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Before moving to a new town, I was in contact with a landlord about renting an apartment from her. In the emails, I specifically requested a month to month lease as I did not want to commit to a year, and she told me that I could do that with the penalty of an extra $100 per month. So if I signed the 1 year lease it would be $1050/month and for the month to month lease it would be $1150/month. I agreed that was exactly what I wanted, and we continued talking about when I would be moving in, etc. When I arrived in town, I met with her to sign the lease and get the keys, under the impression that everything we had discussed in the emails would be what was in the lease. I admit that it was my mistake that I should have read through the lease more thoroughly, but here is my current situation.

Around April 20th, I emailed my landlord asking to give her 30 days notice as I am wanting to move. Her reply was that if I do that, I will be breaking my 1 year lease, and if I want to do that, we will have to discuss my options. To my shock I replied to her that I did not sign a 1 year lease, we had discussed and agreed that I only wanted month to month, and I am paying the $1150/month that she had clearly stated in our emails was the cost for the month to month lease. She then replied, the lease states it is for 1 year, if I want to come in and speak with her about options then I can.

I then went to my lease, and sure enough, she had written the dates for 1 year rather than month to month. I understand that I should have more thoroughly looked through the lease and that is on me, but do the emails count as well?

When I went in to speak with her, I tried to bring up what she had said in the emails, she kept interrupting me and and her only response was that in any sort of misunderstanding or dispute, we always refer back to the lease. I brought up how she clearly stated in the emails about the different amounts per month whether I signed a month to month lease or a year long lease, and all she had to say was how that is not stated in the lease so it is not relevant. I tried to say that according to the emails, I am overpaying $100 per month and she now owes me money ($600 now as I have paid for 6 months) and she repeated, that is not stated in the lease so its not relevant. She is also saying that I owe $250 for breaking the one year lease.

I guess what I am asking is, can she do this, and is it true that the emails are not relevant?

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The emails are not completely irrelevant, but the terms of the actual signed lease are vastly more relevant. You have some reason (based on emails) to believe that you would be getting a month to month lease for $1150 / mo., and you believed that the alternative was a year lease for $1050 / mo. But you were presented with and signed a lease for 1 year at $1150 / mo. The fact that the landlord accepted your payments at $1150 shows nothing about the presumed duration of the lease.

The emails are weak evidence about the agreement, and their exact wording would have to be scrutinized. If at the end of the email negotiations the landlord offered a month to month lease for $1150 per month (saying exactly that) and you then accepted, you have a bit of a leg to stand on. But if the landlord initially suggested a yearly lease for $1050 but eventually changed the terms in the course of the emails, you may have misunderstood her intent (perhaps she arbitrarily decided to up the rent). The issue is, exactly what did you agree to: which thing constitutes the agreement?

  • I disagree that the landlord's acceptance of $1150 "shows nothing about the presumed duration of the lease" because it seems unconscionable that a landlord would charge the OP (and only this particular tenant) a higher amount than the rest of tenants leasing similar units --with similar services & conditions-- in the same apartment complex. Of course, I'm assuming that there are other tenants so that making a comparison is possible. – Iñaki Viggers May 10 at 23:22
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    Do you have any case law to support the position that charging a tenant a higher rate than "comparable units" has ever been found legally unconscionable, anywhere? – user6726 May 10 at 23:32
  • I know (about your removed comment), hence why I was "assuming there are other tenants". I was based on the common practice among landlords [in apartment complexes] to charge penalties for breaking the lease and this landlord's apparent inflexibility, whereas "individual" landlords tend to be more flexible. No, I have no case law (and no plans on searching for it), but it seems contrary to the contract law covenant of fair dealing if there are other tenants from whom comparison is feasible and no apparent justification for the surcharge to only this particular tenant. – Iñaki Viggers May 10 at 23:37
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    It does not seem contrary to fair dealing to charge various prices to various people. The implied covenant is between the parties to a contract and obliges the parties not to break their word, avoid obligations, or deny what the other party obviously understood. law.cornell.edu/wex/…. – A.fm. May 12 at 16:03
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Signed contract documents are presumed to be definitive

The parol evidence rule prevents evidence being used to challenge unambiguous terms in a signed document. People in negotiations adopt and abandon many positions so when they sign a contract evidence of their positions before that are irrelevant.

Unless you can show misleading and deceptive conduct under relevant consumer protection law (unlikely) or deliberate fraud (very unlikely) you are stuck with what you signed - showing you had read, understood and agreed to it.

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can she do this, and is it true that the emails are not relevant?

Typically the lease would be decisive regardless of prior negotiations. But here the terms of the lease might have been superseded by the parties' subsequent conduct: You paying $1,150/monthly for six months and the landlord simply accepting the excess.

In this case, the crucial detail is whether or not the landlord's monthly bills from the 2nd month and thereafter deducted the extra $100 you had been paying each month. Absent such deductions in those bills, this reflects that the landlord essentially agreed to override the explicit contract that you signed (i.e., the year lease) with the implicit contract consisting of month-to-month lease that you two negotiated. As such, she is not entitled to remedies because no year lease existed and therefore none is breached.

The existence of prior emails where the landlord agreed to do a month-to-month lease reinforces your legal position.

The controversy will be more intricate (at least on your end) if the bills reflected the aforementioned deductions. That is because your ongoing payments of $1,150 make it harder to ascertain whose burden it was to clarify the confusion. This would require assessment factual particularities (perhaps even of subtleties) so as to discern whether either party's conduct violated the contract law covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

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A contract is a contract is a contract. The emails could be relevant if you took her to small claims court to protest the lease; but again, the judge is more than likely going to say you were responsible for reading the lease before you signed it. The landlord was unethical in writing the lease their way after you discussed it being written differently, and at this point in time when you are moving out, is being unethical and clearly ignoring what was communicated in pre-signing emails. But again, you signed the lease without reading it and protesting at that time. Not everything that is unethical is actually illegal.

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