Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back Into The Real Estate Market: Congress Amends Obama Tenant Protection Law To Hurt Real Estate Investment

Remember the trumpeted financial reform bill that Congress passed in late July? You know the one, the new round of regulations that would abolish greed, protect us from Wall Street, the slap-on-the-wrist political payback for the bailouts, the kind of major legislation that results in hours of cable news face time for politicians standing in front of too many flags.

Not noticed among all of the pomp surrounding the law’s passage was a small provision within it pertaining to, oddly enough, state landlord-tenant law. Congress must have calculated that, while it was burdening even the most honest financial institutions with new regulations, it would be “germane” to take a shot at the real estate investor as well.

Whether the “financial reform” law delivers on all the windy promises or, more likely, is just another set of expensive regulatory and compliance headaches for law abiding firms that didn’t get bailout money, will have to await a future article. Tucked away inside the bill, however, and germane to this article, was an amendment to President Obama’s Protecting Tenants At Foreclosure Act.

If you read my June 15, 2010 post, I wrote about the Act at length. One of my criticisms was that the Act failed to define “Notice of Foreclosure”, a critical term for deciding whether a real estate investor at foreclosure purchased a tenant-occupied property subject to the tenant’s existing term lease. Prior to the Obama law, the answer was nearly always “no”, the new investor bought the property free and clear of all junior encumbrances, including leases, which were extinguished by the foreclosure sale.

Thus, the new investor knew when bidding that he could buy a tenant-occupied property and “flip” it, i.e. fix it up and offer a renovated and vacant property to the market in short order. Because “flippers” sell their properties at fire sale prices, the new family coming in could often times obtain the property with equity already in it. It is from this process of fresh investment and profitable transactions that the real estate market digs itself out of a recessionary hole with the resulting appreciation in values being a tide that lifts everyone’s boat.

Under pre-Obama law, the new investor had no reason to be concerned about tenant occupancy because he knew that the foreclosure sale wiped out the lease. Obama’s blow-hard Protecting Tenants At Foreclosure Act changed that. Now, a real estate investor buys at foreclosure subject to any existing term lease. (All other leases require a needlessly long 90-day notice to terminate).

Thus, if a tenant has a term lease with ten months remaining on it at the time of foreclosure, the tenant gets to stay for that ten months even if the lease came after the deed of trust foreclosed upon. In other words, the real estate investor is stuck. He has no way of knowing prior to the foreclosure sale whether the tenant has a month-to-month lease requiring a 90-day notice to terminate or a term lease with God knows how much time left on it.

The result is that investors will pass on tenant-occupied properties leaving the bank to credit bid and add to its glut of inventory of foreclosed properties or investors will lower their bids to take into account the investment uncertainty. Either way, the law’s result is the same, it slows recovery by either keeping fresh money out of the foreclosure process or it contributes to downward pressure on the real estate market because foreclosed properties will not realize their full bid potential. The law was completely unnecessary-and nothing more than political window dressing and pandering to the more numerous tenant voter-because existing state law already adequately protected the rights of tenants. 

Back to the language of the Obama law. Whether a term lease survived foreclosure depended upon whether it was entered into before “Notice of the Foreclosure”. However, Congress failed to define “Notice of Foreclosure” in the original text of the law. Congress fixed-for lack of a better word-that problem in the financial reform bill on July 21, 2010.

The term “Notice of Foreclosure” was critical to the law’s reach. If Congress defined “Notice of Foreclosure” to mean earlier in the foreclosure process, i.e. closer to the underlying default by the prior property owner, such definition would better serve the real estate investor since it would mean that fewer term leases would qualify and, as to those that did, less time would remain on them after foreclosure.

If, however, Congress defined “Notice of Foreclosure” further out, say closer to the actual foreclosure sale, such definition would be better for tenants because it would bring more term leases within the ambit of the law and such leases would likely have more time left on them after the foreclosure.

Would anyone like to guess which option Congress and the President chose? You guessed it. Congress chose the latter, determining in the fictional world of politics that the tenant does not get “Notice of Foreclosure” until the moment of the actual foreclosure sale.

In reality, the tenant knows about the foreclosure months before the sale. Also, the tenant doesn’t get notice of the foreclosure at the time of the property’s auction since the tenant isn’t present for it. Thus, Congress chose to define “Notice of Foreclosure” at the very instant in time where the tenant doesn’t get notice of the foreclosure. Since the law was political from its inception, however, it shouldn’t be surprising that logic and fact as considerations finished dead last in its wording. The effect of the Notice of Foreclosure definition is that any term lease entered into before the moment that the trustee bangs his gavel is enforceable against the new investor and the property is burdened with it.

