“What Do I Do Now” is a monthly legal advice column authored by Houston lawyer Sue Thoreau Lee.
So, that lease you signed a few months ago isn’t turning out like you thought it would? How was the landlord supposed to know you didn’t like roaches in your bathroom and rainwater running down your walls? Thankfully in Texas, tenants have several options available to them when they want to terminate a lease. This includes not only leases of apartments, but also leases of houses, condos, cardboard boxes or any other place primarily used as a residence.
But let’s get something out of the way first. You can’t just terminate your lease because you don’t like it anymore, you don’t like your roommate(s)/significant other, can’t afford it or you found a better deal someplace else. You have a contract. You have to honor it . . . that is UNLESS the landlord doesn’t honor it. And that’s where this article comes in.
First and foremost, the most important thing when dealing with lease disputes is, surprise, surprise, your lease agreement. Yes, that long document you didn’t read and just blindly signed actually does matter. Think of your lease agreement, or really any contract, as the law between the parties that sign it. In the lease you agree to do a number of things, most importantly to pay rent, but also to obey certain rules like not being unreasonably noisy, not smoking, not streaking in the common areas (how you clothe yourself in your own apartment is your business thank God) and otherwise not doing stuff common sense tells you to avoid. If you don’t have common sense, you can stop reading now.
In return, the landlord promises to do certain things, namely lease you the apartment, but also ensure you have access to things like the common areas (i.e., the pool or parking garage). This lease agreement between you and your landlord is the law between the parties, and before you do anything you will need to sit down and actually read it. Much of what you can and cannot do is going to be governed by the lease agreement. If the landlord fails to honor one or more of the promises in the lease agreement, the lease agreement alone will dictate whether and how to terminate the lease.
However, Texas has its own laws that apply to residential leases that are made for your protection, and in many cases these protections cannot be waived by the landlord. Yes, even Texas frowns on serfdoms despite the continuous draconian use of the word “landlord.”
The primary protection Texas law provides you is your right to have the premises free of any conditions that materially affect your health and safety. Regardless of what your landlord puts in the lease, the landlord cannot waive this responsibility. Now what, pray tell, is a condition materially affecting one’s health and safety? That is entirely dependent on the circumstances. Certainly, roach and rainwater intrusions materially affect a person’s health and safety (note: leases can require tenants to perform their own pest control, but that is rare), but there can be a whole host of other conditions that could qualify depending on the circumstances. The short of it is, if the landlord disputes it you may ultimately have to convince a jury that the condition(s) qualify as materially affecting your health and safety.
You also have an unwaivable right to installation of security devices (i.e., door and window locks) and a smoke detector. The landlord also can’t interrupt or stop your utilities unless pursuant to a repair or your failure to pay, and the landlord can’t lock you out unless you fail to pay rent or the landlord is making repairs.
The next question is, what happens if the landlord doesn’t comply with the law on health and safety and security devices? You have several options, including invoking self-help to remedy the conditions yourself that you can then deduct from your rental payment, but since this article is premised on wanting to move out, you do have a right to terminate the lease and leave, subject to some rules.
First, you need give notice to the landlord of the condition, and I strongly suggest you send the notice via certified or registered mail so you don’t have to send two notices. If the landlord fails to remedy the condition(s) within a reasonable time (there is a presumption that 7 days is reasonable but depending on the nature of the condition, more time may be appropriate) and you’re not delinquent in rent payments, you can terminate the lease. You need to give written notice of termination, and you are entitled to a pro rata refund of any rent you paid in advance from the date you terminate or move out, whichever is later. You are also entitled to your security deposit minus any appropriate deductions, like pet damage, damage beyond ordinary wear and tear, debris removal, etc. You can also sue the landlord and recover one month’s rent plus $500 as a penalty plus any damages you incurred, such as moving costs or damage to property from the condition (i.e., if rainwater kills your belovèd Lite-Brite you never could let go of).
Let’s revisit you cretins who don’t want to live up to what you agreed to in the lease. You still may have options to get out. First, look back at all of the information above. Maybe you have conditions on the premises that affect your health and/or safety that you weren’t aware of, or maybe the landlord is breaching the lease in other ways. Even if you don’t think you have an excuse now to terminate, you may be able to find one and use it as justification for termination.
Now some practical considerations: It is always best to try to work it out with the landlord before rushing to terminate. You will often find landlords to be reasonable. It is sometimes better to make a deal than invoke the law. If you do terminate, there is a decent chance the landlord will take you to court for breach of the lease and payment of all the rent due under the full term of the lease. You of course will counterclaim saying the landlord breached first. The landlord may also make a credit report, which is never good, especially if you want to lease someplace else. You may have to take your landlord to court to get them to withdraw the report. This all leads me to the final, and arguably the most important conclusion: Hire a lawyer! This is not a pleasant process and there are many pitfalls that a lawyer can help you navigate. If hiring an attorney is simply out of the question, the Texas Attorney General’s office has important information online at https://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov/consumer-protection/home-real-estate-and-travel/renters-rights with a link to the Tenants’ Rights Handbook.
Best of luck to you all! You’ll need it without a lawyer.
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