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Make tenant with leaky roof an offer they can’t refuse

Dear Benny: My father died five years ago and left his home to my mom and me.

The home is historic, about 70 years old, and has cathedral, open-beam ceilings. The home has had a series of four roof leaks that I have patched up; the roof is 20 years old.

Roofers don’t offer much of a warranty for their work based on the age of the home. Our tenant is asking for a rent reduction based on the ongoing roof leak problems.

We have offered to pay the tenant’s moving expenses and allow the lease to be broken, but the tenant doesn’t want to go. So I am faced with a costly roof replacement or unreliable/unwarranted but cheaper repairs.

What are the landlord-tenant laws dealing with this issue? Our attorney is drawing a blank. — Ann

Dear Ann: Perhaps you should find a different attorney in your area who has knowledge of and experience with the laws in your jurisdiction.

The landlord-tenant laws are very different from state to state. Where I practice law in the District of Columbia, the laws are extremely tenant-favorable. On the other hand, in Virginia, the laws are either neutral or pro-landlord.

However, I suspect that in every jurisdiction, if you have a leaking roof, your tenant has the right to complain and ask that you either fix the problem or reduce the rent.

You have made a good-faith offer to the tenant, which was rejected. This may be a defense, should the tenant decide to file a lawsuit against you. But you do not want to get involved in litigation; many jurisdictions have free (pro bono) attorneys or even law students who will assist tenants.

My suggestion: Perhaps you can make the tenant an offer he/she cannot refuse.

When I represent landlords, we often tell the tenant, “If you move out in 30 days, we will give you your last month’s rent back plus XX dollars. If you move out in 60 days, we will only give you back your last month’s rent.”

But I am a little confused. If you are prepared to do the costly repairs, why can’t you do that while the tenant is still in the property? What do you gain by asking the tenant to leave? Why lose a good, paying tenant?

Dear Benny: Five years ago I purchased a house when the market was up.

My plan was to sell it to my daughter after one year. I paid $320,000 for the house and it is now worth $170,000.

My daughter couldn’t get a loan now for $320,000 because the house is worth only $170,000.

A friend of a friend wrote up the loan papers and arranged the loan and home equity line of credit. It was about six months after everything closed that I got a letter from the loan company and realized I had an interest-only loan. I had never heard of that type of loan, and the man who arranged the loans never once told me what type loan it was.

I am 62 years old and a two-time cancer survivor. I would really like to figure out some way of getting out from under the stress of this house.

I know there are millions of people in similar situations. I have paid the loans, never been late, but can’t continue this way.

I have a renter who would like to buy the house but she can’t afford $320,000, either. What can I do? — Sue

Dear Sue: I suggest you immediately get an attorney in your area to review all of the loan documents that you obtained when you bought the house.

If you cannot afford an attorney, local bar associations have programs where lawyers will volunteer their time to assist on such matters. Also, your local AARP may have a legal services program.

It may be that your lender has violated some lending requirements. You indicate that you were not aware of the terms and conditions of the loan; this may be a truth in lending, called TILA, violation, or a Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act, known as RESPA, violation or both.

Lenders are required to provide you with a good-faith estimate of closing costs, as well as a TILA statement before closing the loan. This would have disclosed the interest-only feature of your loan.

Additionally, there are federal and state programs now in place to assist homeowners who are underwater. You should contact your state and federal legislative representatives for more information.

Finally, you should contact your lender to explain the situation. Tell them that you cannot continue to make payments on the loan and, unless they agree to modify it to a fixed 30-year loan at the current low interest rates, you may have to go into default.

I would talk with your lender immediately, as interest rates are starting to creep up.

I hope this has taught you and my readers a valuable lesson. You relied on a friend to assist you. Some friend.

Before you sign any documents relating to real estate — whether that be a real estate sales contract or any loan documents — please make sure that you read them carefully. If you don’t understand anything, get advice from professionals.

Benny Kass is a practicing attorney in Washington, D.C., and Maryland. No legal relationship is created by this column. Questions for this column can be submitted to benny@inman.com.

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