A Residential Landlord-Tenant Relationship May Be Established More Easily Than You Think

Imagine the following: John Doe owns a house that he typically rents out but was currently empty. He's hanging out with his brother, Jim Doe, while they watch the Ohio State-Michigan game and the subject of John's empty house comes up in conversation. Jim needs a place to stay. They verbally agree that Jim could move into John's unoccupied rental.  Jim wouldn't have to pay John any rent, but he would take care of paying the utility bills and real estate taxes while he stays there and also handle any basic repairs that are needed.

After a while John gets fed up with Jim. He's not maintaining the house any better than he cleaned his room when they are kids and the damage caused to the house by Jim's friends at his Superbowl party is going to cost John quite a bit of money to repair.  They argue and John tells Jim that he wants him out of the house.  While Jim is gambling in Atlantic City for a long weekend, John has the locks on the house changed and moves his brother's stuff over to their sister, Jane's, basement. 

John goes through the house and learns that the damage is substantially worse than expected. When Jim doesn't even acknowledge how badly he damaged the house and apologize, John goes off the deep end and files a lawsuit against his brother for the damages. Shockingly, Jim files a countersuit against John stating that they had a landlord-tenant relationship under Chapter 5321 of the Ohio Revised Code, and therefore he was wrongfully evicted since John did not follow the legally required eviction process . Sounds crazy, right?

Not really. While my story above was hypothetical, the 6th District Court of Appeals in Lucas County held in Ramsdell v. Ramsdell, 2013-Ohio-409 (decided on February 8, 2013), that a landlord-tenant relationship can be established under Ohio law by oral agreement, even with no rent payment; particularly when there are other payments, such as the payment of the real estate taxes and utility bills and even repairs to the property.

The next time you consider letting a friend or family member stay in an empty rental unit, keep in mind that under the eyes of the law, that friend or family member may be entitled to the protections afforded to tenants under Ohio law and a formal eviction process may have to be initiated through the court.

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