Congress didn’t bother to clarify the more looming ambiguity in the law, namely, whether the tenant with a month-to-month lease must pay rent during the 90-day notice period required to terminate his tenancy. Since the law is a political sop for the tenant voter base, it follows that the law won’t even pretend to be fair to real estate investors. After all, Congress and the President instructing tenants to pay rent would ruin the political ambitions of the Obama law.

 

 

Common Issues in California Rental Property Management: Disposition of Tenant Personal Property Left After Conclusion of Tenancy

Your tenant vacates. You start the process of turning the property around but are astounded to find that the tenant has left behind a couple of car loads of his personal property. What do you do? Short answer: Be careful. Be very, very careful. The problem of seemingly abandoned tenant personal property occurs most commonly when the tenancy has ended on less than favorable terms, usually eviction. In my experience, tenants that leave property behind are the most troublesome ones and the most likely to re-appear in your life.

I have seen landlords and their insurance companies have to pay out big bucks to undeserving tenants because the landlord failed to follow the correct procedure for disposing of the tenants’ personal property. The rickety end table and orphan left tennis shoe may look like junk. And the tenant obviously didn’t care much about them. But that won’t stop the tenant from later claiming in his lawsuit that the flea market possessions which he left strewn about your rental property were really worth a king’s ransom. Follow the correct procedure and protect yourself.

If the tenant’s property is truly junk, the law allows you to keep or throw out any property that the landlord “reasonably believes” is worth less than $300.00 resale. In such a case, the landlord must serve the tenant with a notice, personally or by first-class mail, stating the landlord’s intention to throw out the property if the tenant doesn’t claim it within 15 days (18 days if service of the notice is by mail). The notice must be served on the tenant at the tenant’s last known address. I recommend to clients that they serve the notice at all known addresses for the tenant, including work addresses and relatives’ addresses written on the rental application.

If you do elect to throw out tenant property, make sure that you inventory and photograph the property. You must have a persuasive record of what property you threw out should the tenant come back at you later and claim that you threw away his valuables.

If the tenant’s property remaining on the premises likely exceeds $300.00 in value, the law provides a procedure for getting rid of the property that you must follow strictly. First, you must serve the tenant with a Notice of Right To Reclaim Abandoned Property. (I provide a form notice as part of a packet of forms that I give to my to landlord clients free of charge).

You may serve this notice on the tenant either personally or by first-class mail to the tenant’s last known address. To be safe, I also advise my clients to serve the notice on all known addresses of the tenant’s, including relatives listed on the rental application. You must also serve this notice on any other person, besides the tenant, that you believe may be the owner of the property.

The notice has strict content requirements relating to the description of the property and the place where the tenant may claim it and informing the tenant that he must pay the reasonable cost of storing the property before he can get it back. The notice must also state the deadline for the tenant to claim the property, which must be at least 15 days after the tenant is served with the notice (18 days if the notice is served by mail). The notice must provide the name, address, and telephone number of the landlord or his representative and a warning to the tenant that his property will be sold at auction if not claimed.

While waiting for the 15-day period to expire, I advise landlords to store the property at the premises if possible. If the tenant contacts them, I tell the landlords to set up a time for the tenant to come and get the property. When the tenant’s property is still at the premises, I tell clients not to bother trying to charge the tenant for “storage”. The reason that I tell clients to just let the tenant have his property is because the ensuing dispute isn’t worth the storage reimbursement. If the tenant shows up to claim his property and leaves without it, I guarantee you that the first place that he’s going after arguing with you over storage charges is straight into the open arms of the tenant attorney.

If the tenant has left so much property behind that it can’t be stored at the premises, such as the case where the tenant was evicted and didn’t move anything out beforehand, then you may have to move the property into storage. In such a case, the landlord is entitled to his moving and storage costs before he has to release the property to the tenant. I’m more inclined in such an instance to advise my client to stand on his rights to reimbursement before releasing the property because of the amount of expense, time, and trouble that the tenant has caused my client.

However, if the tenant does re-appear to claim his property, I advise clients to give the tenant an itemized list of storage and moving costs and supporting documentation. In any case where my client does release property to the tenant, I recommend that the landlord have witnesses to the tenant taking back his property and, if possible, that the landlord document the event with a camcorder.

