QI signed a one-year rental agreement for a townhouse in March. The property manager signed the lease and for three months I sent my rent check to that manager. About a week ago, I received a letter from the manager advising that his services were no longer requested by the owner, and that my security deposit had been transferred to the landlord. I was instructed to pay future rent to the owner.
Am I still under contract? There is nothing in the lease agreement that refers to the owner. Can I legally vacate the property prior to the end of the one-year lease? Is the owner obligated to return my security deposit? And -- perhaps more important -- can the landlord ask me to leave, if I am not under contract?
AAre you trying to find an excuse to get out of your lease? The bottom line is that you are a tenant and the property owner is your landlord. Your lease is perfectly valid.
The property manager was an agent for the owner of the townhouse. While the manager should have specifically stated in your lease that this was being signed on behalf of the owner, this omission does not invalidate your lease.
You signed a one-year lease, and you are legally obligated to remain in the property and pay rent for the full term of that lease.
I suspect that if you carefully read the fine print in that document, you will see that while you cannot assign the lease or sublet the property, the property manager and the landlord most likely have the right to assign the lease to someone else.
And, in reality, even if you take the position that the lease is between you and the property manager, now that the manager's services have been terminated, the lease has been assigned back to the true owner.
Accordingly, make sure that you promptly pay the next month's rent directly to the owner. It might be a good idea to send a cover letter with your rent check, advising the landlord that you are the tenant. Send the letter by certified mail, return receipt requested, and enclose a copy of the property manager's notice of termination.
When you signed the lease, you likely gave the property manager the first month's rent as well as a one-month security deposit. You should confirm with the landlord that he, in fact, has received that money from his former property manger.
Assuming that you remain in the property for the full year, and that upon vacating the premises, there are no damages, the landlord is obligated to refund your security deposit. Some jurisdictions, such as the District, require that the deposit bear interest, which is to be returned to you along with the security deposit.
But let's get back to my first comment: Are you looking to get out of the lease, perhaps so that you can buy something now while mortgage interest rates are still extremely low?
If that is your objective, you should discuss it with the landlord. Perhaps he too would like to take advantage of the hot real estate market and sell his property. You and the landlord are obligated under your one-year lease, but there is absolutely no prohibition against terminating the lease if both sides agree. The landlord might be willing to let you out of the lease if you give him reasonable notice, perhaps 30 or 60 days.
But, as you have described the situation, there is a binding lease between you and your landlord. You must continue to pay your rent, and your landlord cannot ask you to leave.
Generally speaking, in most jurisdictions, even if you are in default on your lease (if you have not paid your rent, for example) a landlord does not have the right to exercise "self-help." That means he cannot change the locks and throw your belongings out on the street. In order to properly and legally evict you, the landlord must take you to the appropriate landlord-tenant court in the jurisdiction where your property is located and get a court order requiring that you vacate the property.
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.