Eviction Law with No Written Lease

How is eviction law different for situations where there is a lease or there isn’t a lease?  It isn’t—eviction law is the same, though there are some differences regarding when a tenant can be evicted. (There are also some differences as to what a landlord can seek as damages at the same time as he or she is seeking eviction; generally, more damages may be available with a written lease.)

What Does It Mean to Lease without a Written Lease?

If there’s no written lease, a tenant is a “tenant at will” or “month-to-month” tenant. Renting without a lease is very similar—almost identical, actually—to renting with a written lease for a one-month term, which can be readily renewed by the two parties. Essentially, the tenant has the right to the premises for a month. Either party—the tenant or the landlord—can terminate the tenancy with one month’s notice; i.e. on one month’s notice, the tenant can move out without obligations, or the landlord can tell the tenant to leave. Being a tenant at will is a lot being an employee at will: neither party needs any reason or justification to end the relationship, and neither party has any right to keep the other one from terminating it. The only caveat is that notice requirement.

However, other than as above, renting with a written lease is just like renting with a “generic” lease. The tenant has to pay rent; the landlord has to provide premises that are fit for habitation and use; the tenant can’t disturb others living in the building and also has a right to not be disturbed; and if the tenant damages the premises, the tenant is liable to repair or replace the damage.

Grounds for Eviction

Tenants may not be evicted at will. In fact, at base, there are only two basic grounds for eviction:

  • The tenant breached the lease
  • The lease is up and was not renewed

The most common breach of lease is non-payment of rent: if you don’t pay, you can’t stay.

When a lease term is up, the landlord does not need to renew the lease (unless there is a written lease, one of whose terms was that the lease would renew automatically or under certain conditions). Once a lease term is over, the tenant has no more right to remain. That then gets to the main practical difference between a written lease and renting without a written lease:

  • Since most residential leases are one year, the landlord can only decide to not renew—and hence evict—the tenant once a year.
  • Without a lease, the landlord has twelve opportunities each year to decide to not renew the rental!

Therefore, even though the law of eviction is the same for both written and unwritten leases, as a practical matter, there are many more opportunities for a landlord to evict if there is no written lease.

How an Attorney Can Help

If you’re a landlord, an attorney can make sure you’re evicting in the proper way, at the proper time—evicting improperly can incur liability. If you’re a tenant, a lawyer can’t stop a proper eviction, but can protect you from an improper one. And for both tenants and landlords, an attorney can check your state law, to see if there are any restrictions on eviction that need to be complied with.

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