Tag Archives: tenants

What Happens If Your Landlord Dies?

In previous articles I’ve addressed what a landlord should do if a tenant dies in the middle of a lease. However, I’ve not discussed the topic from the other side. So what happens to a tenant if the landlord dies?

Regardless of how you feel about your landlord’s death, you probably have some questions about what’s going to happen to your lease.

I’m not an attorney, and I certainly cannot cover every possible scenario. However, I can address some of the basic questions that may arise. As always, the discussions here pertain to apartments in the Chicago area.

Question 1: Do I have to move out?

No. Your lease is part of the property, just like the refrigerator, the garage and the roof. If the owner sells the building, he/she sells your lease along with it. If the owner dies, your lease continues. You do not have to move out automatically. Your landlord’s heirs cannot suddenly kick you out because they want to move in.

Question 2: Where do I send my rent?

You should continue to send your rent to the address listed on your lease. Once the landlord’s estate is settled, the probate attorney and/or the new owners who have inherited the property will send you written notice of any changes.

If your rent check comes back as undeliverable, hang onto it unopened in the envelope as proof that you tried.

Question 3: Who’s the new owner?

This is probably the most complicated question. It may take some time for the new owner to be determined, depending on how the property title was held. In other cases, the new owner could be able to step in within a matter of days. In the interim, the executor of the estate will become your main point of contact. This could be someone named in the landlord’s will or a court-appointed probate attorney. Either way, until you are notified in writing of a change in ownership, make sure all dealings regarding your apartment are handled in writing to the landlord’s address as listed on your lease.

If They’re Incorporated

If your landlord was incorporated – either as a corporation or LLC – with other partners, then you have nothing to worry about. The company will survive the death of the landlord. However, if the landlord was the only partner in the company, the entire company’s assets (including your lease) will pass on to the landlord’s heirs.

If They Have Heirs and a Legal Will

Provided the will is legal, the property goes to whoever is specified in the will. For all you know, it might even be you! (Maybe you should be nice to your landlord after all…)

If the landlord had a legal will and designated heirs, the property and your lease will pass on to the heirs specified in the will. These heirs will become your new landlords automatically, although it may take them some time to figure out who will be handling your specific concerns.

If They Have Heirs and No Will

It’s highly unlikely that your landlord will die without a will (“intestate”) but if so, the ownership will be determined through Cook County probate court. Illinois has a very specific order of preference for distributing property among remaining family. Children and living spouses are the first option, followed by parents and siblings, grandparents, great-grandparents, and if all else fails, the property goes to the next closest surviving relative. However, the property may well be distributed evenly among many relatives, so your property could wind up the subject of dispute between squabbling relatives. The most important thing in this case is to remain in close contact with the probate attorney appointed to handle the estate, as any official changes in ownership will come to you from them.

If They Have No Heirs and No Will

Again, this scenario is highly unlikely, but in the case that your landlord had no will and no surviving family, your building will become property of Cook County. (In legal terms, the property “escheats” to the county.)

If The Landlord Owes Outstanding Debts

What if your landlord died while still owing money to somebody? Regardless of what the will says, the landlord’s creditors have to be paid first. This may mean that your apartment will transferred in order to settle a debt. Three common situations where this could occur would be if the landlord had a mortgage on the property, if they had not yet paid contractors for major renovation work at the building, or if they had unpaid back taxes. Either way, the creditor gets your building and you along with it.

Question 4: Can I use this as a reason to break my lease?

Not really. The new owners who inherit the estate probably wouldn’t fault you for wanting to head out early, but since your lease is still valid and your apartment is still intact, you’ll have to follow the same lease break routine that you’d have followed if your landlord was still alive. Please be gentle with the relatives of your landlord when you go to discuss leaving – it is always a delicate and difficult situation.

Question 5: What if the owner lived on site?

All of the above is pretty much consistent if the landlord lived in the same building with you or not. However, if the landlord died in the building (I know, ew!) then you may have grounds for breaking your lease. A death on the property requires special clean up and care. Your property may be sealed for investigation by the coroner. If you can’t get into the property or it’s a health hazard, and the problem continues for over 72 hours, you do have a right to break your lease. The only problem is that you have to provide written notice to your landlord asking them to correct the problem, and figuring out who your new landlord is within 72 hours can be difficult.

Regardless, the most important things in this situation are to find safe substitute housing immediately – a hotel if you have to – and to cooperate with the authorities and the heirs in order to find out when you can safely return. This sort of extreme scenario would merit a call to an attorney to ensure that your needs remain prominent in the minds of those dealing directly with the death.

