Q: When do I need a written lease?

A lease is a contract that defines the rights and responsibilities of both the landlord and the tenant. A lease can be oral or written. If a lease is for one year or less, an oral lease can be as binding on both parties as a written lease. But the terms of an oral lease may be difficult to prove. A written lease helps avoid misunderstandings between the landlord and the tenant.

A lease for longer than one year must be in writing to be enforceable on both parties. A written lease must provide certain information and contain provisions set forth in the state statutes. It is equally important to avoid provisions that are prohibited by statute. For, if the lease contains prohibited language, the entire lease is void.

Whether a lease is oral or written, the landlord must give the tenant, in writing, the names and addresses of the premises’ owner(s) and authorized agents, such as a building manager. There is one exception to this disclosure requirement. If the owner occupies the premises – and the premises have four or fewer dwelling units – no such written disclosure is required.

Q: When can a landlord refuse to return a security deposit?

The landlord has a right to withhold a security deposit for any of several reasons, such as if the tenant: damaged the premises beyond ordinary wear and tear; caused waste or neglect of the premises (such as leaving hot water running for days); didn’t pay rent; didn’t pay for utility services, whether the landlord provided these or the tenant paid the utility companies directly; or didn’t pay mobile home parking fees that the local government assessed against the tenant.

By law, the landlord must give reasons in writing for refusing to return all or part of the security deposit. State law requires the landlord to provide this information within 21 days of the tenant vacating. The tenant must provide the landlord with his or her new address.

Q: What action can a tenant take if a landlord withholds the security deposit?

Say that 21 days go by since the tenant vacated the premises, and the landlord still hasn’t returned the security deposit or provided reasons for withholding all or part of the deposit. Then the tenant can take the landlord to small claims court. Important to note – the tenant can ask the court to double the security deposit amount, as a penalty for not meeting the 21-day time limit.

The landlord may provide, within the 21-day time frame, written reasons for withholding all or part of the security deposit. But the tenant may disagree with the landlord’s decision. Here, too, the tenant can take the landlord to small claims court to try and recover the deposit. The court may decide the landlord owes the tenant money. However, unlike the example mentioned above, unless the court determines that the landlord falsified or misrepresented its damages, the court won’t require the landlord to pay double the security deposit. If the court decides that the landlord improperly withheld all or a portion of the security deposit, the court may award a tenant who has retained an attorney the reasonable cost of the attorney’s fees and services.

Disclaimer: The above information is provided as general information, not as legal advice, and does not create an attorney client relationship. Before making any decisions regarding legal matters, individuals should consult with a qualified attorney.