Beware of Oral Leases When House Hunting in Baltimore

When you think of a lease, you probably picture a formally typed document outlining terms of your agreement to rent — some of it so laden with lawyer-speak, you hope you know what it is you’re agreeing to. But all that lingo serves a purpose to protect you and the landlord equally, which is why you’re always advised to have everything in writing before making any financial transactions. There are exceptions to this rule, however, and not all cities require written leases to be considered legally binding contracts.

In Baltimore, a tenant and landlord can enter into an oral lease, meaning there is no written agreement stating the terms of the lease. If you’re hunting for homes for rent in Baltimore, you should be aware of the rules and regulations for oral leases. While there are benefits to this sort of casual arrangement, there are also many dangers if you don’t know your local renters rights. Here’s what you need to know to avoid any mishaps with the oral lease when house hunting in Baltimore.

Homes For Rent in Baltimore and Oral Leases

What are the basics?

The first thing you need to know: Oral leases are legally binding in Baltimore, under certain conditions. But it’s not enough just to enter into this type of agreement, especially in today’s competitive rental market. Here’s what the Johns Hopkins Institutions pamphlet on landlord/tenant disputes advises:

“Yes. Oral leases are legal for lease terms of less than one year. However, a written lease is strongly recommended to help landlords and tenants avoid disputes.”

That about sums up the general consensus in Maryland: It’s a thing, but don’t bank on an oral agreement, alone, renters. While the ability to keep a lease so simple when searching for homes for rent in Baltimore is enticing, there are a plethora of things that can go wrong, for you or your landlord. But if you do somehow end up in a mutual oral lease, here’s what you need to know:

  1. Oral leases can only be for a term less than a year. No negotiating allowed here; if you’re going into an oral lease, you can’t bargain for lower rent for a longer lease without a written agreement.
  2. Landlords cannot provide oral leases unless they have four or fewer units in Maryland.. In the event they rent a fifth unit, they must offer you a written lease to review and sign.
  3. Subleases are also subject to an oral lease should the tenants and landlord agree. This is for anyone searching for short-term homes for rent in Baltimore.
  4. Oral leases do not give the landlord the right to evict you immediately. Landlords must go through a formal eviction process if they wish to evict you. On the flip side, an oral lease does not give the tenant the right to move out and break the agreement without proper warning.
  5. The lack of a written lease doesn’t mean renters don’t have rights to printed notices regarding their homes for rent in Baltimore. If your rental unit is located in a “flood plain”, for example, where there is increased danger of flooding, the landlord is required by law to provide tenants with a written notice before they agree to the terms of the lease. This applies whether you have a written or an oral lease.
  6. What’s the Downside?

    Unfortunately, the sky’s the limit in this case. While the oral lease is a legally binding contract in Maryland, its legitimacy is solely dependent on memory and good faith. Since it doesn’t require any witnesses or records outside of two strangers’ good word, there’s really nothing to protect you should the landlord “forget” about your agreement. There should be a novel on possible sticky situations, but let’s narrow it down a bit.

    Unsurprisingly,  there are many documented “miscommunications” involving oral leases, according to George B. Laurent, an associate of Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. He points us to this story, included in the BNI’s Tenant Intro Packet.

    “Occasionally, the situation is not clear. Recently, a landlord complained to BNI that he gave keys to a tenant to view an apartment. The tenant liked the apartment, gave the keys back, and was to come back with the first month’s rent and the security deposit. The next thing the landlord knew was that the tenant had moved into the property — having made an extra set of keys!”

    Robin Rothman of Colorado says, as a landlord, the idea of such an arrangement, which leaves a lot of room for personal interpretation and manipulation, makes her very uneasy.

    [bctt tweet=”I cannot fathom an oral lease — neither the legality nor the practicality” username=”Robin_R_Rothman”]

    She explained some of the finer points she needs in a lease, things that must be agreed to with ink, not promises.

    “I live in Colorado where a tenant might try to grow marijuana in the rental if I didn’t specify that it wasn’t allowed. I’m not anti-marijuana, but grow lights overheat, and people tend to grow more than they’re allowed, which makes me liable for property seizure.

    “Also, a bed bug policy is required. Treating for these tenacious beasts is costly and it’s critical to determine who’s responsible.”

    Other important points included in a traditional lease are a pet policy, the terms under which a landlord can enter a property, maintenance turnaround, mold policy, and a mountain of other things you need to know and have on-hand in case you forget.

    “Further, even having a valid lease is no guarantee of compliance,” continues Rothman, “so why risk something not being written down?”

    What’s the Upside?

    For some hunting homes for rent in Baltimore, oral leases offer a more flexible arrangement and a more easy-going relationship between a landlord and tenant. If a landlord isn’t concerned enough about the minute details to put them all down in writing, then perhaps the details aren’t very important — and why kill a tree unnecessarily? Likewise, if the tenant appreciates the flexibility and ambiguity of the situation, it might be the right option.

     

    Furthermore, this type of lease can actually protect the tenant in a sticky situation, according to BNI. Here’s another side of the story to consider:

    “A tenant signed a year’s lease with a landlord who stated 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 in 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 the landlord was giving him a month’s notice to move. Our lawyers pointed out that the intent was to have a year’s lease; the lease, which the tenant signed, was proof of what was intended and that tenant could claim a year’s oral tenancy.”

    So it’s not all bad. If you’re hunting homes to rent in Baltimore, keep this in mind before agreeing to anything verbally or in writing. If you do decide to go into an oral agreement (which, again, is not recommended), be sure to question the landlord at length about the terms of the agreement, and if something goes awry, contact Maryland professionals to uphold the bargain.