By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Distinguish between the different types of leasehold estates.
- Describe how leasehold states can be created, both orally and in writing, and the requirements for creating leases that last for more than one year.
Real property can be divided into types of interests: freehold estates and leasehold estates. The freehold estate is characterized by indefinite duration, and the owner has title and the right to possess. The leasehold estate, by contrast, lasts for a specific period. The owner of the leasehold estate—the tenant—may take possession but does not have title to the underlying real property. When the period of the leasehold ends, the right to possession reverts to the landlord—hence the landlord’s interest during the tenant’s possession is known as a reversionary interest. Although a leasehold estate is said to be an interest in real property, the leasehold itself is in fact personal property. The law recognizes three types of leasehold estates: the estate for years, the periodic tenancy, and the tenancy at will.
Types of Leasehold Estates
Estate for Years
The estate for years is characterized by a definite beginning and a definite end. When you rent an apartment for two years, beginning September 1 and ending on the second August 31, you are the owner of an estate for years. Virtually any period will do; although it is called an estate “for years,” it can last but one day or extend one thousand years or more. Some statutes declare that any estate for years longer than a specified period—one hundred years in Massachusetts, for instance—is a fee simple estate.
Unless the lease—the agreement creating the leasehold interest—provides otherwise, the estate for years terminates automatically at midnight of the last day specified in the lease. The lease need not refer explicitly to calendar dates. It could provide that “the tenant may occupy the premises for six months to commence one week from the date of signing.” Suppose the landlord and tenant sign on June 23. Then the lease term begins at 12:00 a.m. on July 1 and ends just before midnight of December 31. Unless a statute provides otherwise, the landlord is not obligated to send the tenant a notice of termination. Should the tenant die before the lease term ends, her property interest can be inherited under her will along with her other personal property or in accordance with the laws of intestate succession.
As its name implies, a periodic tenancy lasts for a period that is renewed automatically until either landlord or tenant notifies the other that it will end. The periodic tenancy is sometimes called an estate from year to year (or month to month, or week to week). The lease may provide explicitly for the periodic tenancy by specifying that at the expiration of, say, a one-year lease, it will be deemed renewed for another year unless one party notifies the other to the contrary within six months prior to the expiration of the term. Or the periodic tenancy may be created by implication, if the lease fails to state a term or is defective in some other way, but the tenant takes possession and pays rent. The usual method of creating a periodic tenancy occurs when the tenant remains on the premises (“holds over”) when an estate for years under a lease has ended. The landlord may either reject or accept the implied offer by the tenant to rent under a periodic tenancy. If he rejects the implied offer, the tenant may be ejected, and the landlord is entitled to rent for the holdover period. If he accepts the offer, the original lease determines the rent and length of the renewable period, except that no periodic tenancy may last longer than from year to year—that is, the renewable period may never be any longer than twelve months.
At common law, a party was required to give notice at least six months prior to the end of a year-to-year tenancy, and notice equal to the term for any other periodic tenancy. In most states today, the time period for giving notice is regulated by statute. In most instances, a year-to-year tenancy requires a month’s notice, and shorter tenancies require notice equal to the term. To illustrate the approach typically used, suppose Simone rents from Anita on a month-to-month tenancy beginning September 15. On March 30, Simone passes the orals for her doctorate and decides to leave town. How soon may she cancel her tenancy? If she calls Anita that afternoon, she will be two weeks shy of a full month’s notice for the period ending April 15, so the earliest she can finish her obligation to pay rent is May 15. Suppose her term had been from the first of each month. On April 1, she notifies Anita of her intention to leave at the end of April, but she is stuck until the end of May, because notice on the first of the month is not notice for a full month. She would have had to notify Anita by March 31 to terminate the tenancy by April 30.
Tenancy at Will
If the landlord and tenant agree that the lease will last only as long as both want it to, then they have created a tenancy at will. Statutes in most states require some notice of intention to terminate. Simone comes to the university to study, and Anita gives her a room to stay in for free. The arrangement is a tenancy at will, and it will continue as long as both want it to. One Friday night, after dinner with classmates, Simone decides she would rather move in with Bob. She goes back to her apartment, packs her suitcase, and tells Anita she’s leaving. The tenancy at will terminates that day.
Creation of Leasehold Estates
Leases can be created orally, unless the term of the lease exceeds the period specified by the Statute of Frauds. In most states, that period is one year. Any oral lease for a period longer than the statutory period is invalid. Suppose that Simone, in a state with a one-year Statute of Frauds period, orally agrees with Anita to rent Anita’s apartment for two years, at a monthly rent of $250. The lease is invalid, and either could repudiate it.
A lease required to be in writing under the Statute of Frauds must contain the following items or provisions: (1) it must identify the parties, (2) it must identify the premises, (3) it must specify the duration of the lease, (4) it must state the rent to be paid, and (5) it must be signed by the party against whom enforcement is sought (known as “the party to be charged”).
The provisions need not be perfectly stated. As long as they satisfy the five requirements, they will be adequate to sustain the lease under the Statute of Frauds. For instance, the parties need not necessarily be named in the lease itself. Suppose that the prospective tenant gives the landlord a month’s rent in advance and that the landlord gives the tenant a receipt listing the property and the terms of the lease but omitting the name of the tenant. The landlord subsequently refuses to let the tenant move in. Who would prevail in court? Since the tenant had the receipt in her possession, that would be sufficient to identify her as the tenant to whom the terms of the lease were meant to apply. Likewise, the lease need not specify every aspect of the premises to be enjoyed. Thus the tenant who rents an apartment in a building will be entitled to the use of the common stairway, the roof, and so on, even though the lease is silent on these points. And as long as a specific amount is ascertainable, the rent may be stated in other than absolute dollar terms. For example, it could be expressed in terms of a cost-of-living index or as a percentage of the tenant’s dollar business volume.
A leasehold estate, unlike a freehold estate, has a definite duration. The landlord’s interest during the term of a leasehold estate is a reversionary interest. Leasehold estates can last for short terms or very long terms; in the case of long-term leases, a property right is created that can be passed to heirs. The usual landlord-tenant relationship is a periodic tenancy, which carries with it various common-law and statutory qualifications regarding renewal and termination. In a tenancy at will, either landlord or tenant can end the leasehold estate as soon as notice is provided by either party.
- What is the difference between a periodic tenancy and a tenancy at will?
- What are the essential terms that must be in a written lease?