When renting your home, you do not have to have a written lease agreement. This article gives an overview of oral (non-written) leases. If you have a written lease and want to learn more about what terms can and cannot be a part of your lease, read What’s in a Lease?
Differences between Oral and Written Leases
Both oral and written leases can be enforced in court. However, it is often easier for a judge to resolve a dispute between a tenant and a landlord about a lease matter when there is a written lease agreement because the judge can look at it. With an oral lease, the case comes down to the tenant’s word versus the landlord’s. In both cases, the judge will also consider testimony and other evidence the tenant and landlord present, but the written lease shows the terms both parties agreed to.
The terms of both written and oral leases can be changed after entering the lease if both the landlord and tenant agree. However, because there is not likely to be a written record of those changes to an oral lease, they may be hard to prove. Just like the original oral lease, it comes down to what the landlord and tenant tell the judge. For example, the tenant and landlord may decide to change the day when rent is due. Since there may be no record of the change, it may be hard to prove when rent is actually due.
An oral lease may make it easier for one party to take advantage of the other. While some people may think having a written lease does not matter or it is more confusing, written leases may provide more protection. There are laws about what can and cannot be part of a lease. To learn more about those laws, read What’s in a Lease?
While a tenant and landlord can orally agree to a lease, there are some limits to how long an oral lease can last. Michigan law requires contracts for longer than one year to be in writing. If a tenant and landlord try making an oral lease for any time longer than one year, a judge may decide it is not valid.
Tenancy at Will
A tenancy at will is created when a landlord rents a home to a tenant without a specific end date. These agreements can be in the form of oral or written leases. The most common type of tenancies at will are month-to-month leases. Similar to standard leases, rent for a month-to-month lease is usually paid every month.
The tenant or landlord can end this type of lease for almost any reason. The party must do this by giving the other party a written lease termination notice that says the lease will end no sooner than one month away. The one month notice is a calendar month, not based on the number of days. For example, a notice given on February 15 is valid if the termination date is on or after March 15.
This notice is often a notice to quit. The termination notice period must equal the period for which rent is paid. So, if rent is paid every six months, the notice period is six months.
Eviction and Oral Leases
Eviction is the legal process of trying to make a tenant move out of a rental home. A landlord must use the same process to evict a tenant whether the lease is written or oral. The landlord must give written notice — either a notice to quit or demand for possession — whether or not there is a written lease.
If an oral lease is on a month-to-month basis and the tenant is current on rent, the landlord may file for an eviction if the landlord gives one month’s notice. The landlord may file for an eviction in the middle of the month as long as the landlord gives one month’s notice, even if rent is paid at the end of the month. The notice date does not have to match the payment date. To learn more about evictions, read Eviction: What Is It and How Does It Start?
Defenses to Tenancy at Will Evictions
Tenants with oral leases often have fewer defenses in an eviction case since a landlord could claim the lease was month-to-month, and the term has ended. When a landlord files the summons and complaint for this type of eviction, they don’t have to give any reason why the tenant should be evicted other than the lease has ended. If the landlord doesn’t give any other reasons for the eviction, it is hard to raise defenses to it.
However, in some cases there are defenses to this type of eviction. If the landlord accepts rent for any part of the period after the date the notice says the tenant must move out, the notice is not valid. For example, if the notice says the tenant must move out by August 31 but the landlord accepts September’s rent, that notice isn’t valid.
If your landlord gives other reasons in the complaint for evicting you, you might have a defense. To learn more about defenses to evictions, read Common Defenses and Counterclaims in Eviction Cases.
Discrimination and Retaliation
Discrimination and retaliation defenses are available regardless of the reason the landlord gives for the eviction. Discrimination means a landlord treats a tenant differently based on things such as race, disability, or religion. To learn more about illegal housing discrimination, read Discrimination in Rental Housing.
Retaliation is when a landlord tries to evict a tenant because the tenant did something they had a right to do. To learn more about retaliatory eviction, read the “Was Your Landlord Retaliating?” section of Common Defenses and Counterclaims in Eviction Cases.