Verbal agreements tossed out for trespassing

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Landlords urged to get leases in writing

It is Benjamin Franklin who is credited for saying, “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.”

In the state of Missouri, a guest, welcome or not, becomes a tenant after 30 days, which can lead to nightmares for landlords trying to evict non-leaseholders from a property.

In recent weeks, the Monett Police Department has been called to two separate properties concerning unwelcome tenants or trespassers.

The first case involved a property owner who had purchased a home to remodel. Vagrants identified the home as being vacant and moved themselves in without permission from the property owner.

“On the criminal side, their breaking in constituted criminal trespass and burglary, which is a felony,” said Lt. Dennis Camp, with the Monett Police Department. “Opening an unlocked or partially opened door, without the owner’s permission, is unlawful entry. If they commit property damage, that is also considered burglary. The police department can deal with the criminal activity.”

In that case, the perpetrators were known to law enforcement officials through previous encounters.

“They were taking advantage of a vacant property to shelter from the weather,” Camp said. “They are, in a sense, couch-surfing. However, it is a criminal act. Law enforcement can remove them and they can be arrested for trespass, burglary and property damage.”

When it comes to landlord-tenant disputes, things become more complicated.

“In that case, it becomes a civil dispute, and law enforcement can’t intercede,” he said. “In the case involving the landlord, we interviewed the people in the home as well as the landlord. We generally won’t remove someone from their home. Their home is their castle, and even if they fail to pay rent on time, we don’t get involved in actions that are civil in nature.”

In this case, the property was rented to an individual for a short time, under oral agreement.

“An oral agreement obligates the landlord and tenant for only one month,” Camp said. “A landlord can evict the tenant or raise rent with only one month’s written notice. Oral notice, by either party, is not valid.”

A landlord can move to terminate a lease when the tenant does not pay the rent, at the end of a written lease, if a tenant damages the property, when the tenant violates the condition of a written lease or when the tenant becomes involved in criminal activity.

If a tenant moves out before the end of a lease, there is the option of sub-leasing, but only with the landlord’s permission.

“In that respect, other people allowed to move in with the original tenant, even without the landlord’s permission, have established tenancy under that lease agreement,” Camp said. “At that point, they are subject to official eviction proceedings through the court system.”

According to Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, those who sublease are still responsible to the landlord for the original lease payments and other terms. They can also be held responsible for any problems created by the new tenant. Missouri law allows the landlord to double the amount of rent if a tenant subleases without approval.

According to Schmitt, landlords cannot turn off the utilities or water in an effort to make a tenant move.

“Nor should they remove the doors to the property,” Camp said. “That is not the right thing to do. And even though a landlord might be under orders from the city to clear a property, it’s not right to go into a tenant’s home and start throwing their belongings onto a trailer for disposal.

“Once the sheriff serves the notice of eviction, if the tenants refuse to vacate the property, deputies and the sheriff are allowed to go in and physically remove them, if necessary,” Camp said. “Personally, I have never seen that done in my entire career.”

The bottom line is, landlords and tenants should insist on a written contract to protect both of their interests.

“A written contract outlines the responsibilities of both the landlord and tenant,” Camp said. “There is no confusion, and one party can’t make unsubstantiated claims against the other.”

From the Monett Code Officer’s view, this is a catch-22 situation.

“This is a civil matter,” said Trent Thompson, code officer. “The landlord has spoken to me regarding the situation, and I have printed off everything he needs to do to correct the situation. It’s not all that difficult, but it can get expensive.

“It can cost a landlord between $700 and $1,000 to hire a lawyer to make sure the paperwork is filled out and filed correctly. In the meantime, the landlord is stuck with people who are not paying rent, who are destroying the home inside and out, and he can’t get rid of them without going through the court system.”

Thompson said he has run into similar situations in the past.

“In one instance, someone rented a place and moved her son in later,” he said “She died, and the son had established tenancy and refused to pay rent. Although he had no contract and was not paying rent, he was granted tenancy under the law. It’s a very convoluted and frustrating process.”

And, while the landlord is allowed by law to double the rent, collecting it is another matter.

“They’re already not paying rent,” Thompson said. “They will just continue not paying the doubled fee. The landlord is still left with nothing. In the meantime, he can’t make repairs to the property or work on the property or anything else.”

Thompson can certainly sympathize with landlords suffering similar circumstances, but, by law, he is not able to act on civil matters.

“My authorization ends at nuisances,” he said. “I can go and request permission from the tenant to inspect the property, but I have to be invited in. And those who are working the system won’t do that. Even if there is a nuisance violation, it goes back to the landowner of record, not to the tenant.”

Thompson said issues of this nature have become more commonplace in the past three years.

“There is a network of people who have learned how to work the system,” he said. “They know they have more time, until the landlord can get a court-ordered eviction.”

Not only do landlords ask for assistance in getting rid of deadbeat tenants, those same renters often call code enforcement to report repairs not being made in an effort to embroil the property owners they claim are not in compliance as well.

“Everybody is a lawyer,” Thompson said. “Tenants call complaining that the landlord won’t fix this or that, and as a result, they have quit paying rent. They can’t do that either. But, it is still a civil issue.

“This is not a problem unique to Monett,” he said. “It’s going to become more prominent as people learn how to continue to get away with it. Once they are evicted, they just move on to the next place and it starts all over again.”

Changing the laws on landlord-tenant responsibilities is beyond the scope of what local code enforcement and law enforcement officials can do.

“Until the Missouri Attorney General, the Missouri House and Senate sit down and re-draft the laws to offer more protections to the landlords who may get stuck with a bad tenant, we have to follow the law,” Thompson said. “In the meantime, I strongly urge all landlords to rent properties with a contracted lease agreement. They also need to vet the tenants, and not rent to just anybody. Get a security deposit.

“Those contracts can go a long way in preventing matters of this nature, and they offer the landlord some protections as well.”

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