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Landlords: what to do (or not to do) if your tenant abandons the premises?
In the current economic climate, an increasing number of landlords are faced with tenants who vacate premises and stop paying rent with little or no warning.
How a landlord should react in this situation depends on what they hope to achieve. From the moment a landlord realises that the premises have been abandoned, their actions can have important and potentially costly consequences for that landlord. Before deciding how to react, the landlord should consider whether it is worth ‘keeping the tenant on the hook’ for ongoing rent and other liabilities under the lease. This may depend on whether the tenant is solvent. There may well not be much point in the cost and time involved in pursuing an insolvent tenant for outstanding and ongoing liabilities.
If the tenant is solvent and worth pursuing for breach of contract or for rent arrears and future rent payments, then the landlord will wish to avoid behaving in a way which could (together with the tenant’s actions) be taken to be a surrender of the lease ‘by operation of law’, thus letting the tenant off the hook for ongoing liability. The landlord may wish to ensure they behave in a way consistent with the continuance of the lease and thus preserve the right to pursue the tenant for rent payments until another suitable tenant is found.
Consequences of surrender of a lease by operation of law
The consequences of a surrender by operation of law include the following:
1. The tenant is released from its obligation to pay future rent.
2. Many leases provide for the payment of a service charge estimate by the tenant, to be followed by a ‘balancing’ payment at the end of each service charge year should the actual service charge due be higher. The landlord will not be able to recover a balancing payment that falls due after the date of surrender, unless the lease provides otherwise.
3. The parties do however remain liable for any breach of covenant and arrears prior to the surrender date.
How a surrender by operation of law comes about
A surrender by operation of law will take place only if the tenant and the landlord both behave in a way towards each other that is clearly and unequivocally inconsistent with the continuation of a lease. A surrender by operation of law cannot be one sided. The tenant must be seen to have surrendered the lease, and the landlord to have accepted the surrender. After such behaviour either party would be ‘estopped’ from then arguing that the lease continues.
By abandoning premises, taking their fixtures and fittings and handing or posting the keys back to the landlord, the tenant could, depending on the overall circumstances, be deemed to have behaved in a way that is inconsistent with the continuance of their lease. This is especially so if, for example, the tenant writes to the landlord confirming that it can no longer pay rent and no longer wishes to remain at the premises. However, this is not enough by itself to result in a surrender by operation of law.
It is what the landlord does in response to this that is critical.
It is the parties’ behaviour that is important, not their intent. A surrender by operation of law can occur irrespective of, or even despite, the intention of the parties. So landlords must be especially careful not to inadvertently accept a surrender where they have no intention of doing so.
Does it matter?
The landlord should consider at the outset what it wants to achieve, and what it is realistic to expect to achieve.
The landlord may want the tenant’s liability to continue, and so he can sue the tenant for future rents. This is more likely where the lettings market is weak and the prospect of finding a new tenant quickly and at the same rent is poor. This can matter more where the tenant vacates early in the lease term.
The landlord may have committed to carrying out extensive maintenance and repair works to the building or estate containing the premises. Therefore, it will want to be able to recover the balance of the service charge due from the tenant for the remaining part of the service charge year.
However, the most practical point to consider is whether the tenant is worth pursuing for any arrears in rent, service charge and any other monies due under the lease. They may have become insolvent, or have applied to the court for an administration order which would automatically restrict the landlord’s ability to bring a claim. Or a corporate tenant may simply have been dissolved. In these cases the landlord may decide that the loss of entitlement to make a claim is irrelevant, and that it is preferable to accept the surrender, regain possession of the property and deal with it freely.
If, on the other hand, the landlord does wish to preserve its claim against the tenant for future rents and liability for other obligations under the lease, it should take care not to act in a way which would constitute acceptance of a surrender.
How easy is it to prove surrender by operation of law?
Case law has confirmed that the threshold for confirming that the landlord has accepted a surrender by operation of law is high. In other words, the fact that his behaviour in this respect must be unequivocable means that usually it is not easy for a party to prove a surrender has been accepted.
This has been highlighted in a case heard by the Court of Appeal case in June this year. The landlords let a builders yard to a company (Co 1) that became insolvent and ceased operating from the yard. Another company (Co 2) took occupation, started paying rent and began negotiating a new lease with the landlord. Negotiations broke down and the administrative receivers for Co 1 agreed to assign their lease to Co 2. The landlord argued that Co 1’s lease had been surrendered by operation of law, Co 2 occupied under a tenancy at will and that the tenancy at will was now terminated. The Court of Appeal ruled that Co 1’s conduct was not “unequivocally inconsistent with the continuance of the lease” and that there was no surrender by operation of law. This was despite Co 1 making it clear that they wanted nothing more to do with the lease, ceasing to pay rent and knowing a third party was negotiating a new lease, and despite the landlord acknowledging this by negotiating a new lease with Co 2.
Even though this and other cases have shown that the test for surrender by operation of law is a difficult one to prove, landlords still need to be careful. They would do well to have in mind the distinction between actions which are likely to constitute acceptance of surrender and those which are not. Examples of behaviour which could apply in either case are set out below.
Actions which are likely to amount to an acceptance of a surrender
• Taking possession of the premises. A landlord can do this by moving into the property and occupying it for the landlord’s own purposes.
• Redecorating the property to its own taste and allowing family members or friends to occupy the premises for their own purposes.
• Moving items into the property for storage.
• Re-letting to someone else with the tenant’s consent.
Actions which when TAKEN ALONE in each case are unlikely to amount to an acceptance of a surrender
• Receiving the keys back without demanding them, for example, where delivered in the post or by hand through a letter box.
• Entering the premises to inspect and repair. This is consistent with the rights the landlord would already have during the lease term.
• Carrying out repairs and taking security measures to protect the property against intruders and to preserve the value of the landlord’s interest.
• Failing to demand rent and service charge when the landlord knew the tenant no longer wants the lease. Mere inaction alone is usually not enough to constitute unequivocal acceptance of a surrender.
• Case law suggests that the landlord could reasonably be entitled to mitigate his losses by , in addition to any of the above actions, preparing to relet the property without this necessarily amounting to an acceptance of a surrender. However, it is not clear to what extent remarketing and finding a new tenant would jeopardise the landlord’s claim against the tenant. A court would consider each case on its facts, and advice should be sought before reletting as to whether this may affect the landlord’s claim for future rents.
A court will consider all of the landlord’s actions taken together in deciding whether the landlord has accepted the surrender. The landlord should therefore try to do only what is necessary to secure, repair and protect the property and then, subject to seeking appropriate advice, to try to find a new tenant if needs be. The key thing is not to be seen to be taking back possession of the property.
An example of this risk is illustrated by a 2009 case where the Court of Appeal confirmed a surrender by operation of law had occurred when after a tenant had abandoned premises, the landlord took back the keys, redecorated and occupied the property for six weeks.
Merely writing to the tenant asserting that the lease continues and that rent remains due, is not enough to prevent a surrender by operation of law, especially if accompanied by an action which is likely to constitute an unequivocal acceptance of surrender.
One point that does not appear in its own right to have been clearly settled in case law, but which is in our view could matter, is the timing of a landlord’s claim in tandem with other action it takes. If the landlord makes a claim against the errant tenant for future rent and service charge or other breach, whilst or before taking steps to protect the property, it may be easier for him to argue that he has not accepted a surrender than if he waits until after taking those steps. However, this is not guaranteed, and any case argued in court will be taken on its own facts.