Today in Tenant Rights: What to do when Tenants rights when landlord refuses sublet/assignment of lease?

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“My husband and I bought a house in DC and wish to sublet or assign our lease. We do not have an early termination clause and are within the first year of our lease. Does anyone know our rights to “assign” or sublet our lease if the lease states the landlord cannot “unreasonably” withhold consent. We informed our landlord we are happy to host an open house, find multiple potential new tenants and pay for their credit and background checks but the say they’re traveling December and January and cannot accommodate our request.

We’re pretty laid back tenants and in the 8mo we’ve been here always paid on time, been responsive to the landlords so their unwillingness to consider the options we’ve presented is disapponting. Thanks for your advice!”

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20 Comment

  • Unless they are mountain climbers hanging off the side of a mountain, anywhere they are traveling they will have access to phones and scanners and email – tell them many credit reports are reviewed, tenants approved and leases signed without the parties being on the same continent or ever meeting. If they insist on meeting, a video phone chat should suffice. If they are going to be landlords, that’s a risk they take – that they will sometimes have to deal with their property when they are traveling. Many pay a property manager to do this for them.
    .
    They also pay real estate agents a month’s rent to find and vet tenants for them. Maybe you can offer to pay an agent to handle the process for them in their absence – then all they have to do is talk to the agent on the phone or via email and email in a signed lease. That’s what many landlords prefer to do when finding tenants – even if they live two blocks away. If you are willing to do the showings and present tenants, maybe you can find an agent who will handle the credit check and lease and various associated forms and their signing for a reduced fee once you’ve got tenants for them.
    .
    I don’t think their traveling for two months is what is contemplated by not unreasonably withholding consent – their landlording is a business, and as with say, being responsible for having someone fix your heat if if goes out while they are away, I would think it would also include finding new tenants while they are away. They always have the option to wait and do it when they get back if they prefer – but their being gone should not cost you if they won’t use professionals who specialize in this while they are away – you do have a right to move on.
    .
    This is not legal advice – I’d consult with one of the various places tenants can get legal advice and proceed as they suggest you do in this situation.

    • There are a lot of unknowns in this story. You don’t know if they use a property manager–I certainly don’t. Thus I like to meet potential tenants on my own, hold open houses, talk to them, review applications, run screenings, etc. This is a VERY timely process. I wouldn’t trust my current tenants who NEED to get out of a lease to find good future tenants. If this was the end of their lease and I had planned for it, fine. But the tenants are currently obligated to a lease. The tenants failure to plan is not the landlord’s problem. Especially around the holidays. This is a horrible time to find tenants.

      • It can be a timely process, but that hasn’t been my experience through 2 rentals. Granted, I don’t hold open houses, but I do everything else. I’ve also given my tenants carte blanche to find their own replacements should they decide to leave the area or buy a home during the lease term. I’ll do the vetting, but they do the legwork. I will know no more about them than I would from a person who saw my ad online, so I don’t see that being much riskier.
        However, I do agree this is poor timing and that the ll absolutely should meet the prospective tenants. Op will probably need to eat that rent and take it as a lesson for the future.

      • Not according to the lease provision they note that they have where it states that the landlord cannot unreasonably withhold consent to assign their lease or sublet.

  • Call the DC Office of the Tenant Advocate- they will be able to help you. I cannot overemphasize how helpful this office is. I called them about an issue a few months ago- I was able to speak with one of their attorneys within an hour of calling. The attorney was incredibly helpful, reassured me, and gave me additional resources.

  • If you knew you were buying a house you should have asked for a homebuyer’s clause when initially negotiating the lease. Hindsight being 20/20, I believe your lease probably reads along the lines of:

    “Tenant must not assign this Lease or sublet the premises or any portion thereof, or transfer possession, or occupancy thereof, to any other person or persons without the prior express written consent of the Landlord/Agent, which consent must not be unreasonably withheld, provided that the prospective assignee or subtenant satisfies established standards set forth by Landlord for all prospective tenants including, but not limited to, a credit check, rental and employment references and Tenant’s payment of $ service charge, defraying Landlord’s expenses incidental to processing the application and amending the lease for assignment or subtenancy. In the case of subletting, Tenant may be held liable for any breach of this Lease by subtenant.”

    Not a lawyer, here’s what I could find on “reasonable grounds for withholding consent”:
    http://www.americanbar.org/content/newsletter/publications/law_trends_news_practice_area_e_newsletter_home/re_feat5.html

    I’d offer to pay a property management company to handle all the work associated with filling a sublease/assignment and if they reject that, consult Office of Tenant Affairs.

  • This situation obviously depends greatly on if the landlord has multiple properties and/or is using a management company. If either of those things are true, then I would say they are being unreasonable. However if this is the only property they are renting and they manage it themselves, I would say wanting to meet the person who will live in their property is not unreasonable.

    Also this is a business relationship you have with your landlord. You being a good tenant in the past does not mean you deserve any special consideration. You are seeking to end this relationship, so they get no benefit by cutting you a break and risk trading what they know are good tenants for something unknown.

    • So, if a landlord says I’m only in town 1 week (or day) per year to meet a new tenant, then a tenant can never sublet or assign? Makes no sense – the lease provision says they can. You would like to interpret this according to whatever the landlord wants, but that is not the way leases are drafted – they are meant to provide for assigning or subletting as a tenant may need to do so, however inconvenient it may be for the landlord.

