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I rented a room (Michigan, USA) and stayed there from Jan to June 2014. The entire agreement was done through email, including 'signing' a lease (there was no actual signature, the landlord and I merely typed in our names and dates into a 'lease' that was completely written only on email). There was a $500 deposit. In June 2014, the lease ended and I left Michigan for the summer.

However, just before I left, the landlord agreed (via email) to lease me a different room (though in the same house) for September to December 2014. I thus asked if it would make sense if the landlord held on to my $500 deposit (instead of her returning it to me within 30 days of my June 2014 move-out, as is required by law, and then my sending her a $500 deposit again before I moved in again in September 2014). She agreed that this would make more sense, stating that she would return me the deposit after whenever I eventually moved out of her house for good.

In late July 2014 (more than 30 days after I moved out in mid-June 2014), the landlord emailed me, stating that she would be retracting her email offer of rent. Her precise words were that "due to a number of circumstances including your failure to acknowledge several important provisions of our lease, it is necessary for me to retract my email offer of renting a room to you". I asked her to clarify what important provisions I failed to acknowledge, but she has not done so, saying she is busy at the moment and may take another week before she can fully explain it to me.

Absent her full explanation, the only explicit reason she has ever given me for being dissatisfied with me (stated in emails in late June 2014) is that I left a considerable (though not overwhelming) volume of my possessions in the living room when I left in June 2014. (There is a clause in the lease stating that personal belongings should not be left in common areas.) These possessions are still in the living room and, in the late July email where she retracts her offer of a room to me, she asks that I remove them the moment I return in September 2014. In my defense, the reason why I had done so was that (1) When negotiating in June 2014 whether I could rent a room for Sep - Dec 2014, I asked her if I could store my possessions somewhere in the house--she did not respond to this query and as I had to leave Michigan before I got any response, I thought it might be fine to occupy a small area in the living room for my possessions; and (2) There would be at most one other person present in the house for any duration of summer 2014 and he did not seem to mind terribly the presence of such possessions in the common areas, given that he himself had left some of his possessions in the common areas for about two months.

At present, the landlord still has my $500 deposit.

If she is firm about refusing to lease me the room, I have a little more than a month to look for another room to rent for September to December 2014. If I take her to a small claims court, what sort of compensation can I expect to get in return?

If money.SE is not the appropriate venue for my above request for legal advice, please suggest where else I can ask this question. Thank you!

Edit to elaborate: My thoughts were that perhaps her email agreement, combined with her keeping of my $500 deposit, constitutes some sort of a contract. But I may be wrong; I am not a lawyer, which is why I am writing this here.

If the down-voter can perhaps explain why the down-vote, I would appreciate it and try to correct this question accordingly.

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    It sounds like, unless she changes her mind, the best you can do is get most or all of your deposit back. Have you asked her to return it? – Daniel Lubarov Jul 25 '14 at 4:12
  • Does the email lease contain any clause discussing damages if the contract is nullified by the landlord? Many discuss what happens if the renter backs out, but what about if the landlord does? – mhoran_psprep Jul 25 '14 at 13:08
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IANAL, but I have read many times that oral contracts are just as legally binding as written contracts, the only difference being that it is difficult to prove exactly what was promised by each party. Again, I'm not a lawyer, but I can't see any logical reason why an "email contract" would not be at least as binding as an oral contract. I've visited plenty of websites from big companies where they ask me to check a box to indicate that I agree to the terms of a contract. I can't imagine that these companies have not checked with their lawyers to be sure that this is legal, so I have a hard time believing that the law does not recognize "electronic contracts". Without a signature, I suppose someone could argue that they never really sent the email, that you forged it and put their return address on it. But then, you can argue that your signature on a paper contract was forged. If it actually went to court, I guess the question would be if the landlord denied sending the emails. I don't know what evidence a court would accept on that kind of dispute. Theoretically you could get forensic computer specialists to investigate, but I imagine the cost of that would be far more than the amount of money in dispute.

In any case, to my mind the question comes down to: Suppose you could win in court and force this landlord to take you as a tenant. It seems to me that you would have a very bad relationship at that point. She'd be looking for anything she could do to justify kicking you out, etc. I wouldn't want to be a tenant in a building where I wasn't wanted. I'd just look for another place.

I'd certainly demand that my deposit be refunded. If the relationship has gotten tense, she'll probably find an excuse to keep most of it. And if you haven't gotten the property you left behind back yet, I'd get that before she declares it's abandoned and throws it out.

