what legal standing you have. But it doesn't really matter. You're definitely best off just negotiating the best arrangement you can that he will agree to. Then just get him out, do the minimum you need (maybe just touch up painting, not redo all walls), and re-rent. The market is good, you'll get a new tenant quickly.  Also, screen term carefully!  Ask lots of questions, especially since you live on the premises. 

Bottom line: not worth the hassle to get "legal" on him (and possibly get lawyers involved.) Trust me, that's a huge lose-lose!

"8 months roll by and I finally decide after him asking to have this cat that it might be time to do a maintenance check (originally I plan to do quarterly but it got away from me) and I go in and find the granite with multiple stains of water that had penetrated into the stone."

Maintenance checks optimally every 2 weeks or at least once a month. 8 months is way, way, way too long. There can be finger pointing on both sides. At this point get as much as you want and they want and meet in the middle and cut the chord.

Do an "autopsy" on the last few tenants you had in this space and figure out what went wrong.

Your analysis might show " better screening process, additions to lease stips, need to perform on frequent inspections of the units, documentation and pictures in writing versus verbal, etc."

Originally posted by @Joel Owens:

"8 months roll by and I finally decide after him asking to have this cat that it might be time to do a maintenance check (originally I plan to do quarterly but it got away from me) and I go in and find the granite with multiple stains of water that had penetrated into the stone."

Maintenance checks optimally every 2 weeks or at least once a month. 8 months is way, way, way too long. There can be finger pointing on both sides. At this point get as much as you want and they want and meet in the middle and cut the chord.

Do an "autopsy" on the last few tenants you had in this space and figure out what went wrong.

Your analysis might show " better screening process, additions to lease stips, need to perform on frequent inspections of the units, documentation and pictures in writing versus verbal, etc."

 Joel,

I think the "autopsy" will reveal screening and communication issues..

I have a question for you though regarding the maintenance inspections..
Do you arrange to have inspections of all your units every 2 weeks?!? I would not continue renting in a place where facilities people were coming to inspect my unit every 2 weeks. And I take good care of my unit. (I am a renter, although I own several properties). Is that normal in your market? Or tenants that are really tough on the units?

I don't have a formal inspection policy or process right now, but have my handyman look around and report back to me when he goes in to fix anything. I want the tenants to feel like the house/apt is their home, and try to not to go inside their unit when not necessary. But have been considering more formal periodic inspections. 2 weeks would be unacceptable to tenants, IMHO, and even a month seems too often to bother people, to me. Maybe quarterly would be the right balance for me, my tenant quality, and what would be acceptable in the market. 

Having been a renter for my whole life, and knowing a LOT of people who rent, I've never experienced, and never heard of a landlord doing frequent, regular inspections. I'm going to ask around, but I really think it would making living there a PITA if it were too frequent. 

I'm probably going to phrase the inspections as geared towards identifying any potential leaks (pipes, windows), moisture issues, etc, to protect the tenant's home, and ensure it stays safe and healthy for them and their family. Rather than making sure they haven't damaged anything.. Maybe quarterly. 

"I'm looking over your shoulder, but only because I got your back" lol

Thoughts?

Hey thanks to all replies and to answer the questions asked:

I have been renting for 14 years at this residence and these 2 lease-breaks were the only two times in that time. My current screening process is using the "Smartmove" screening service used here in BP. 

I agree that it is a good thing that he is leaving because he is messy. We have agreed verbally that he will pay for one of the two months of lease break and the damages to the counters. I am happy with that but need to get it in writing.

My next lease will definitely have a lease break clause in it. can someone point out how that clause should look please? 

Also, I feel going in quarterly is fair to keep the tenant on track. My two main concerns for my tenant is paying rent on time and keeping the unit well taken care of. Easier to screen for the first one and harder in my experience to screen for the later.

Thanks