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Background

I moved into a studio apartment that had a $200 rent reduction, valid for 6 months through the end of December 2017. An employee with the property management company had told me to reach out before the period ended to see if we could extend the promotion period indefinitely, because they had done so for previous tenants.

In November, I reached out via email to formally request the promotion be extended, and if not, I would move out immediately in January. The property manager at the time replied via email, saying she would get back to me shortly. (Note that I'm not sure of her official title, but all communications with the management company was through this employee.)

After 2 weeks of no response, I emailed again. An unknown amount of time after that email, I called in and reached the property manager directly. She then said casually that yes, they already agreed to let me continue with the same rent.

Current situation

Fast-forward to April 2018, where I receive notices at my apartment door that management has changed, and the employee mentioned above no longer works with the company. Another notice is later posted, saying I owe backdated rent from January. I reached out via phone and leaving voicemails, and I also send emails to ask for clarification.

I also contacted the building manager who resides in the same building, and he had told me to not worry as other tenants were receiving the same notices.

Fast-forward again to May, when I finally receive a phone call from the new staff with the management company, saying I owe the backdated rent due. I forward my email correspondence with the previous employee, and today, I am told over phone that the lack of written documentation means I owe the backdated rent. She also indicates that other tenants have been getting the same notices and phone calls, so this situation is not unique to me.

I then give my 30-day notice over email, as requested, and I receive a call back from the same employee, saying the owner will continue honor my rent discount promotion from June onwards, but only if I pay the backdated rent.

Question

Do I actually owe this backdated rent?

It's suspicious that there were no notices for late rent payments until after new staff was brought in. Aren't verbal agreements binding?

(Jurisdiction is US, state of California.)

  • 1
    Can they renege? Sure! And you can prove on at least a balance of probabilities that the conversation actually happened and take damages and/or costs. – Nij May 30 '18 at 5:35
  • Yes, I can definitely pull up phone records showing the call occurred. – oohaba May 30 '18 at 16:18
  • You can prove that a call occurred. That's not proving what the call was about or what was said. – Nij May 30 '18 at 19:30
  • Right. What are you suggesting I can prove? Or are you saying I'm out of luck here? – oohaba May 30 '18 at 21:09
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Your title doesn't quite match your question. "Reneging" would mean saying that a lease would be offered at the reduced rent, and then not offering the lease. Here, they offered the lease, and you accepted. So now the question is not whether they can refuse to offer you the reduced-fee lease, but whether they are owed the back rent.

Verbal agreements are indeed binding, but they are rather sticky from an evidential point of view. Also, there are other possible complications. If your original lease stated that verbal agreements are not binding, or that only specific people are authorized to modify the terms and the person you talked to is not such a person, then this is not binding. If after they said you could keep the rent reduction, you signed a lease for the full amount or otherwise indicated acceptance of the full amount, then it may be considered not binding.

Even if the agreement is not binding, you have further arguments. If you believed that it was binding, and did so out of good faith, then there was not a meeting of the minds, and they can't go after you for breach of contract. They may have other claims, such as damages if they can show that they could have gotten more money from another prospective client, but them accepting the rent makes that difficult to pursue.

Now, again, verbal agreements do have evidentiary problems. If your case were nothing than your word claiming that they agreed, you would not have much of a case. But here, you have:

-They were willing to take the lower rent for the initial period
-You stated that you would leave unless given a continued discount, and you stayed
-They didn't make any attempt to collect the full rent for three months
-They are willing to give you the discount if you pay the back rent

All of this points rather strongly towards your claim being true. You also say "this situation is not unique to me." It's not clear what they means, but if other tenants also got verbal assurances that the discount would continue, and they testify to that effect, then your case is even stronger.

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Generally speaking, you could rely on your course of dealings with the prior management company as evidence of the verbal contract modification for the rent reduction/credit. For example, you have several months of rent payments reflecting the discount, yet the prior management company accepted those payments without sending you any type of notice regarding late/insufficient rent.

Language in your lease could strengthen or weaken the course of dealing argument as well as provide additional arguments, so you should consult an attorney if there is significant money at stake.

Practically speaking, sounds to me like the new management company is just trying to get some extra money out of you since they are offering let you stay for the reduced rent (so presumably that is market rate.) I would treat the situation as a negotiation if you want to stay. How firm you want to be on not paying really depends on how much money is at stake, how much you like your current place, the inconvenience of having to move, etc.

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