Dear Consumer Ed:
The management company where I live has stopped collecting rent in person (via check or cash) and now only accepts payments online using a third-party company. The cost for this service is passed on to the renters. Is that legal?
Consumer Ed says:
Your question raises two issues: (1) Can a landlord require you to change your method of payment, and (2) can that landlord require you to pay for the services of a third-party online company collecting your rent?
Method of Payment
In Georgia, landlord-tenant relationships are generally governed by the terms of your lease agreement, except for some general protections provided by Georgia law. If you and your landlord have a lease agreement, you need to look at the terms of that lease for your agreed-upon methods of payment. If your lease explicitly allows payment by check or cash, then to deny you that right is a breach by the landlord. While you’re still under lease, you are protected by its terms, and the landlord cannot change its terms and require you to pay online. However, if the lease requires that you pay online, and the landlord has allowed you to pay by cash and check only as a courtesy, there is nothing preventing him from later enforcing the lease as written. Similarly, if the lease does not specify a particular method of payment or if the lease allows the landlord to specify a particular method of payment, the landlord is likely free to use any commercially reasonable method of payment.
If you don’t have a lease agreement, you’re what’s known as a tenant-at-will, and only marginally protected by Georgia law. In Georgia, a tenant at will may be a tenant whose lease expired but the landlord continues to accept rent, or it may be there was no written lease but the landlord accepts rent each month. In either case, for the landlord to make a change in the payment or other items other than the term of the lease, or to demand higher rent or possession of the property by termination, the landlord must first give sixty days’ advance notice, generally in writing. This notice must be measured from the time the rent is initially due, such as the first of the month, not merely sixty calendar days. For the tenant to leave the property under a tenancy at will, the tenant must first give thirty days’ advance notice, generally in writing, also measured from the time the rent is initially due.
For example, if a tenant pays rent on the first of the month and wants to give notice to move, the tenant could not give notice on the fifteenth of November and calculate thirty days. Rather, the tenant would have to give notice to include a full thirty days following the term beginning on December 1st, the date the rent is due under the current tenancy at will term. Tenant would be liable for December rent. The same is true for the landlord. The sixty-day period must coincide with the existing term of the lease, usually the first of the month unless a different date has been mutually agreed upon.
In either case, if you do submit payment to your landlord, and he refuses to accept your payment, keep a record of it. It may be a defense if the landlord seeks future action against you. As always, proof in writing is best, if possible.
Cost of Service
Assuming that you’re paying your rent on time and the third party receiving the service fee is not a debt collector, your landlord probably isn’t allowed to charge you for the services of a third-party payment merchant, unless there is such a provision in your lease. If, on the other hand, you were late on rent, and this third-party agency is a debt collector, then this service fee may be acceptable if the charge is within reason and allowed in your lease agreement.
It’s worth re-stating that in Georgia, the lease controls. You should always read it thoroughly and understand its terms before you sign it. This is generally the best protection to prevent issues with rent payments (you should also keep a copy of your lease, should any issues arise).
If you cannot settle this dispute with your landlord, you should consider hiring an attorney.
For more information, you should consult the Georgia Landlord Tenant Handbook available at www.dca.state.ga.us.
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