Unfortunately, there are times when we have to move to a new residence before the end of a residential, landlord-tenant lease term. As an attorney, I’ve seen many examples of clients in this kind of situation, and I, myself, have been there before. Below is some advice and a few stories from tenants and landlords who have found themselves in this unfortunate scenario. Some of these stories are from Houston, Texas, but the advice applies to all of Texas.
1. Communicate in writing with your landlord
First, communicate with the landlord in writing. Email or electronic mail is the best form with which to communicate with your landlord. Emails are easy to print out and keep track of, unlike text messages and the like.
Many tenants in Houston who have hired me as their landlord-tenant lawyer have come into the office with stories of promises made orally. For example, one Houston tenant was told, when he had to break a lease months before the end of the term, orally, that as long as he moved out by the following Wednesday, everything would be fine. Jumping at this opportunity, my client immediately rented a truck and moved out by Tuesday night. A few months later, he called our law firm and hired our lawyers to represent him because his landlord was trying to collect tens of thousands of dollars from him for the broken lease, and that’s a case the landlord is likely to win, unfortunately. Don’t let the same happen to you. Get it in writing!
2. Negotiate before calling an attorney
Many times, an arrangement can be made with a landlord in order to avoid damages and attorney fees being charged to a tenant for breaking a lease. I personally had an experience like this in Houston—specifically, in the Clear Lake, Texas, area—Nassau Bay. I had largely gotten along fine with my landlord, but personal circumstances forced me to move out early. I talked to him by phone, first—his name is Phil. Then, I followed up our conversations by email. I started out by telling him how happy I was with my experience at his property, a rental house in Nassau Bay. Then I told him that I wanted to end the lease early but on good terms. Tenants need to understand that from a landlord’s perspective, it is a pain to have a lease end early, and it does involve significant costs such as advertising, cleaning, maintenance, and broker fees.
Tenants need to understand that from a landlord’s perspective, it is a pain to have a lease end early, and it does involve significant costs such as advertising, cleaning, maintenance, and broker fees.
Well, Phil and I were able to work out a deal and avoided lawyers and lawsuits over this potential landlord-tenant dispute. I told Phil that I would continue to pay rent until he found a new tenant, and that I would reimburse him the cost of finding that new tenant. As it turns out, it only took two months. Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, and Phil’s own daughter needed housing. So, he moved her in, and we called it even. Landlords are people too! Just talking and being cordial and understanding can go a long way towards avoiding a costly rent dispute.
3. Take pictures of the property
Third, take pictures. Lots of pictures of every room. Hopefully you did this when you moved in so a “before and after” comparison can be made. I had one Houston client whose Landlord was trying to charge him for an oil stain in the driveway. Oil stains are very difficult to remove, and the process is quite expensive–running up to thousands of dollars. Fortunately, my client had a picture of the driveway when they moved in, and the oil stain was already there. This was one landlord dirty trick that didn’t work, all because of pictures.
Right along with that, when you move into your next landlord-tenant leased residence, complete the inventory and condition form—like this one.
And, then, take lots of pictures of every scratch, tear, hole, stain, etc., you can find in the residence. Take an overview of a room, and then take close-ups in that room of any damage you can see. Check windows for scratched or torn screens, driveways and garages for oil stains, carpets for spill stains or pet stains. Be thorough. It will take a lot of time to go through each room, but I can’t tell you how many times as a landlord-tenant lawyer I have seen landlords charging tenants for ridiculous, nit-picky “damages.” Don’t let it happen to you. Prepare for the worst–assume that when you move out, the landlord will go through the place with a magnifying glass.
4. Clean the house thoroughly
A lot of problems can be avoided by leaving the premises spic-and-span clean. I’ve seen instances–personally as well as an attorney–where landlords have charged hundreds of dollars for cleaning because of things like dust/dirt on the baseboards and mini-blinds or dust on fan blades.
