QWe are renting a rowhouse in the District. We signed a 12-month lease in March with a property management company. About three months into our lease, the owner of the property fired the manager. We then received a letter from the manager saying that he had surrendered our security deposit to the owner and that we were to pay rent directly to the owner. We have not signed any agreement since then with the owner directly.
Are we still under lease? Can we legally vacate now before the end of the lease term? Could the owner ask us to leave?
AThat's not the way it works. The owner of your property is your landlord. The property manager is nothing more than the agent of the owner. If the manager signs the lease, it is on behalf of the landlord.
Your lease has to be in writing. Once it is signed by both tenant and owner (or agent for the owner), it becomes a valid and binding legal document. Violations of the lease, by either landlord or tenant, are enforceable in court.
For example, if you do not pay your rent, your landlord will be able to evict you, although this has to be done through a court order. Your landlord cannot exercise what is referred to as "self-help" -- throwing your belongings out on the street and changing the locks.
Landlord-tenant law is regulated on a state-by-state basis. Different states have different laws; some are landlord-oriented while others, such as in the District, favor tenants. But no matter what state you are in, you, as a tenant, signed a lease and must adhere to all its terms.
Unless you are in default under the terms of that legal document, you have to stay in the property -- and pay rent -- for the full term of the lease. And your landlord cannot legally ask you to leave.
In fact, should the landlord decide to sell the property in which you reside, any new owner will also be legally bound to honor the terms of the lease.
You indicate that you may be interested in leaving so you can buy another property. Although you are stuck with the one-year term, it certainly does not hurt to ask your landlord under what conditions he may be willing to allow you to get out of the lease.
I am often amazed at the reluctance of landlords and tenants to talk to one another. We live in a society that wants to litigate, even though communication will resolve the dispute.
Many courts have instituted mandatory mediation as a prerequisite to going to a trial on the merits of any litigation. This is known as "alternate dispute resolution," and mediators tell me that their success rate for settling cases is well over 50 percent.
You also asked about your security deposit. The property manager has advised you that it has been turned over to the owner of the property. I recommend that you contact your landlord as soon as possible to confirm that he has those funds. You do not want to wait until you leave the property to learn that the security deposit was never transferred.
Benny L. Kass is a Washington lawyer. For a free copy of the booklet "A Guide to Settlement on Your New Home," send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Benny L. Kass, Suite 1100, 1050 17th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036. Readers may also send questions to him at that address.