College Rental: Landlord-Tenant Dispute

52 Replies

Hi All, I have a landlord-renter dispute that I was wanting to run by you all to gather some input before I proceed further.

For some background, I bought a property in a small college town in July 18’ in which I inherited an existing lease. That lease ran through April 30th 2019 and I was able to secure tenants for a year-long lease starting May 1st. The shape of the property was “not great” when the new tenants walked through the property and subsequently signed the lease (3 tenants total each with their parent’s co-signature). Per our discussions during the “lease signing process” since they were college students, none of the tenants would be occupying the property during the summer and since this was the case, I relayed to them that I would take that time to make renovations (repair holes in walls, paint, renovate bathroom, etc.) to improve the state of the property and have it available by August 1st (they stated they wouldn’t even need the property available until Aug. 12th).

Here’s where the fun starts. At various times throughout the summer, the tenants and their parents have made trips to the property to drop off furniture, clothes, etc. and each time have called to voice their displeasure in the state of the property e.g. the bathroom is completely unusable (even though I have stated numerous times the renovations that I would be making and the date that it would be ready by). In the most recent instance of this occurring the mother of one of the tenants informed me that they would like out of the lease and would also like their security deposit plus the two month’s rent that I have collected thus far returned. She was adamant that I broke this section of the rental agreement:

POSSESSION. Landlord shall attempt to have Tenant's house ready on the date stipulated on this lease but cannot be held liable for failure to do so. In the event delivery is delayed, rent shall be abated on a daily basis until you are offered possession. If Landlord is not able to deliver Tenant's apartment within seven days of the date so stipulated, then, upon Tenant's request, Tenant's deposit and any prepaid rent will be refunded in full and this lease will become null and void.

From my perspective, the house was ready and in a “livable” standard on May 1st (the start date which was stipulated on the lease) or else they would not have signed the lease in the first place. Since it was communicated to me that the property would be unoccupied during the summer (early May-August 12th) I wanted to take that time to improve the property however whenever the tenants and their parents have visited the property periodically during the summer (never staying the night) they have stated that it is “unlivable” due to the bathroom being “gutted” and pieced together slowly but surely (finally finished the rehab of the bathroom today).

With all of that said, I have reached out to a lawyer to discuss some potential options but I wanted to see if any fellow landlords had any advice or have previous experiences that may help me out with this situation.

Thank you,

Casey

Whatever you said verbally is worthless. If it's not in writing it doesn't matter. Story doesn't check out, feel like a piece is missing. I have done this a handful of times and never had a problem. This is why I stopped doing co-signers with college students. I'm in my early 30s and I don't know when the switch flipped but the amount of control freak helicopter parents out there today is repulsive. 

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@Jason D. Appreciate the reply.  That's where my lack of experience as a landlord hurts, I did not have a 'scope of work' document however I do have past text messages where I mentioned "there may be a period of time (this summer) where one bathroom or the other is being worked on" and the tenant replied "alright, sounds good!".  Not sure how well that would hold up on the legal front but I did provide communication to different tenants both in writing (mentioned text) and in person that renovations would be happening this summer while they weren't living there.  Any other thoughts?

@Peter Tverdov thanks for the reply.  This has definitely been a learning experience and removing the co-signature clause is something that I was considering doing.  You are exactly right on the "control freak helicopter" parents as I believe what happened is the parents finally saw the property (months after the lease had been signed) and decided it wasn't up to standards for their children (even though it was in the process of being updated) and wanted to find any potential way out of the lease.  Out of curiosity, what part of the story do you think is missing?

I've dealt with a lot of college students and co-signed parents (I managed a lot of college rentals in Downtown Charleston, which has The Citadel and College of Charleston). It looks like you have multiple issues going on to work through so I'll try my best to help out. Sorry for the ranting!

For the repairs during an active lease. Are you charging them rent for the summer months? Even with an August 12th occupancy date? Since the lease started May 1st, even if they're not living in there right now, they can move in whenever they want. You may have put yourself in a bad spot by having a property under reno during an active lease. What would you do if one of the Tenants decided to move in tomorrow? There's a gutted bathroom and various reno work throughout the home. Legally you can't stop them from moving in regardless of the condition of the home.