  • Recently did a similar thing- we bought a house about 9 months into the first year of our lease and had to figure out how to sublet with our landlord, who was not thrilled. We ended up doing all the work to find new tenants to sign a year-long lease, however, we signed an agreement with our landlord for joint-liability through the remainder of our lease meaning that if the tenants we found didn’t pay rent during those three months that technically overlapped with our lease, we could be held jointly responsible in court. Provided a bit of additional assurance for our landlord.

    Your landlord may not be interested in you guys finding someone to assume a new one year lease, but you may offer up a similar type of agreement to him/her for subletters for the remainder of your lease to at least give them good faith that you’ll look for decent people in their holiday absence (since you obviously would be assuming some risk too if they didn’t pay).

  • Pretty sure D.C. Law says you can break your lease with 30 or 60 days notice.

    • Agreed, DC tenant laws are the ridicule of even places like San Francisco. As a tenant, you can break your lease for whatever reason, at any time given a 60 day notice.

      Landlords on the other hand need special dispensation from NATO and mother Theresa’s ghost to evict a tenant, even at the end of the proscribed lease period.

  • The OP doesn’t state whether this rental is a house, basement unit, or condo (I’m assuming from what’s there it’s not a managed apartment building). I just wanted to point out, since no one has mentioned it, if it is a condo that is being leased from the unit owners, a lot of condo associations have restrictions on how units can be rented, not allowing for airbnb/short term leases & sublets, and requiring at least a one year lease from new tenants that has to be approved by the condo board.

  • Dear OP,

    Put yourself in your landlord’s shoes: you advertised your place, expending time, resources, money, and possibly even having to carry the unit vacant in order to find a tenant. Perhaps you, as the landlord, considered multiple tenants but picked the one who seemed the most reliable, was willing to commit to a full term, etc. That tenant signed a 12 month lease. They didn’t tell you that they were looking for a house and may wish to vacate soon. Now, the tenant wants to cancel the lease 4 months early, when you are out of town. They didn’t bother to inform you that they were looking for a new place. They didn’t notify you when they signed the contract to purchase their new home. Now, they’re contacting the Office of the Tenant Advocate in an effort to force you to sublease your property to someone who you have never met before. (And please don’t say Skype. Skype is definitely not the same thing as meeting a person face-to-face. Nor is it fair to expect someone to carve out time to coordinate tenant interviews while out of the country). You, as the landlord, would be subject to DC’s draconian tenant laws, which make it very difficult to remove a nuisance tenant from their space, regardless of whether they damage that, fail to pay rent, keep the space so messy that it attracts vermin, make non-stop noise, or any other number of ways that a tenant can be a nuisance.

    The point is, OP, take a moment to understand how unfair you are being to your landlord. You may be “laidback”, but it is unfair to expect others to be laidback about their property, income stream, and investment. Nor is it fair to expect your landlord to bend over backwards to accommodate you when you signed a contract (your lease), committed to paying rent for 12 months, and now in the middle of that commitment, are backing out with no notice. You provided not even the most basic courtesy to them. Why do you expect that you would be entitled to be treated any better than you treated them?

    • totally agree

    • +2

      I wouldn’t trust my tenant to find a responsible replacement. The landlord can find a replacement within a few months, which seems reasonable and in line with the contract.

      Contract law ……..

      • Keep in mind that ‘sublet’ and ‘assign’ do not mean the same thing. If the lease says one or the other, but not both… then it’s whichever one is stated in the lease. Under a sublet, you – the tenant – must still abide by all terms of the lease including fulfilling your monthly rent obligation, and you – the tenant – are responsible for finding and vetting the sublessee. The only difference is that you can enter into your own lease arrangement with a lessor. An assignment means that the lease obligation is transferred to a new tenant, and the former tenant is absolved of any obligation. Again, two very different things.

    • +1,000. You had to have known you were in the market to buy a place when you signed this lease. You should have carefully checked all language and prepared for all scenarios. Month to month leases exist — yes, often at a premium, but exactly for situations like this.

  • Also agree. I don’t think the OP and husband have acquitted themselves honorably here.

    Although OP and husband knew they would be moving after they signed a contract on their house, which was likely at least 30 days before they settled, they failed to alert the landlords. So eight months into their lease, they suddenly and without notice asked to break their promise to perform (that’s what a lease is), just before the property owners go out of town. Is that what trustworthy people do? Why on Earth should the property owners trust the OP to find a tenant in their absence?

    OP, would you like it if your employer were to suddenly terminate your job while you are out of town but promises to find another job somewhere else for you in your absence? Would that feel comfortable to you?

    No property manager is involved here (otherwise the tenants would not be in direct contact with the landlords), suggesting that the property owners are a “mom and pop” operation rather than a major corporation with a multiunit empire that can tolerate the loss of a month’s rent. Who knows what the situation is with the landlords. They may be landlords by accident, i.e. renting a property they inherited or cannot sell at the moment. They may be paying a mortgage on it, and they are certainly paying insurance and property tax. The rental income may make it possible to meet these financial obligations.

    I like the advice Anonymous at 3:16 delivered about offering to share the risk by agreeing to pay any shortfall (including the entire monthly rent if necessary) should the new lessor fail to pay rent during the four months left in the lease. OP and husband might take that to heart in searching for a way to make the landlords whole.