A binding lease need not be written down on paper -- it can be an oral agreement.
This fact comes as a surprise to many tenants and nonprofessional landlords.
If they don't have a written contract, tenants often believe they can leave at will. And landlords believe that they can evict at will -- that is, tell the tenant to leave immediately.
More disturbing is that apparently many police believe this, too.
Every so often, we receive a complaint from a tenant who says that a landlord brought a policeman to the door, who told the tenant that unless he could show a written lease, the tenant was a trespasser; if he then doesn't leave immediately, he could be arrested.
Landlords have asked, "How can the occupant prove that he is a tenant without the proof of a written document?" We point out the obvious: the tenant has possession, usually has been there for some months, has rent receipts and, many times, witnesses who can verify the tenancy.
We also point out that when one has an oral lease, the law of Maryland acts as the lease.
Once in a while, the situation is less clear. Recently, a landlord complained that he gave keys to a tenant to view an apartment. The tenant liked the apartment, gave the keys back, and was to return with the first month's rent and the security deposit. The landlord soon discovered that the tenant had moved into the property -- having made an extra set of keys.
Since the landlord would be hard-pressed to prove that a lease does not exist, the best thing for the landlord is to file in Rent Court and give a proper notice ending the tenancy. In the future, the landlord would accompany a prospective tenant when he views the property, keeping the keys in hand.
Most oral leases are month to month, but one can have an oral lease for up to a year. Any lease for more than a year must be written if it is to be enforced.
We have come across very few oral leases for a year, but they can be useful. A tenant signed a year's lease with a landlord who stated that he would later sign the lease and send a copy to the tenant. The landlord then gave the keys to the tenant who moved in. The landlord did not give a copy of the signed lease to the tenant. A month later, they got into an argument.
The landlord told the tenant that he would not sign the lease, that the tenant was on a month-to-month basis, and that he was giving the tenant a month's notice to move. But the intent was to have a year's lease and possession was given. While the landlord could not be forced to sign the lease, the lease which the tenant signed was good proof of what was intended, and the tenant could claim a year's oral tenancy.
Written leases can run from one page to many pages. Simply because a written lease is many pages doesn't make it a better lease. Such a lease may simply outline Maryland law -- which is binding regardless of whether it is mentioned in the lease.
Written leases, to be effective and without controversy, should be signed by the tenant and by the landlord, or the landlord's representative.
Witnesses to signing a lease (or the notarizing of a lease) are not necessary. They could be valuable if one party denies signing it -- but this is rare.
The basic written lease usually outlines the relationship between the landlord and the tenant covering such items as: rent and security deposit, rent due day, beginning and end of tenancy, notice requirement to end or renew the lease, late charges, description of appliances and facilities, tenant's duties and the landlord's responsibilities, sublease information and tenant's right under the security deposit law.
L There is no model or standard lease -- no one perfect lease.
The former Governor's Landlord Tenant Law Study Commission of Maryland produced a good lease -- copies of which are available from BNI for the cost of copying -- 25 cents -- and mailing -- 52 cents.
George B. Laurent is executive director of BNI, or Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., a private non-profit group that works to resolve tenant-landlord problems and to eliminate housing discrimination.