June 20, 2009 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
While I’m not a good cook, I do have the perfect recipe for anyone who would like to become the victim of a crooked landlord. This recipe is based on an e-mail received from “Maria” in Southern California.
Skewered tenant in chicken broth
(1) One ripe for being ripped-off, first-time tenant, middle-aged woman afraid of her shadow and especially of macho men.
(2) One part macho, greedy, dishonest, verbally abusive landlord; (Aside from that, he’s a really great guy.)
Add: One building, single-standing structure with parking lot, to be called Maria’s Family Restaurant.
Mix ingredients and then add lease, biased in favor of the landlord, containing a paragraph which reads, “Tenant is leasing the entire building and parking lot. Should tenant consult a lawyer to review the lease, or should tenant propose any changes at all, landlord will refuse to rent and any funds deposited will be forfeited.” Additional language in the lease requires tenant to pay her share of common area maintenance charges.
Have tenant sign lease without review by an attorney, move in, spend several thousand dollars in improvements. Bake at 98.6 for 12 months and observe restaurant business grow. Every month, have landlord bill tenant $1,086 for common area maintenance charges, but refuse to repair A/C or heater when they fail.
Remove from oven, and have landlord mail tenant the following notice:
“We will be sending in a crew to repair handicapped spaces in your rear parking lot and install a new ramp to protect landlord from lawsuit. This will not be charged to you.”
Months later, have landlord next send a bill to tenant in the amount of $8,000 for the ramp. Put back in oven. Turn up the heat. When tenant cannot pay, landlord parks a For Lease sign in front of the restaurant, interfering with the business, even though rent has been paid on time every month.
Why this recipe will make you sick
If you recall an earlier story we did on common area maintenance charges, then you know they refer to literally, “common areas,” where several tenants both benefit from and contribute to the cost of maintaining parking lots, lighting, janitorial, gardening services and so on.
But, what if there’s only one tenant? Can there be “common areas” if you are the only tenant? That’s the legal issue.
“There can’t be any [common area maintenance] charges when you are the only tenant,” Southern California Attorney and real estate author John Linford told me, shaking his head in disbelief when I ran the facts of this case by him.
I’ve known John for years and respect his belief that it is the duty of every landlord to be fair to tenants — and the duty of tenants to pay rent on time.
“Beav, you and I both know that [common area maintenance] charges are for maintenance only, not capital improvements, such as a handicap ramp. That’s something which makes the property more useful to the landlord, and legally cannot be passed along to the tenant. Maria is being ripped off. Tell her to get into a lawyer’s office today. I have never heard of such a thing. Her landlord sounds like he is a member of the Soprano family.”
When her e-mail came in, all I had was a name — Maria — but no phone. So, I e-mailed back, “Please call me at once — you are being ripped off.”
It was not Maria, but her 28-year-old daughter who returned the call, hours later. When I said that they needed to see a lawyer immediately, that statement was met with, “Really? Do you think so? We don’t want to cause any trouble,” the giggling daughter replied. She sounded like a 12-year-old going on 7.
“Yes, I do think so. Your mom is being cheated. You need to find a lawyer in your part of California today,” I said in my “call 911” tone of voice. “Call me so that I know she is getting legal help. This is serious stuff. Your mom is a crime victim. I am not exaggerating.”
The longer we spoke, it became clear that I was witness to a total disconnect — a complete failure to see how much of a mess they were in, how completely unprepared they were to go into business and become commercial tenants in the first place.
It just made me mad — both at them for their own stupidity, and possible other family members who needed to do everything possible to stop Maria from getting into business without first seeing a lawyer.
Two days later, no call. I e-mail Maria. “What is happening?”
She replies, “I can’t find a lawyer to help me. I just got a bill from my landlord for taxes — $12,000 the first year, $7,000 the second.”
Despite sending them several follow-up e-mails, I never did hear from Maria or her daughter again. I doubt that I ever will.
Did they eventually find a lawyer? I can only wonder. That’s the frustrating part for me, in writing this column.
But it’s more than frustration, almost as if I were a ship’s radio operator on April 14th, 1912, in the North Atlantic, sending out a Morse Code message which would read: WARNING ICE! TITANIC DO YOU COPY?”
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.