The Ethical Dilemma: Conflict Between a Homeowner and Tenant

Experiencing an ethical dilemma? Need advice from a humanist perspective?

Send your questions to The Ethical Dilemma at (subject line: Ethical Dilemma).

All inquiries are kept confidential.

Demanding Tenant: I am a homeowner who was happy to sign a year’s lease with a tenant for the period of June 1, 2016 to June 1, 2017. Soon after signing the lease, certain financial concerns caused me to decide to put the house on the market immediately. My realtors urged me to convince the tenant to sign a “get out” agreement in case the house sold to someone who wanted to take occupancy before his lease was up.

After considerable negotiation, the tenant agreed to accept the equivalent of three months’ rent as payment for breaking the contract—even though he had not even moved in yet.

Since he needed a place to live while looking for a new place, we agreed he could live in our home for free in June, and I would pay him the other two months upon vacating end of June.

Now he would like an extension to July 15. Okay, I said. This should reduce my penalty by another half month.

Today he said he will absolutely be gone by July 22. But rather than reducing my penalty proportionately, he suggests that having workers at the house for the past week was disturbing, and he had to clean up after they left one day. So he believes the additional week should be free—no reduction of what I have to pay him.

He seems to hold all of the cards because of the signed rental agreement. I feel bullied. I question that workers in one room during the daytime, which he was advised of in advance, entitles him to another week of free rent.

What’s your opinion?

—What’s Ethical in This Dilemma?

Dear Ethical,

I must admit I’m confused. Are you actually paying him the equivalent of three months’ rent to stay in your place for under two months? And he’s paying you nothing at all? And you have not yet sold the place to someone else who wants the tenant out, so he actually could have stayed longer and payed you rent (perhaps for the entire year)? If I’m getting this right, surely there’s something wrong with this picture.

But that’s beside the point. The point is this is more of a legal question than an ethical dilemma—or a matter of opinion.

Although we could speculate about what the tenant might ethically do—i.e., be a nice guy and find somewhere else to live, pay you rent for the time he’s there, not make a fuss about the workers’ noise and mess, etc.—neither you nor I have control over another person’s ethical behavior. You two made a legal contract that you wanted to back out of before it even began, and that’s not working out well for you. He’s making you accommodate him more than you think is fair, but he may also be suffering from having his one-year commitment for a home pulled out from under him, and from having workmen coming in while he’s residing there.

Since I’m not a legal expert, I don’t know what’s typical or ideal in terms of drafting leases with get-out clauses, but I would think that should be standard practice. If your lease didn’t spell it out or protect you properly, you should consult another lawyer now and for future leases.

Ask the lawyer if there’s any legal onus to compensate your tenant for workers who were expected, and were noisy and messy as expected (wasn’t that possibility covered in the get-out agreement?). Your tenant seems to be playing this for all he can get, no Mr. Nice Guy. He’s not acting out of compassion and consideration for you, just making the most of this setback (or opportunity) for himself. You should do likewise. Leave guilt and personal feelings out of the equation, and stick to your guns for the best terms legally available to you. In the future, make sure you have good get-out clause before you get in.