Never Rely on "Oral" Modifications to a Lease

Manylandlord-tenant disputesarise because of differing interpretations of the parties' lease. Remember, a lease is a written contract, and like any contract, a court will look to its express terms in determining what the parties agreed to. This can prove especially important when one party claims there was a subsequent “oral” modification to the lease.

Always Get a Lease Modification in Writing

Consider a common type of lease dispute—the return of a security deposit. Landlords require such deposits to insure against any damage to the leased premises caused by the tenant. A well-drafted lease should address how and when a deposit must be returned and what deductions the landlord may take.

In arecent case, a judge in upstate New York rejected a tenant couple's effort to recover their full security deposit from a former landlord. The tenants rented an apartment from the landlord for approximately two years, for which they provided a $2,000 security deposit. After moving in, the tenants asked the landlord for permission to make several changes to the unit, including the installation of new light fixtures.

Under the parties' written lease, any “alterations, installations, and improvements shall become the property of Landlord.” In other words, when the tenants moved out, any new fixtures they installed had to stay in the apartment. Only in this case, the tenants removed their fixtures upon vacating the premises at the end of the lease.

The tenants later claimed the landlord orally agreed they could remove and keep their fixtures. The landlord disagreed and withheld over $1,000 from the tenants' security deposit, citing the cost of replacing the removed light fixtures. The couple then filed suit in Glens Falls City Court, seeking a refund of their full deposit.

Although the court awarded the tenants $56 in damages and costs related to another charge made by the landlord, the judge rejected the couple's argument with respect to the light fixtures. Not only was the lease clear that all such light fixtures remain property of the landlord, but any modifications to the lease had to be in writing. Although New York courts may still recognize an “oral modification” notwithstanding such a clause, the judge declined to do so here. Among other reasons, the court noted one of the tenants was a “practicing attorney” and “could easily have memorialized this oral modification in a confirming letter or email to the defendant.” Neither tenant could convincingly recall the exact words the landlord used when he allegedly consented to the removal of the light fixtures.

Need Help With a Real Estate Matter?

Although you need not be a lawyer to negotiate a simple residential lease, you still need to take the lease as a contract seriously. Never assume you may take a certain action not expressly permitted by the lease, and never rely on an offhand conversation with a landlord as proof the lease has been modified. Getting everything in writing upfront can save you time and money in the long run.

If you do need assistance with a more complex lease, such as for commercial property, or you are involved in any other property dispute, you should contact an experienced New York real estate attorney right away. Contact the offices of Waldhauser & Nisar, LLP, to speak with someone today.