Do I Have to Sign a New Lease?

A common question we get from tenants is whether or not they have to sign a new lease. Depending on the situation signing a new lease may be obligatory or it may be completely inappropriate. In this article we discuss the various considerations.

Tenants Cannot Refuse to Sign a Lease that is Materially Similar or the Same

Under the San Francisco Rent Ordinance, refusal to sign a new lease “for materially the same terms ” is one of the sixteen just causes for eviction. This means you need to tread carefully when it comes to refusing to sign a new lease.

If your landlord simply wants you to sign an extension to your lease without changing the terms of the agreement refusing to sign could lead to eviction threats. On the other hand a tenant has the right to sign a new lease if it includes materially different terms. If you have a one-page lease and your landlord asks you to sign a new thirty-page lease you can (and likely should) refuse.

It doesn’t matter if your lease has “expired”

In California, residential rental agreements automatically convert to month-to-month tenancies at the end of your lease term. At the end of each month thereafter, the agreement renews automatically for themselves in perpetuity, as long as you the tenant remains in possession of your home.

Tenants have certain rights regardless of whether there is a written lease agreement. If you live in a rental unit and pay rent to your landlord, you have formed a “landlord-tenant” relationship. Even without a lease, your tenancy is governed by the relevant state and local laws.

Your landlord CANNOT change the terms of your tenancy

If your apartment is covered by the San Francisco Rent Ordinance prohibits your landlords from making material changes to the terms of your tenancy.

This is true regardless of whether you ever signed a written lease. Many tenants in San Francisco have informal, oral agreements with their landlords. If that’s the case, the only agreement you would be required to sign is one that merely states your monthly rent, the due date for rent payments, and any other part of your original oral agreement (for example, that tenants are allowed use of the backyard, or that laundry machines are the tenants’ personal property).In some cases an oral lease can even be advantageous to a written lease because they tend to be more permissive.

The Sale of Your Building Doesn’t Change Anything

But what happens when someone buys the building you live in? The answer is it doesn’t matter. The new landlord is obligated under the same terms.  Tenants are NOT required to sign a new lease. When a building changes hands, all existing agreements transfer to the new owner without modification.

What if I Don’t Have a Written Lease?

Landlord-tenant relationships begin not when you sign a lease but when you pay rent to the landlord and take possession. Therefore, you still have rights even if you don’t have a written lease. If you have an oral lease and your landlord wants you to sign a written agreement – you still don’t have to sign anything that contains new terms.

In fact, you may even have an advantage if there isn’t a written lease. Typically, written leases benefit landlords – not tenants. After all, they are the ones who write them. Leases generally restrict a tenant’s rights.

Today’s standard leases include plenty of restrictions that don’t help tenants. These include limits on the number of guests and how many nights they can stay over, prohibitions on pets, limits on the use of a unit, and utility fees.

On the other hand, written leases can help to resolve ambiguities and provide a road map for your rights. For example, having a written lease that details your right to a storage space could prevent a landlord from later claiming you took that space over unfairly. A written lease is also useful if there is ever a dispute as to whether you have a landlord-tenant relationship. If you don’t have a written lease definitely don’t pay your rent in cash (not that you ever should anyway).

What if My Apartment Isn’t Rent Controlled?

If local rent control and eviction laws don’t apply to your apartment it is a whole different ballgame. In that case, your rent is only protected for the term of the lease. Depending on how long you think you may wish to stay in your home, there are advantages to signing a new, long-term lease. If you are month to month your landlord can raise your rent without restriction or ask you to move out without just cause so long as they give you proper notice.

Not sure what to do? Help is available

No matter your situation, it can be stressful to assert your rights and push back against a landlord’s request.If you’re not sure what to do, speak to a tenant lawyer or visit one of the many tenant rights non-profits. The San Francisco Tenants Union provides free or low-cost drop-in counseling. They can help you review a proposed lease and help you plan an appropriate response.

And if you and your landlord can’t come to an agreement, the SF Rent Board provides free mediation services. (Rent Board staff also operate a phone counseling line and an advice desk. They can answer landlords’ and tenants’ questions about the Rent Ordinance).