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Ask Sam: Do I have to pay rent if my landlord never gave me a signed copy of the lease?

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Dear Sam: In August, I signed a renewal of my current lease for two years, at an increased price. However, I have never received a counter-signed lease back from the landlord or property manager, in spite of numerous requests (they tell me it’s been lost in the mail, etc.). Since I never received a legally binding contract, I haven’t paid the increase, and now my landlord says I owe back rent for the past 5 months. Is it a valid lease in New York if only the tenant signs the lease and has no copy of a countersigned lease within a reasonable amount of time?

"Under New York law, if you're not in a rent-regulated apartment, there's something we call the 'Stevie Wonder rule'— the lease has to be signed, sealed, and delivered," says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations. "For the contract to be binding, it has to be signed by both parties, with a copy delivered back to the tenant."

Which means that your current lease is not binding, but—and this is a major 'but'—if the landlord were to send you a signed copy of the lease now, the lease would become binding. And in your current situation, you're essentially a month-to-month tenant, meaning you have fewer legal rights than a regular renter.

On top of that, says Himmelstein, since you've been staying in the apartment, if the landlord takes you to court for non-payment—and they very likely will, if this keeps up—they'd be able to show that since you signed the lease, sent it back to them, and stayed in the apartment, even without their signed copy, both parties involved clearly intended to renew the lease. "They could make the argument that in spite of the fact that the lease wasn't signed by both parties, their conduct ratified the lease," says Himmelstein. That, and the landlord could send you their signed copy before heading to court, putting you officially on the hook.

(One exception here: in rent regulated apartments, signing the lease and sending it back to the landlord is enough to constitute a binding lease. "Rent stabilization kind of upends the common law," says Himmelstein. "They don't want landlords offering leases and then withdrawing.")

So really, your next move here should depend on what you want out of the situation. "If you want to stay in the apartment, I would advise you to pay the increase," says Himmelstein, given the potential defenses available to the landlord here.

If you'd simply like to get out of the lease and move out of the apartment, Himmelstein recommends writing a letter to the landlord (certified mail is always best in these situations) stating that you never received a signed copy, and saying, "I repudiate the lease." But if that's your preferred method, be sure to move fast, before the landlord gets it together to finally send you that lease you've been asking for.


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Sam Himmelstein, Esq., represents NYC tenants and tenant associations in disputes over evictions, rent increases, rental conversions, rent stabilization law, lease buyouts and many other issues. He is a partner at Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph in Manhattan.  To submit a question for this column, click here. To ask about a legal consultation, email Sam or call (212) 349-3000.

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