How Tenant Can Stay Out of Feud Between Owners

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Postema is the editor of Apartment Age magazine, a publication of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles (AAGLA), an apartment owners' service group

QUESTION: I live in a four-unit rent-controlled apartment in the city of Santa Monica. Things were fine until about three years ago when the building was sold to two couples.

Now they are feuding between themselves all of the time and constantly trying to drag the tenants into their battles. We receive numerous phone calls and visits from each side on an ongoing basis.

For example, in the past we have always made the rent checks out to both couples. Now, one of the landlords wants us to make the rent checks out to him. The other says that's not authorized.

We have spoken to Santa Monica rent control, and they are wonderful, but they can't help because it is not a rent-control issue. How can we avoid this battle, and how do we pay the rent?

ANSWER: As far as paying the rent goes, make the rent checks out to both couples as you have in the past. Let them determine who gets what after that. Their financial squabbles are not your problem.

Similarly, their personal problems are not yours. I don't know how you can get that across to them without telling them, point blank, that you have your own problems and would appreciate them solving theirs without your input.

Procedure to Follow When Tenant Dies

Q: I am a landlord in Marina del Rey. What happens if you rent an apartment on a one-year lease and the lessee dies during the lease period? Is anyone liable for the balance of the lease term or is it terminated? Also, what do I do with the security deposit?

A: Both a lease and a month-to-month rental agreement are contracts and contain contractual obligations. They do not expire with a tenant and they bind his estate's assets.

On the petition of an interested party (generally one named in a will or the next of kin), an estate is opened and an administrator (if there is no will) or executor (named as such in a will) is appointed by the court.

If no one petitions to open an estate and become the deceased's personal representative, a creditor of the deceased, like you, may do so and get someone appointed to make it possible to serve someone with the claim.

A judgment against the personal representative binds the deceased's assets. However, there is a crucial four-month period after an estate is opened during which the claim must be presented to the personal representative or filed in the court's estate file. If the claim is not properly presented or filed, it may be lost.

You can claim any unpaid rent for the balance of the contract term. Practically speaking, it makes better sense to re-rent the unit as soon as possible and cut your losses (rent is better than any claim), assuming the personal representative does not want to continue the contract.

However, the personal representative has the same rights as the deceased under the contract, except, perhaps, to occupy the unit if occupancy is limited to the named tenant.

If you re-rent, you cannot collect double rent but only the amount of rent that you lost.

If you cannot make a deal with the next of kin, or if there is just no one to be found, and the rent is not paid for 14 consecutive days, you can serve an abandonment notice and then take possession of the unit.

To bring an eviction action or get a judgment for unpaid rent, you need a live personal representative. If there is no one, as noted above, you would have to get one appointed by the court in order to serve your lawsuit.

The security deposit is handled the same as if the unit were occupied by a live tenant. It is disposed of after you get possession of the unit and may be used to pay for cleaning, for damages above and beyond "normal wear and tear" and to compensate you for unpaid rent.

Any balance left over must be returned to the personal representative, or, if none is known, by mailing your check to the tenant at the last known address within 14 days.

Notice Period Not Waived for Tenant

Q: I recently moved from a West Los Angeles rental to a Fairfax district condo, which I bought because of its low price and the lowest interest rates we've seen in years.

Not being certain about the exact date that escrow would close, I put off turning in the keys and parking remote control. The manager assured me that this was OK because the owner wanted to refurbish the unit as soon as I left.

He said he was willing to forgo the normally required 30-day notice to vacate to get the unit as soon as possible, but he didn't put it in writing. This also was told to me by two separate receptionists at the management company when I turned in the keys.

Yet, when I got my security deposit refund through the mail I was charged for 30 days' rent after the day I turned in the keys.

A follow-up letter to the management requesting an explanation has gone unanswered, and I don't know what to do. Do you have any advice about how I can recover the last month's rent that was wrongfully withheld?

A: A lawsuit in small claims court is your only remedy for this problem. However, with nothing in writing, and, ostensibly, no witnesses, your case may be difficult to prove. You should have insisted that the manager put your oral agreement to waive the notice period in writing.

The judge may still rule in your favor, if he finds you a more credible witness than the manager, but a written agreement would have just about cinched your case.

For future reference, always, without exception, get everything in writing. That includes agreements you may make with the management at your new condo.

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