  • For reference: Checkbox website contracts are generally called clickwrap or clickthrough contracts, and are also legally binding. Browsewrap contracts (where the use of the website constitutes agreement to the terms) are also usually legally binding, (some caveats apply to their validity). – Noah Jul 25 '14 at 15:38
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    +1 for the second paragraph. The catch-22 in these situations is that it's not worth it to pursue legal action to force someone to rent to you if they don't want to, because then you'll just be renting from a landlord who hates you. – BrenBarn Jul 25 '14 at 19:01
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So, to recap: You were offered a lease, you did not sign it, the landlord retracted the offer. I'd be surprised if you have any recourse, other than reclaiming your deposit.

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    He/she says they "agreed" to it, which will constitute a contract even if it's verbal in most situations. A contract doesn't need to be signed in order to be valid. – Enno Shioji Jul 25 '14 at 12:51
  • I'm pretty sure the statute of frauds applies; nevertheless a reliance claim is powerful here. – Joshua Nov 13 '16 at 16:31
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I find it weird people claiming a contract has to be written and signed. In Michigan, a tenant agreement may be even oral if it is a fixed term lease shorter than a year. Email will constitute a binding contract in most situations; how else could people agree to an EULA etc?

I think it's likely that you have some recourse. However, you want to ask yourself whether it's worth it.

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Could you take her to small claims court? Yes, anyone can sue anyone else for pretty much any reason in this country.

Could you "win"? Probably not. You violated the terms of the agreement and left your stuff behind, which you explicitly agreed to not doing. It could easily be shown that the negotiation of the next contract was predicated on a presumption of your meeting the requirements of the prior one.

Quite frankly most places allow land lords a large degree of flexibility with regards to the disposition of items left behind; up to and including putting it in the garbage. They are also usually allowed to charge for the removal of those items; which usually eats up your deposit, sometimes more.

The amount of stuff and the level of inconvenience (if any) to the owner or other tenants just doesn't matter. The fact that another tenant currently living there had items in the common areas also doesn't matter: they were still a paying tenant, you weren't.

At this point your best bet is to contact the owner and request your deposit back. Let them know exactly when you will collect your things while thanking them for not throwing them out. Hopefully they won't charge you for storage.

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Since the landlord is claiming that you violated the terms of the lease, and it sounds like you have, despite the fact that it seems like a rather minor infraction, I don't think you will succeed in disputing the cancellation.

Yes, emails can contain valid contracts.

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The law won't recognize an exchange of e-mail text as a binding contract. I am not a lawyer so I won't opine on what, if any, electronic medium would be so considered.

You can try taking it to small claims court. That should get you back your deposit, unless she can make a strong case that you were the one who broke the agreement first.

Get any business agreement on paper, with signatures. Always.

(There are times when tenant-at-will can be workable, depending on local laws covering that and how much you and your landlord trust each other -- but it has obvious risks, and I would recommend a firm lease for the first year even if you're willing to consider switching to at-will later.)

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    What is the basis of your statement that the law doesn't recognize an email as a binding contract? Although it isn't advisable, it can still be a contract. A contract only needs to have Offer, Acceptance, Consideration, and Intent of both parties to enter into a binding agreement. It can be in any form. – JohnFx Jul 25 '14 at 13:28
  • Email can indeed form a binding contract. See for example, forbes.com/sites/oliverherzfeld/2013/12/09/… which discusses Forcelli v. Gelco. – ChrisInEdmonton Jul 25 '14 at 14:11
  • The problem is proving that the email presented as evidence is, indeed the text that was agreed upon. The binding agreement exists, agreed; enforceability may be more difficult. – keshlam Jul 25 '14 at 15:03
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    I'm sure that if it went to court, someone could claim that the email that you are presenting as evidence is not the email that they wrote, that you have edited it in some way. But then, someone could claim that a paper contract is not the one that they signed, that you have doctored the paperwork, or written your own contract and forged their signature. I suppose it's easier to edit an email than to doctor a paper contract, and courts would consider that. Of course all this assumes that the other person disputes the verity of the contract in court. I'm not a lawyer, but I think it's very ... – Jay Jul 25 '14 at 20:32
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    ... likely that courts have hashed over issues like this many times and that there are all sorts of precedents and standards of evidence. – Jay Jul 25 '14 at 20:33

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