So, what happens if the tenant does not claim his property within the 15 days? The property must be sold at public auction. Call an auction company. They’ll come and pick-up the property. An important point: once the auction date is set, make sure that you publish notice of the auction. Notice of the auction must be published once per week for two weeks in a newspaper of general circulation. If you fail to publish the notice, you are opening yourself up for liability to the tenant.

After the property is sold, the auction company takes its share, the landlord may be reimbursed for all costs of storage, moving and publishing notice. Any balance must be paid over to the tenant or, if he can’t be found, to the county.

As you can see, California law is complicated on this point. The best advice would probably be to just contact a lawyer if your tenant leaves behind any substantial amount of property. If the landlord follows the procedure, he’s protected from liability. If not, the landlord may have to bear the cost of an uninsured liability straight out of his own pocket.

Common Issues in California Rental Property Management: Security Deposits

A landlord in California may obtain from the tenant, at the inception of the tenancy, a security deposit of up to two months’ rent for an unfurnished premises and up to three months’ rent for a furnished premises. The security deposit may be in addition to the first month’s rent charged in advance.

The landlord must hold the security deposit for the benefit of the tenant. The landlord may only deduct from the security deposit for unpaid rent, damage to the premises except for ordinary wear and tear, and cleaning the premises so as to return it to the same condition that it was in at the start of the tenancy.

Where one party terminates the tenancy (other than for breach of the lease or failure to pay rent), the landlord must give the tenant, within a reasonable time after notice of termination, written notice of the tenant’s right to an inspection and advance notice of deficiencies that could result in deductions from the deposit. The tenant must then request the inspection. If the tenant does so, the landlord must inspect and give the tenant an itemized statement of problems with the property’s condition so that the tenant has the opportunity to correct them prior to move-out. The parties then typically schedule a final walk-through where the landlord can check to see if the tenant has corrected the problems.

The landlord has 21 calendar days after the tenant vacates to give the tenant, by personal delivery or by first-class mail, an itemized statement showing all deductions from the security deposit and return to the tenant any unused portion of the deposit. For all deductions, the landlord must also provide supporting documentation such as invoices, bills, receipts, etc. If the landlord fails to account for the security deposit to the tenant, the tenant may sue for return of the deposit. If the tenant can show that the landlord’s retention of the deposit was in bad faith, the court may award the tenant a statutory penalty of up to two times the amount of the deposit.

Common Issues in California Rental Property Management: Tenant Abandonment

Tenants who are behind in the rent commonly just pack up and go without saying a word to the landlord and with time left on their lease. When you believe that your tenant has fled under cover of darkness and that your rental property is now uninhabited, what should you do?

The answer has two parts. First, you need to terminate the tenancy and prevent the tenant from returning. California law provides a simple method to achieve that goal. The landlord in such a circumstance need only serve a Notice of Belief of Abandonment on the tenant. (I provide a form notice as part of a packet of forms that I give to my to landlord clients free of charge). When can the landlord serve such a notice? The tenant must be fourteen days behind in the rent. The landlord must also “reasonably believe” that the tenant has abandoned the premises.

By “reasonable belief” the law means that the landlord must have facts that reasonably lead him to the conclusion that the tenant has left, facts such as accumulating mail or newspapers, disconnected phone or utilities, lack of vehicles, failure of the tenant to answer the door, and, if it’s possible to see in from the outside, the appearance that the premises are empty. Just to be sure, I advise clients to post a 24-hour notice of entry on the door and then return the next day and enter the premises to check if the tenant has moved out.

The next step is to serve the notice. The notice must be in writing and served at the tenant’s last known address, which is usually your rental property. I also advise clients to serve the notice to all addresses where the tenant is likely to receive it such as work addresses or the addresses of relatives stated on the rental application. The notice can be served either personally or by first-class mail.

Once the landlord serves the notice, the tenant has 15 days (18 days if the notice was served by mail) to respond in writing. In the response, the tenant must state that he has not abandoned the premises and must provide the landlord with an address where the tenant may be served by certified mail with any eviction case. If the tenant does not provide such a writing within the 15 or 18 day time period, then his tenancy is deemed terminated and the landlord may re-let the premises. The landlord is also free to serve a 3-day notice to pay rent or quit at any time permitted by the lease.

Second, the tenant’s abandonment does not cut-off his obligation to pay rent. The landlord must use reasonable efforts to find a new tenant. If the landlord does so, the abandoning tenant is still obligated for the rent through the end of the term. The tenant’s obligation ends when the landlord finds a new tenant, assuming that the new tenant is paying the same or higher rental rate. Once a new tenant is found, the landlord will be able to calculate the lost rent due to the tenant breaking the lease and may sue the former tenant.