Question 6: What if my lease expires before the estate is settled?

Complicated estates can take months or even years to parcel out between heirs.

If you’re on a one year lease, it may well be that your lease expires before everything is resolved. Your lease expiration date, like all other aspects of your lease, remains valid even if the owner dies. In Chicago, a landlord has to provide you with at least 30 days written notice if they don’t intend to renew your lease. Unless your landlord did so before death, you have the right to stay in your apartment on a month-to-month lease.

If you choose to move out at the end of your lease, your course of action should be to send a letter stating as much to the same address where you send your rent, at least a month before the last day of the lease.

Question 7: How do I get my security deposit back?

This is probably the most complicated of all of the questions. The first step should be to provide your forwarding address to the executor of the estate when you move out, along with a reminder that they must return a list of itemized deductions within 30 days, and the balance of your deposit, with interest, within 45 days.

If the estate does not return your deposit before the deadline, you do have a right to sue them to get the money back.

Overall the most important things to remember in this kind of situation are:

  • Make sure your voice is heard. It is very easy in the process of settling an estate for the heirs to forget about the deceased’s renters. As soon as an executor is appointed, you must remain a firm presence in the process so that your needs are not forgotten.
  • Be kind and patient. The person who inherits your building may not have any experience as a Chicago landlord. Our landlord-tenant laws are some of the most complex in the country. It takes a while to learn how we do things around here. You’ll have to take some time to read up on the rules yourself, and you may have to gently coach your new landlord on how to do things the right way. Remember that they just lost a family member – please don’t take their inexperience as a reason to take advantage of them.
  • Seek help if you need it. These sorts of complicated situations are why professionals exist. You may deal with grief yourself over the loss, even if the landlord was not a good friend. If the estate spends a long time in probate you may need to consult with an attorney. Like it or not, the death of your landlord means that changes are headed your way, and not all of them will be predictable.


Cook Eviction Stats Part 10: Series Conclusion

About a year ago I encountered several urban legends about the Chicago rental environment that circle around the idea that the system is biased against landlords. I don’t like to see assumptions go unchallenged, so I set out to find out the statistical truth behind each of the component parts. Here are the original assumptions, with their results.

  • The courts favor tenants over landlords in eviction cases. FALSE.
  • The suburban courts, especially in wealthy areas, are more favorable to landlords when it comes to eviction. FALSE.
  • The evolution of the CRLTO is making the landlord-tenant situation progressively worse. TRUE.
  • Eviction only happens to bad landlords in bad areas of town. FALSE.
  • Lawyers and Juries have a marked effect on the outcome of eviction cases. POSSIBLE.
  • The CRLTO is biased against landlords. POSSIBLE.


Cook Eviction Stats Part 8: Lawyers and Juries

We’re talking about lawyers and juries and how they affect the eviction numbers today, along with some interesting data that I picked up along the way. This article is deviating a bit from the its predecessors in the series, in that I’m not going to be relying too heavily on the numbers I got from the Cook County Clerk. I’ve had to reach beyond to do some additional research. Instead of footnoting everything like I usually do, I will instead provided a bibliography of sources down at the bottom so you can read all of the reports at your leisure, if that’s your thing.

You can fit a couple of eviction hearings in the time it takes to cook Ramen.

I want you to imagine a scenario with me for a moment. You are a landlord. A tenant moved into your apartment in October. It is now February and you have not seen a rent check since the first month. The tenant has moved in a whole crew of additional occupants, and a pit bull. They have also apparently spent their rent money on a big screen TV, because you can see it on the floor of their apartment, leaning against the wall underneath the big hole that it left when it fell down.

You filed to evict in after the 2nd missed rent payment, in early December, like any good landlord. Due to the wait and the holiday season, your court date was scheduled for early February. You arrive in court. You’re ready to tell your whole story.

Talk fast. You’ve got 90 seconds in front of the judge. You have to split that with the tenant if they decide to mount a defense. Better know your stuff. (more…)

Cook Eviction Stats Part 7: What does this mean for tenants?

I’ve spent the past 6 sections of this study focusing mostly on what the Cook County/Chicago eviction statistics mean for landlords. It’s time to focus a little on what they mean for renters. I’m not a lawyer, and I’m not going to tell you how to win your eviction case. There are far better resources than me out there for saving your bacon. This article is focusing on the numbers.