For the mom trying to get out of the lease. Is your lease a Tenancy in Common or a Tenancy in Severance? Basically, did they all sign the same lease, or did they each sign their own individual lease? If they signed individually, then you may be legally required to refund their deposit and remaining pre-paid rent. If they signed on one lease together, then all tenants must agree to release them from the lease. An updated lease would need to be sent out removing their name from it and all remaining tenants must accept the responsibility of the full rental amount. Most likely, they don't want their rent to increase because one wants to back out. So they'll be stuck in the home until everyone agrees to release them from the lease. That takes the responsibility and liability off of you. 

Lastly, did the parents sign the lease agreement too? And is their child also signed on the lease agreement? If the parent isn't signed on the lease, then the parent is unable to make that decision. Their child is a legal adult signed into a contract. Per law, the child is the only one who can make that decision. If the parent did sign, then you need written documentation of their request to terminate from both of them. 

Don't let the parents push you around. I understand they're doing the best for their child, but their child is an adult and, legally, must be included in these communications and is ultimately the decision-maker as they are the person living there. 

Moving forward, I'd recommend not starting a lease until the home is renovated, cleaned, and move-in ready. To prevent these sort of situations. I'd also recommend that guarantors apply and are approved by you, but do not sign any paperwork. If a guarantor asks, just let them know you have their information on file to contact them in case the tenants don't pay, but legally, the tenant is fully responsible. This prevents you from being able to go after a guarantor in collections or filing an eviction against the guarantor, but it allows you to tell the guarantor that you can legally only talk to the tenant. Preventing the parents from butting in like this. They can talk to their kid all they want, and tell their kid what to do. They just can't tell you what to do. 

It's a sticky situation to be in, but depending on how the lease is set up you may be able to get through it pretty quickly. And hopefully this helps with planning for your future leases! College rentals can be stressful, but I've found that as long as you are open and upfront with college students, they're pretty understanding and flexible if a problem comes up!

@Austin Thompson Appreciate the thorough response!  I'll start by answering your questions.  Yes, I am charging them during the summer months as they signed a year lease.  If the tenants decided they needed to move in sometime during the summer then the only hinderance from a "livability" standpoint is the one bathroom that has been demoed for roughly the past 2-3 weeks (finished today) but there is another bathroom available (not sure if this has any bearing but wanted to mention).  The rest of the renovations are purely cosmetic e.g. patching holes and painting.  I've never said at any time they were unable to move into the property but merely stated if they were in fact going to be "gone" for the summer then I would take that time to do renovations so I didn't impose when they were actually living there.

From a lease perspective, they did each individually sign the lease with the students and parents both signing.  This will definitely help me make modifications to the lease going forward and I appreciate your tip on having the guarantors apply and become approved but not actually sign the lease.  

@Casey S. Awesome! 

So looking at that information, with purely cosmetic repairs being done to the rest of the home, and the only "uninhabitable" space being on bathroom under reno, then I'd recommend counter-offering their termination with a partial rental refund comparative to the unusable space. 

Let's say the home is 1,500 square feet. With their 1/3rd of rent being $800. And the bathroom being 60 square feet. Meaning they pay $0.53 per square foot per month. Times that by 60 square feet for the bathroom, they pay $31.80 per month for that bathroom space. Divide by 4 weeks, $7.95/week, times 3 weeks for unusable time, $23.85. They legally have only lost out on $23.85 of space over the repair time. Offer them that $23.85 (or whatever your math is) as the partial rent refund for the "unlivable" space. Per law, that's the EXACT amount they paid for that space and they're able to get that amount back. Nothing more since the rest of the home is habitable and a second bathroom is available. The space was legally habitable, but we can sympathize with a second bathroom being unusable, so why pay for it? (Think of it that way).

Don't forget to mention that while you are more than happy to refund the rent for the space that is unusable, patching holes and painting is purely cosmetic and does not result in the space being uninhabitable. To make it easier to understand for them, anytime someone does painting or patching holes in their own home, they don't completely move out and set up shop in a hotel until it's done. Therefore, it's not uninhabitable. 

They should quickly realize that fighting over, $23.85 isn't worth it. Especially with school starting in a week, do they expect to find a new house, new roommates, sign a lease, pay a deposit, and move-in all within that short time frame? I think they're throwing their weight around to see what they can get out of you. And the mom is probably just stressed thinking the home won't be ready in time. 

Sympathize, offer what they're legally able to receive back, and wait for their response. All of that combined should help them realize they're making a mountain out of a molehill and things aren't as bad as they seem. 


