Who Pays When Renter Skips Out?

by Janet Portman, Inman News

Hobo sackQ: I’m the owner of an apartment complex near a large hospital. The hospital regularly brings in traveling nurses, who stay for three months. The nurses work for an agency, and the agency provides housing for each nurse by renting an apartment from me. One of these nurses stayed for two weeks, then quit her job and left the state. I think I can look to the agency to make good on the rest of the rent, but they say that the tenant was the nurse, and that I’m limited to going after her. Who’s right? –Sandy H.

A: When a tenant breaks a lease without a legal justification, in most states she’s on the hook for the rent until the landlord, using reasonable efforts, re-rents the unit. If the market for units like this is reasonably hot, you should be able to fill this vacancy within a month or so, which would mean that you’d be entitled to compensation for that empty time. But if the market is soft, and you’re unable to secure a replacement, you could be entitled to the entire balance of the rent.

OK, so much for the general rule. The question in your case is: Who is the tenant: the agency or the nurse? If the agency is the tenant, and the nurse the subtenant, you can look to the agency to fulfill the terms of the tenancy, including honoring the three-month commitment. If the agency believes that the nurse improperly broke the lease, they can go after her after dealing with you. But if the nurse is your tenant, she’s the one who is responsible for the rent.

If you can’t fill the vacancy, and are inclined to go to small claims court to sue for the balance on the lease, you can name both of them as defendants and let the court sort it out. But in practical terms you’ll have a hard time hauling the nurse back to your state to appear in a small claims court matter. That leaves the agency, which will of course argue that it merely facilitated the rental.

The first thing a judge would ask is: Who signed the lease? If the agency acted merely as a finder and the tenant signed the lease, that’s solid evidence that the nurse is the tenant. Conversely, if the agency signed the lease, you’ve got a pretty good argument that they became the tenant, and the nurse was a subtenant.

Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of “Every Landlord’s Legal Guide” and “Every Tenant’s Legal Guide.” She can be reached at [email protected]. What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor. To contact the writer, click the byline at the top of the story. Copyright 2009 Janet Portman

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