A lot of you have been involved in eviction cases.

7 out of every 100 apartments in Chicago will be the subjects of eviction cases each year. Given that apartments often house more than one person, this means if you’re a renter in Chicago, you’ve got quite a bit more than a 7% chance of winding up involved in an eviction suit. (more…)

Are You Ready To Start Apartment Hunting? (A Quiz)

Slaying Dragons, Discarding Rings, Confronting Landlords

"I requested service six hours ago! Why don't I have hot water yet?" - Text message from tenant, 10pm, Feb 2 2011 - Snowpocalypse Chicago.


"Why should I have to pay for it? My lease says you will maintain the fixtures!" - 375 lb Tenant after breaking his toilet seat for the fourth time.


"I've got my lawyer on speakerphone and we will sue you if you don't fix the mailbox!" - First verbal report of a problem.

Customer service and long term contracts do not go hand in hand. From cell phones and cable providers to apartments and employers, once you're locked in to a long term contract you may cease to be a customer at all in the eyes of the company. In the case of a landlord, the desire for retention becomes even less important. The experienced landlord learns that your decision to stay or leave is more dependent on other factors in your life, like your income and your family status.


Lingua Franca: Thinking About the Language of Apartment Leases

Do you remember the first time you read Shakespeare in school? For me it was in seventh grade. I'd heard a lot of hype about him up until that point, but nobody had warned me about the strange, antique form of English he used and how difficult it was to understand. I hacked through it, but for a kid who was used to whipping through a couple of novels a day it was a pretty chastening experience. To paraphrase "Star Trek," it was English, but not as I knew it.

So here's an interesting bit of trivia. If you threaten to sue someone in the process of working on a Wikipedia article, you'll lose your editing privileges. The reasoning behind it stems from the "chilling effect" that legal threats have on other writers. Most folks are pretty scared of getting dragged into a courtroom, even if it's just as a witness. It's time consuming and the threat of going to jail or racking up massive fines is always present. TV shows like "Law and Order" have contributed to this idea that court is definitely a place to avoid.


A Way to Remember the Essential Services

If you're a Chicago landlord or tenant in an apartment covered by the CRLTO, you've got two levels of problems that can possibly arise. One type is your standard, run of the mill maintenance issue. For most of these, the landlord has 14 days from the time they are notified in writing of the problem to fix the issue before the tenant can invoke the law. Other problems are considered "essential services" and must be repaired within a much tighter timeframe: 72 hours.

True facts: "Aardvark" is the Afrikaans word for "Earth Pig." This here is a baby aardvark. This will make sense momentarily.


Holiday Gifts for the Chicago Renter

So last week I did a holiday shopping list for Chicago landlords. It's only fair that I spend some time speaking to the other side, too. There's plenty of sites out there oriented towards small-space decor, so I'm not going to dwell on items to frou-frou up an apartment. Instead, as is our way here, I'll be focusing on practical items for Chicago renters that address apartment annoyances and serve multiple purposes. As before, I'll offer a selection of price points from high end luxuries to tiny stocking stuffers.

Top Shelf

Portable Appliances. While many Chicagoans have moved on up to deluxe rentals with all the trimmings, your standard issue renter is dealing with a basic kitchen consisting of a stove, a refrigerator and a smattering of cabinets which may or may not date from 1972.

Standard issue Chicago apartment kitchen. (Actually, there's far too much storage for a Chicago apartment, but you know what they say. The camera always adds 10 cabinets.)

So there's some dispute over whether or not portable appliances are a violation of the Chicago lease. When you're shopping for them look for ones that use as little water & power as possible, and make sure that they will run on standard electricity.

That being said, I was terribly fond of my Countertop Dishwasher ($250-350) while I was still renting, and sold it to my next door neighbors when I moved into my condo. I've never personally tried one of the Portable Washing Machines ($50-100 for manual, $150-400 for automatic) but they're also quite popular, especially for delicates and uniforms that need to be washed daily. These items can be a little tricky to find at smaller vendors but I know Chicago-based Abt carries several different models of each.


A lot of these "gift ideas for renters" lists will talk about closet organizers and this is a great idea. However, a lot of those organizers require permanent installation, which is a bit much for a lot of renters (and may violate your lease). Storage space is definitely at a premium in many Chicago apartments, from the pre-industrial vintage units to condensed scions of the open-design high rise movement. It's a worthwhile endeavor to find gifts that help to maximize the available closets. Look for closet extender bars, which hang from existing closet hardware, or cascading hangers, which collapse vertically when not in use to save on space.