@Austin Thompson  Thank you very much for the recommendation!  Is there a "standard document" for this that would hold up better from a legal standpoint i.e. can I type this up in a Word document and sign/date at the bottom and mail to them or should I simply email them?  Apologies for my ignorance however I greatly appreciate your input.

Originally posted by @Austin Thompson:

@Casey S. Awesome! 

So looking at that information, with purely cosmetic repairs being done to the rest of the home, and the only "uninhabitable" space being on bathroom under reno, then I'd recommend counter-offering their termination with a partial rental refund comparative to the unusable space. 

Let's say the home is 1,500 square feet. With their 1/3rd of rent being $800. And the bathroom being 60 square feet. Meaning they pay $0.53 per square foot per month. Times that by 60 square feet for the bathroom, they pay $31.80 per month for that bathroom space. Divide by 4 weeks, $7.95/week, times 3 weeks for unusable time, $23.85. They legally have only lost out on $23.85 of space over the repair time. Offer them that $23.85 (or whatever your math is) as the partial rent refund for the "unlivable" space. Per law, that's the EXACT amount they paid for that space and they're able to get that amount back. Nothing more since the rest of the home is habitable and a second bathroom is available. The space was legally habitable, but we can sympathize with a second bathroom being unusable, so why pay for it? (Think of it that way).

Don't forget to mention that while you are more than happy to refund the rent for the space that is unusable, patching holes and painting is purely cosmetic and does not result in the space being uninhabitable. To make it easier to understand for them, anytime someone does painting or patching holes in their own home, they don't completely move out and set up shop in a hotel until it's done. Therefore, it's not uninhabitable. 

They should quickly realize that fighting over, $23.85 isn't worth it. Especially with school starting in a week, do they expect to find a new house, new roommates, sign a lease, pay a deposit, and move-in all within that short time frame? I think they're throwing their weight around to see what they can get out of you. And the mom is probably just stressed thinking the home won't be ready in time. 

Sympathize, offer what they're legally able to receive back, and wait for their response. All of that combined should help them realize they're making a mountain out of a molehill and things aren't as bad as they seem. 


The value of a bathroom is more than $31 of a $2400 rental.  I think we can all agree it is kind of necessary 

There is no judge that is going to agree with your logic on this whether it is in you lease agreement or not

Ok,  so they pay for these months but will be tripping over your drawn out reno?   I would expect a concession for that.  Whenever we do renovations of a rented unit even if tenants agreed they will be out of town we specify a reasonable timeline, it probably would have helped if you had given them date x to date y bathroom B is under reno and unusable. We will be painting the unit for the next 3 days.  When a unit is leased regardless of if a tenant says they will be home you are under the same obligation  to notify them of entry, it is their leased property.   The parents are now afraid you won't be done, rightly so given it has taken since May. Send a picture of the completed bathroom with your proposal for a concession.   Realize also with student rentals there are some unscrupulous landlords out there  that parents/students should be leary of and now at least one parent is thinking you are one of them.  This isn't an unreasonable assumption on there part with what 2 weeks to occupancy and you did not give them any timeline.   All in all it is probably best to have done the bathroom and painting then leased the unit.  

@Colleen F. thank you for your comment.  I am writing up a concession for a partial refund comparative to the unused space.  I did notify the tenants this bathroom renovation would be taking place (via text; will certainly get this signed/agreed upon in the future) and that if their timetable changed on when they would be occupying the property to let me know and I would ensure the renovations would be complete.  The bathroom renovations have only been ongoing for roughly 3 weeks (started week of July 8th) and actually finished up today so I will be attaching a picture of the finished renovation along with the "concession" document.  

I understand that I could have handled this whole situation better and will certainly learn from this but from my perspective, I communicated what would be done, have executed on my promise that the renovations would be done prior to the date the tenants stated they would be moving back into the property by and will now be offering a concession for the time they had "unlivable" space.  I've tried being as up front and open as possible during this whole process and if one parent has a negative perception of me and how I've handled the situation, I can live with that knowing that I tried doing the right thing.

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@Greg H., while the rent of the entire place is $2,400, they're only responsible for their $800 portion and only eligible for reimbursement on their $800. If the other tenants complained and asked for a concession or lease termination then it'd be based on $2,400. 

Judges interpret laws, a judge can always disagree with our interpretation. But playing strictly by the books the concession based on their 1/3rd of the rent times the square footage of unusable space lines up with what's is a legally required minimum. If a judge disagrees then they disagree and they'll tell you what they require you to pay.  

