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Who’s Liable for Leased Unit’s Rent If Tenant Dies?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Question: If an elderly tenant signs a one-year lease but then dies before the term of the lease is up, can the landlord hold the tenant’s heirs liable for the rent for the remaining time the unit is unoccupied even though they were not privy to nor a party to the contract? Also, can the owner charge the heirs for alleged repair costs that exceed the tenant’s security deposit?

Answer: The heirs cannot be held liable for any unpaid rent or damages arising from the death of a tenant. The estate of the deceased, however, can be held liable for unpaid rent for the balance of the lease or until the unit is re-rented, and for damages and cleaning costs. The owner must still make good-faith efforts to re-rent the apartment as soon as possible, and he cannot charge the estate any rent after the apartment is re-rented.

Charges for repairs are limited to damages that exceed “normal wear and tear,” and cleaning costs are limited to the actual costs of cleaning. Damages can include such things as unreturned or lost keys or remotes. If you don’t return all of the keys and the owner has to re-key the lock, you are liable for those costs too.

If there is insufficient estate money to pay all claimants, the payoff is prorated among the creditors. The owner still can use security deposit money to pay for unpaid rent, damages and cleaning until it is gone.

New Owner Wants Fee for Space in Garage

Q: We have lived in a Los Angeles rent-controlled apartment for 12 years. The apartment sold recently, and I received a notice from the new owner saying that I am no longer allowed to park my car in the garage unless I pay an additional fee of $100 per month per car space or $200 for the whole garage.

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Although the rental agreement doesn’t say anything about it, I have been allowed the full use of the two-car garage during my entire tenancy. In fact, the former owner even allowed me to install an automatic garage door opener after I got my first car.

Yesterday, the apartment manager called me and threatened to evict me if I continue to use the garage without paying the additional $100. Can I be evicted if I continue to pay my rent on time and park my car in the garage without paying?

Because I cannot afford to hire an attorney and may have to represent myself in court, could you cite the part of tenancy law that pertains to this problem?

A: All of the terms and conditions of your rental agreement pass over to the new owner when he takes title to the property. And while he may not be aware of it, rental agreements can be both written and oral. It may be a little harder to prove that your oral contract with the former owner--allowing your use of the garage--exists, particularly when there is a written agreement that does not reference it. But it is still valid. Since you had the use of the garage for 12 years, you should have little trouble proving your case in court.

If you were allowed use of the entire two-car garage as a part of your former tenancy, and not just the half in which you park your car, you still have the use of the entire garage under the new ownership at no additional rent or fees.

That may not completely solve your problem. Under rent control, the owner can take away the use of the garage from you, called a reduction of services. He also must decrease the rent for reducing services by the amount of the value of the service, apparently $100 to $200, depending upon how much use of the garage you had, half or all.

For the record, even if you had rented the garage under a separate services agreement, which is required under rent control, you could not be evicted from the apartment for not paying the garage rent. You could be evicted from the garage for failing to pay its rent.

All of this is covered in the city of Los Angeles’ Rent Stabilization Ordinance. To get a copy of the law, call the Rent Stabilization Division at (213) 367-9099.

Correct Language for Use in Rental Agreement

Q: In a previous column, you specified language to include in a lease or rental agreement allowing a landlord to collect attorney’s fees from a tenant after an eviction in court. Your language is different from mine, and yours limits the amount of the attorney’s fees to $500.

Does the language used in the contract have to be exactly what you wrote or can it be different? Also, are attorney’s fees limited to $500? Is there a disadvantage to using my language instead of yours?

A: The language in your agreement does not have to exactly match the language in the rental agreement of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles, which I quoted. The language in your agreement, “The prevailing party shall be entitled to recover all expenses which may be incurred, including reasonable attorney’s fees, by reason of any breach of this agreement,” is fine.

The difference is that you are not limited to recovering $500 in attorney’s fees with your language. Placing a $500 ceiling in the agreement limits both your and the tenant’s liability to that amount.

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Postema is the editor of Apartment Age magazine, a publication of AAGLA, an apartment owners’ service group. Mail your questions on any aspect of apartment living to AAGLA, 12012 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025.


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