Q: My husband and I own a condo in St. Paul, and our renter signed a lease that goes through May 1, 2021. She now wants out of the lease for personal reasons related to COVID-19. She is now able to work from home and wants to live with her son in another state. We have no early-termination clause in our lease except for being in the military. We don’t want to terminate the lease at this time because of the hardship it puts on us, such as how difficult it may be to find a renter during this downturn and showing the condo during COVID-19. We aren’t sure what to do. Can you please advise?

 

A: In Minnesota there are legal reasons for a tenant to terminate a lease early, which include joining or transferring in the military, a disability that makes the unit unlivable for a tenant, a tenant’s death, domestic abuse or a clause in the lease allowing for early termination. Since you do not have such a clause, except for military reasons, then you need to work with your tenant to find the best solution for both of you. In most states a landlord has a duty to mitigate their damages and try to re-rent the place when a tenant breaks the lease, but Minnesota has not yet adopted this rule. A lease is a binding contract, and the tenant is responsible to pay the rent for the duration of the lease, whether they live there or not. However, Minnesota landlords typically don’t leave a rental unit open until the lease ends, as it is easier to have a tenant paying rent than it is to collect rent from a former tenant. Courts generally don’t allow a landlord to collect double by receiving a rental payment from the previous tenant and a new tenant.

You should try to work with your tenant to see if she’s willing to pay two or three months’ rent in order to terminate her lease early. This will give you some time to find a new tenant, and give her some relief from paying the entire 12 months. If your tenant agrees to pay two or three months’ rent to terminate her lease early and move out of state, or agrees to any other arrangement, make sure to get the agreement in writing and signed by both parties.

Stuck with plumbing bill

Q: It’s been 43 days since my husband and I vacated the townhouse we rented for two years, and our landlord has finally sent us our deposit. The problem is he withheld $162 for a bill for plumbing services to replace a toilet handle and valve and sent us the plumber’s bill as proof. Are we responsible for this? We were not willfully negligent, careless or abusive, and the handle was workable when we vacated. It was just difficult to flush. We did a complete walk-through with the landlord, and the difficulty of flushing that handle was discussed.

It seems like a no-brainer to me. If I had called him during my tenancy about a difficult toilet handle, he would’ve had to come and fix it at his expense, right? Are we responsible for this? I don’t want to be taken advantage of.

A: Minnesota law states once your tenancy ends, the landlord has 21 days to mail you the entire deposit or a partial deposit with an itemized list of deductions explaining why they are keeping some of the deposit. Your landlord can make deductions from your security deposit only for a debt still owed to the landlord such as past rent, or for any damages to the unit beyond ordinary wear and tear. What is considered ordinary wear and tear can be subjective. When tenants rent a place for a year or more, the place isn’t going to look new or in the same condition as it did on the day they moved in. Furthermore, state law doesn’t require the rental unit to be left in the same condition as it was on move-in day.

You should contact your landlord and state that in addition to being 22 days late in returning your security deposit, there was a deduction for repair to a toilet handle that is most likely ordinary wear and tear. You should mention that toilets and plumbing services are typically a landlord’s responsibility, unless the tenant was negligent of some wrongdoing that affected their use of the toilet. You should also ask for the return of your $162 as soon as possible or you will pursue a court action. If the landlord refuses to return the $162, you can file a claim in the county where the rental is located.

 

Kelly Klein is a Minneapolis attorney. Participation in this column does not create an attorney/client relationship with Klein. Do not rely on advice in this column for legal opinions. Consult an attorney regarding your particular issues. E-mail renting questions to kklein@kleinpa.com, or write to Kelly Klein c/o Star Tribune, 650 3rd Av. S., Minneapolis, MN 55488. Information provided by readers is not confidential.