Ultimately this is a sucky situation and shouldn't have happened (reno being done before a lease is signed, a timeline on repairs, repairs being done sooner so there aren't concerns before move-in, etc). 

@Casey S., how you'd like to set up the coming year with your tenants is going to be the deciding factor in what you'd like to do. Without knowing your relationship with the tenants and how you'd like to be, the prorated "constructive eviction" method I stated above is a good starting point of knowing what they're legally entitled to. You can always offer more if you're looking to maintain a good relationship. 

@Austin Thompson @Greg H. I will be offering the prorated concession amount based off the entire monthly rent total (still only equates to roughly $30).  Along with the partial rental refund comparative to the unusable space (i.e. "concession") that I'm drafting up, I will also be attaching a picture of the completed bathroom (finished today after 3 week renovation timeline) to help ease concerns before move-in.  

Even though the parents have not been the easiest to deal with, my preference would be for the tenants to continue on with their lease (as I believe they are nice kids and won't "beat up" the house).  If that is out of the question (from the parents perspective) how would you proceed forward?  Obviously I would like to keep the deposit and monthly rent that have been paid thus far.

Thank you both for your time and comments.

Bro, you are going to enrage that entire group. A $30 concession? You're seriously letting the other guy ITT convince you that is ok? If you offer one a concession, they're all going to want it. Offer a reasonable concession (ask them for a percentage that they want), learn your lesson and move on. 

@Peter Tverdov  That's a fair point.  Thought about stating here's what I legally should give you ($30 "unused space" concession) but I want to provide a good property to live in and I didn't do so for (almost) the entire month of July so I'll refund you one month's rent (to all tenants).  Like I've said, this has been a great learning experience for me no matter how it ends up.  

@Austin Thompson

So you equate the square footage of a hall closet the same as the square footage of a bathroom ?  That is like saying a broken air conditioner in the middle of summer and a inoperable doorbell should be handle with the same level of priority.

@Casey S.

The lesson here is that you should not have waited to the last second to complete the repairs as you had 3 months. Additionally, communication regarding the status and making sure that their move in day has not changed probably would have tempered the situation

@Casey S. I have (unfortunately) dealt with some variation of this problem many times in my student rental business. I think everyone agrees that you've made some mistakes in this process. And that's understandable for a new landlord. 

As usual, I like @Peter Tverdov's advice. Learn your lesson and move on. College kids and their parents are emotional and emotion is incredibly tough to manage. The parents want to "feel" like their kid's landlord is going to provide their son/daughter with a safe place. I would ask them this:

"What can I do to make this right?" 

Take that answer and fix it. Having a vacant student rental can cost you a semester or a year's worth of rent (ask me how I know!). 

For what it's worth, these types of situations have been invaluable in my real estate career and they will be for yours too. They are stressful and annoying and hard to figure out some times. But the experience you will gain from it will be tremendous.

@Casey S.. I would suggest whatever document you send to the Occupants / Tenants it should go out with a cover letter from an Attorney. This will give your letter additional horsepower (pressure) of it being an Attorney Letter. Yes, this will costs you a few hundreds dollars, but will strengthen your position, in my opinion.  

@Casey S. you're welcome. 

Others will disagree but I am not a fan of pulling the lawyer card w/ college students unless it is 1,000% necessary. Hint: Is is almost never necessary. 

It will turn the parents into grizzly bears and that is an incredibly unpleasant road for all parties to go down (again, ask me how I know!). I'd hop on a conference call with all the kids and figure out a way to make them happy.

I'd recommend looking at all of your LL responsibilities through the prism of my favorite RE quote below.

"Real Estate is supposed to make life better." - @Mike Dymski 

This is definitely one of those cases where you want to follow your attorney’s advice. Let him draft any response, concession or addendum.

My own thoughts are that this doesn’t seem like a significant enough issue to constitute a breach of habitability. Consider giving a concession to all three of them for the entire prorated amount of rent for the whole period of renovation.

Whatever you do, do it quickly so that if you need to find a new tenant you can still do so before school starts. I wouldn’t drag this out in court if it can be avoided. Talk with them and negotiate a settlement (or have your lawyer do it).

It would be best to find a reasonable solution that makes everyone happy. The last thing you want to deal with is problem tenants for another year.