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Real Estate Today

With Roommate Leases, Landlord Can't Have It Both Ways

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Robert S. Griswold | Steven R. Kellman | Ted Smith
16-May-1999 Sunday

This column on issues confronting renters and landlords is written by Counselor of Real Estate and Certified Property Manager Robert Griswold, host of Real Estate Today! with Robert Griswold (10 a.m. Saturdays on AM1130 - KSDO radio, or on the Internet at, and by attorneys Steven R. Kellman, director of the Tenants' Legal Center, and Ted Smith, principal in a law firm representing landlords.

Q: About a year ago, a buddy and I rented a house together. The landlord wanted us to have separate rental agreements. He said that he didn't want one roommate to be responsible for another's rent should one of us move out. My roommate moved out about a month ago, and the landlord is verbally demanding that I pay the full rent. I paid only my share at the beginning
of the month, and have now received a notice to pay or quit. We have a month-to-month rental agreement, and it states the amount of my rent only. Can he legally evict me for not paying the full rent?

A: Smith: This landlord is going about things the wrong way. There's a simple rule to follow: one rental contract per apartment. Everyone signs one lease. Do not split it up. By doing it this way -- separate agreements for each roommate -- the landlord is limiting his rights. If this goes to
court, the judge will say that the landlord can only collect the rent stated on the individual roommate's agreement, not the other half. By having everyone sign one lease, all are jointly and severally responsible. All can be collected from and everyone is potentially responsible for 100
percent of the rent.

Kellman: The landlord can't have it both ways. On the one hand, he wants the power to treat each tenant separately but at the same time he wants the power to treat the two of you as if you were a partnership. Each type of contract arrangement has advantages and disadvantages.

With separate agreements, the landlord can begin and end tenancies for one tenant without affecting the other. Deposits can be handled separately and each tenant remains responsible for his or her separate rent. There's no need to get in the middle of roommate disagreements. With a joint
agreement, the landlord may hold each tenant responsible for the entire month's rent. The deposit remains until all the tenants of the lease have moved out. In a joint lease, it is very difficult to terminate the tenancy of a problem tenant without forcing the "good" tenant to move as well.

With a separate lease agreement, as you have with this landlord, you should only be responsible for your individual agreed-upon rent. I think that even Ted would agree that an eviction case based on the nonpayment of rent, which you do not even owe, is improper and would fail.

Q: For the past three months we have rented a home with a small but beautifully landscaped back yard. It is mostly bushes, mature pine trees, and bark ground cover with a little grass and river-rock borders. A very nice wooden deck took up approximately one-third (about 300 square feet) of
the back yard. The deck had fairly extensive termite damage, so the property manager and owner decided to remove it.

I am not happy about the choice for replacement -- grass. Because of the cost of replacing the deck -- $500 for lumber plus labor -- the decision was been made to replace it with a lawn.

The deck was one of the things that attracted us to this house and a large part of the backyard design. Is there any way we can force the landlord to spend some additional money on landscaping above and beyond the lawn?

Also, some of the in-ground lawn sprinklers will now be in the middle of the lawn instead of at the edge of the raised deck. They need to be moved to less damage-prone spots. The property manager has not shown much interesting discussing this. We are month-to-month tenants. Do we have any legal backing here?

A: Griswold: You do not have a very strong legal position since the deck is really an amenity, not a health and safety issue. Unless there were specific verbal or written agreements about the potential deck removal combined with an agreement to either require replacement or adjust your
rent, you are unfortunately out of luck on any legal standing.

Clearly, you do have the right to move since you are on a month-to-month, yet I am sure that is not your first choice. The other option is to offer a compromise by which you will pay some additional rent toward the deck. For example, maybe you could offer $50 a month for the next eight to 10 months so that you are actually paying for approximately 50 percent of the deck
replacement cost.

The only argument you could make is "loss of use," in which case your loss would be limited to the fair market value of the deck (most likely only $25 to $50) for 30 days since you are on a month-to-month lease.

I think your best bet is to offer to pay some or even all of the cost of the deck replacement or learn to live without it.

Q: I am a long-term renter. When my apartment was repainted about 5 1/2 years ago, the painter made a complete mess of my unit and failed to properly prepare the walls for painting. So the paint chips or peels every time a wall, door, etc. is bumped. Also, he didn't paint completely behind
the toilet, just where it was convenient to reach. Since the new paint is white and the old paint was off-yellow, it shows a lot. Can they charge me for repainting?

Smith: The landlord can charge you for any damages, cleaning and refurbishing above ordinary wear and tear. If the painter botched the paint job when you first moved in, then you are not responsible. You'd better take a closer look at all of the walls. Make sure there are no nail holes, smudging, stains, and deep scratches. If there are, then the landlord would be within his legal rights to charge you for a pro-rated portion of the spackling and painting. Despite your long tenancy, these charges would be deductible from your deposit.

IF YOU'RE A TENANT OR LANDLORD, the authors stand ready to answer your questions in this column, although letters cannot be answered individually. Write them at: Rental Roundtable, Homes Section, San Diego Union-Tribune, P.O. Box 120191, San Diego, CA, 92112-0191. Or you may e-mail them at

Copyright Union-Tribune Publishing Co.

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Robert Griswold and the Real Estate Today! radio show strongly support the intent and the letter of all federal and state fair housing laws.  As a reminder to all owners and managers of real estate, note that all real estate advertised is subject to the Federal Fair Housing Act, which makes it illegal to advertise "any preference, limitation, discrimination because of race, color, national origin or ancestry, religion, sex, physical disability, or familial status, or  intention to make any such preference, limitation or discrimination." Additional state and/or local fair housing laws may also apply.  Be sure to inform all persons that all dwellings offered or advertised are on an equal opportunity basis.


Revised and Updated - Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Robert S. Griswold, CRE, CPM, CCIM, PCAM, GRI, ARM
Griswold Corporate Center
Griswold Real Estate Management, Inc.
5703 Oberlin Drive, Suite 300
San Diego, CA 92121-1743
Phone: (858) 597-6100
Fax: (858) 597-6161


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