Your stove can hold a turkey or it can hold warm air, but not both at the same time.

Tiny ovens are a plague for many Chicago renters. Many are no more than 20" wide on the outside (about foot and a half on the inside), which means a lot of bakeware purchased for larger cooking spaces simply will not fit. A gift of narrow bakeware will be much appreciated and used consistently. Meanwhile, counter space is at a premium in many places too. An over-the-sink or over-the-stove cutting board ($25-50) can almost double your prep space in some cases.

Of course the other problem with cooking in a Chicago apartment is the presence of ionization-style smoke detectors. These react to particles in the air, meaning that they're very susceptible to false alarms from cooking and baking, or even a steamy shower. Three states have outlawed them but they're still allowed in Chicago and, being cheaper than the alternative, they're pretty prevalent in rentals. Rather than risking death by removing the smoke detector batteries, swap out the ionization-style detector for a photoelectric smoke detector ($15-20). They respond to heat instead of particles in the air and are equally responsive if not more responsive than the ionization detectors.

Does this look like your smoke detector? If it does, we are never ever ever hanging out together.

Dining rooms are a vanishing species around here, so if you're like me, you wind up stuck for places to eat if you have guests. A pack of four folding TV tables ($40-50) will be a welcome alternative to crouching over coffee tables or snacking at your computer. Also likely to be missing are coat closets. An over the door coat hanger ($15-30) or a more stylish coat stand ($60-150) will spare your renter friends from having to drape coats over chairs.

Stocking Stuffers

If Aunt Hilda is giving fruitcakes again this year this may not be necessary. But. Doorstops. ($5) Seriously. Almost every vintage Chicago apartment has at least one door that will not stay closed, be it due to frame warping or floor warping or simple changes in humidity that change the size of the door. The old-school, wedge-shaped doorstops in this case are used not to keep the door open, but to keep it shut. Sometimes you just need a little privacy, you know?

Like the portable appliances mentioned above, some amount of caution is required for this next one as it may violate your lease. However, broken buzzers are a common annoyance in Chicago multi-unit buildings, and many folks also come and go through the back door where there's no doorbell at all. A temporary, battery-powered wireless doorbell ($15-40) is not something that a renter would likely pick up for themselves but they'll probably find a way to use it.

When I first moved into an apartment my mother searched high and low to find a clothes drying rack. Not the big ones that rest on the floor, but the type made for motor homes that hang on a shower curtain rod. The collapsible, hanging drying rack ($7) pictured below is my favorite style, but other types are available.

Great for drying delicate items and darkroom photos. Or both at once if you're into that kind of thing.

I'm somewhat ambivalent about the idea of getting a replacement showerhead for your renter friends. Some people are very picky about how they like their water pressure. However, if you know your friend's showering preferences, a swank new showerhead is pretty easy to install and can make their daily ablutions far more enjoyable. Extra bonus for those of you with tall friends - a shower extension arm may be enough. Some folks have never enjoyed the wonder washing their hair without ducking. You can fix this today. Please. Think of the tall people.

Not Recommended

My personal vendetta against space heaters has popped up here and there over the past 10 months of writing this blog. Even if the newer models reduce some of the fire hazards of the old ones, you still need to bear in mind the impact on a tenant's electric bill. Electric heating & cooling devices have the biggest impact on electric usage of anything a person could own. Better to get them a selection of blankets & throws than a gift that keeps giving back to ComEd.

Space is at a premium in most apartments, so single-purpose appliances should be avoided. Versatile devices like stick blenders, rice steamers and toaster ovens are fine, but the yogurt-maker and the waffle iron may need to wait.

So what's on your list this year? Let me know if I missed a major item, and I'll see you on Wednesday.

Could Your Property Pass a Section 8 Inspection?

If you're involved in the rental business it won't be long before you hear about Section 8. Chances are good that you've heard of it even if you aren't involved with renting. It's bandied about by NIMBY residents who don't want poor people living in their neighborhood. You see, "Section 8" refers to a portion of the US Housing Act of 1937, which authorized the government to pay rent on behalf of residents who would not otherwise be able to afford it. While it generally is used by low income residents, it's also used in some occasions to assist people who have lost their homes to natural disasters, as was the case after Hurricane Katrina.

In Chicago it's administered by the Chicago Housing Authority and utilizes two main types of homes: those owned and managed by CHA, and privately owned apartment buildings throughout the city.

... Not that Section 8