Increases in Rent Before the Lease Expires: What is Legal?

Apartment Leases in FranceQUESTION:

I am American and I have been living in the same building for decades as a tenant. Less than two years ago, I learned that a small apartment a couple of floors above mine was going to be sold. Before it even made it onto the market, I made an offer to the owner and bought it just like that. I am now renting it in such a way that this purchase does not cost me money. My landlady learned about it and just lost it. Ever since that moment she has accused me of taking advantage of a moment of weakness in her life to extort an extremely low rent, and claims that she is entitled to some sizable compensation considering the money she lost, and in any case she is entitled because of all this to increase my rent to market price. A few days ago, I received a registered letter from her informing me that the rent has been increased by more than 25%, which is simply outrageous. Does she have the right to do this? What should my response be? Since I do not want to express my anger, I am tempted to say nothing and just wait and see.

ANSWER:

There are so many fundamental legal concepts involved in this situation that one would have to write a book to fully address all its aspects, even though it looks like a simple question, “Does she have the right to increase the rent during the lease by that much?”

The answer is, “Absolutely not, she does not have this right,” but that does not explain why.

The first issue is the definition of a contract. It is an agreement on two things: an item and a price. In your case, the item is the right to rent the apartment, and the price is the rent. (Renters also pay condominium charges, la provision pour charges de copropriété, but this, legally speaking, is a reimbursement of predefined expenses.)

The next point is that a contract cannot be changed unless all the parties agree. Clearly you do not agree with the change, so the contract cannot be modified. Almost all lease contracts in France contain a provision defining how to calculate the yearly increase of the rent (and only the rent, not charges) on the anniversary of the signing.

The second issue she appears to be raising concerns whether her agreement was genuine: she is claiming that you did things in such a way as to get her to agree against her will. This is a somewhat clumsy reference to les vices du consentement – another heavyweight concept that law students slave over for weeks, if not months. There are only three possible elements that can void the consent of a party to a contract. The first is l’erreur, a mistake; in your case, this would mean she did not know what she was renting to you, which is clearly untrue. The second is la violence, violence, meaning you used a weapon or physical force to coerce her to sign. I doubt this is what she is referring to.

The third element, le dol, is willful misrepresentation. In your case, this would mean that you tricked her into believing things that made her agree to give you a very low rent and that if she had known the truth about the situation and about you, she would never have agreed to rent to you for that amount.

Let’s look specifically at the lease you signed with her. She advertised that her apartment was available for rent. She fixed the amount of the rent, along with other conditions. She chose you as her tenant, and over the years you paid the rent she asked for. I do not see anything indicating she thought you were misrepresenting yourself.

The only other grounds upon which she would have the right to change the lease is if she was mentally incapacitated at the time. She would have to argue that she had no idea what she was doing when she put the apartment up for rent. Without getting into a lengthy explanation of what needs to be proved in order for a judge to decide that such a claim is valid, the simple fact that you have been renting from her for decades would make it close to impossible to prove that she was incapacitated all those years ago, and would cast into serious doubt the validity of her claim.

The real explanation is probably a lot simpler. Learning that you had bought an apartment in the building where you live as a tenant must have come as a shock. This made her think, and led her to research the rental market in the neighborhood. She then realized that the amount she had been increasing the rent on the anniversary date did not at all reflect the market increase in the rent. When she saw how much money she was “losing” by renting to you, she wanted to fix the problem right away.

Note that, while she cannot do it right now, when the lease is up and it is time to renew it (which in France is done by staying silent; this is called tacit reconduction), she can ask for a new contract. This is another way to change the contract significantly. She will then have a good chance of getting what she wants, i.e., a rent increase higher than the clause in the contract allows. This is when the real bargaining will have to begin. Your interest is in keeping the increase as low as possible and finding every possible reason for the rent to be below the market rate, while your landlady will look for reasons why it should be above. Now that you are warned that this will happen sooner or later, you can get ready either for a good arm wrestling match or to move out before the end of the lease.

There is one other thing that usually goes without saying, but that I should perhaps point out. Tenants who pay their rent via automatic wire transfer done by their bank might fear that the owner could increase the payment without them knowing. But the fact that your landlady has your RIB (the standard French document presenting banking information) does not allow her to get any amount she wants. All banking transactions require approval by the client, almost always a signed document. So the payment can only be for the amount you signed for. Nevertheless, I would warn the banker to keep an eye on your account. Even better, you could start sending checks to pay the rent.

 

 

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