Rent it Right
Q: I have been renting an apartment in the same complex for several years. When my first lease expired, we wrote on it, "Extended to (date)," and did the same for a couple of years. I've just learned that new residents are paying less for the same type of unit that I have. Is that legal? --Shellie M.
A: When a lease expires and tenants want to stay on, landlords often do as yours did: Extend the original lease for another year. When they don't do this, the tenant remains as a month-to-month tenant, who can terminate the arrangement -- typically on 30 days' notice -- like any monthly tenant.
And of course, if landlords want to end the residency, they send a termination notice. (But in rent-control cities and New Jersey and Washington, D.C., landlords must have a "just cause," or good reason, to boot the tenant.)
Although extending the lease without reviewing it is convenient, it has a major drawback: Neither side is alerted to think about the lease's terms, as you would if you were seeing them for the first time. The most important clause in the lease is, of course, the rent.
The question for both you and the landlord is whether the rent, set one year ago or many years ago, still reflects the going rate for similar rentals in your neighborhood. If the market has cooled or heated up, renewal time is when you or the landlord should discuss changing the rent.
I'm guessing that you did not raise the issue when the lease was extended. If similar units are currently renting for less, this means the market has cooled since your rent was set. But unfortunately, there's nothing you can do about it until the lease is up.
Is this unfair? I don't think so. When you signed the lease, you were locking in the rent for an entire year, which would have become a sweet deal for you if the market for units like yours had heated up. In that case, the landlord would be the loser.
But in exchange for the chance to lock in a good deal, you take the chance that the opposite will happen, and you'll end up paying more than the newcomer next door. That's the essence of a contract -- each party takes a risk of losing money, and has a chance to make money, in exchange for the certainty that the deal will last.
Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of "Every Landlord's Legal Guide" and "Every Tenant's Legal Guide." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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