It’s also always a good idea to have carpets professionally cleaned before moving out. At the very least, rent a Rug Doctor or similar machine and do it yourself. This is especially true if you have pets–or, small children! A good cleaning can make carpets look like new, at least long enough to get through the move-out inspection. For that matter, hire a maid service to do a deep clean of the whole residence prior to the move-out inspection. There are several such service providers in Houston, such as the following:
Also, it’s a good idea to wait until you’ve moved all your personal property out of the residence before cleaning. So, careful planning is important. Call the maid and carpet cleaning services well in advance to make sure you schedule them to come after you have moved out. Maids first, then carpet cleaning for best results.
5. Keep track of your deposit
The Texas Property Code, Chapter 92, requires that a landlord give the tenant an accounting of their deposit within a month of move-out. Many landlords in Houston—I’ve seen it as a lawyer and a tenant—fail to do this. If there is a landlord-tenant dispute, and the landlord forgets or fails to provide a refund or accounting, the landlord is subject to damages such as attorney fees incurred by the tenant.
A landlord who fails to comply with the security deposit requirements of the property code is liable for $100.00 plus 3 times(!) the amount of the deposit wrongfully withheld, AND attorney’s fees incurred by the tenant.
This can be a huge bargaining chip when trying to settle a broken lease dispute with a landlord. According to Chapter 92, section 109, a landlord who fails to comply with the security deposit requirements of the property code is liable for $100.00 plus 3 times(!) the amount of the deposit wrongfully withheld, AND attorney’s fees incurred by the tenant. The mere failure to provide a written description and itemization of deductions by the 30th day after move-out/surrender of the premises is enough to trigger this provision. So, keep track of what happens with your deposit after you move out! Set a calendar reminder for the 30th day, and if you don’t receive the accounting and refund by then, give us a call!
6. Sublet your tenancy yourself (with your landlord’s approval!)
While Chapter 91 of the Texas Property Code imposes a duty on Landlords to mitigate their damages–that is, find a new tenant–it is a good idea to be proactive in trying to sublet your tenancy yourself—note, Chapter 91 of the Texas Property Code also prohibits subletting, UNLESS the Landlord’s consent is obtained before the sublease; needless to say, get that in writing!
You can advertise on Craigslist Houston or other Craigslist city sites, bars, restaurants, on local bulletin boards, especially around community colleges and universities, in grocery stores, at community centers, churches, etc.—anywhere that has a bulletin board. Consider offering to sublease for less than the full amount of rent—e.g., if your rent is $1,000.00 per month, offer to sublease for $900 and make up the $100 difference yourself until the end of the lease.
And if you can not help it …
7. Take it to Small Claims Court (Justice of the Peace Court)
Optimally, you don’t want to end up here as a tenant. In Texas, Justice of the Peace Courts have jurisdiction over evictions and landlord-tenant disputes–see Rules 500-510 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure.
You don’t have to have a lawyer in this proceeding, but it’s almost certain suicide to try to handle the case yourself. There are several factors that make this so. First, the Justice of the Peace does not have to be a lawyer–that’s right, the judge in these proceedings doesn’t even have to have gone to law school. Second, in my experience as a landlord-tenant attorney, the J.P.s tend to be biased towards the landlord. They are used to big apartment companies showing up with multiple evictions or disputes where the tenant doesn’t even show up for court. So, the J.P. basically just rubber-stamps whatever the landlord is asking for–evictions, back rent, attorney fees, etc. Third, the regular rules of court–the rules of evidence and civil procedure–don’t necessarily apply. These proceedings are meant to be informal so they don’t clog up the legal system since there are so many of them.
This can put you at a disadvantage if you don’t have a lawyer to advocate on your behalf. The good news is that if you lose in one of these proceedings, you can appeal to district court (“real” court). However, if you find yourself in this situation, call an attorney ASAP. There are very short deadlines and specific procedures that must be followed in order to appeal. If you do appeal, then the case gets tried in district court de novo–as if the J.P. proceeding never happened.
Contacting us is free. We understand that legal issues facing you, your family or your business can seem daunting. We are here to help guide you and to take as much of the hassle and difficulty of a legal case out of your hands and into ours