The foreclosure crisis has affected many tenants, who learn mid-lease that their landlord has failed to pay the mortgage. Although the meltdown has eased up a bit, new tenants are still becoming unintended victims, as landlords continue to rent to new residents in the face of looming foreclosure.
Usually, when a landlord enters into a rental agreement with a tenant while foreclosure is imminent, the tenant has no idea that the rental unit may soon be in foreclosure. Whether tenants have any recourse against their landlord when foreclosure hits depends on the type of tenancy, and the intentions of the new owner.
Tenants whose rented homes were the subject of a foreclosure almost always lost their leases before federal law, signed in 2009, changed the rules. Although that law expired in 2014, most states have enacted similar legislation. In these states, leases do survive a foreclosure. The tenants can't be evicted unless the new owner intends to occupy the home -- in which case the lease can be terminated with proper notice. Month-to-month tenants, who were always subject to termination upon proper notice, can be terminated after a foreclosure with the requisite notice.
Even if the lease or rental agreement can be terminated with the notice above, the new owner of the property must still follow state eviction procedures in order to remove a tenant from the rental unit. (To learn more about eviction procedures, read How Evictions Work: What Renters Need to Know.)
The new state laws are often a boon to month-to-month tenants. These tenants may be entitled to a notice period that's longer (90 days, for instance) than the one they were subject to with the original owner. Lease-holding tenants (those with a lease) whose new owner will not occupy the home similarly have no legal beef with the new laws -- they are in the same position as a tenant whose landlord sells mid-lease (the tenant simply gets a new owner/landlord).
What about the tenant whose new owner terminates the lease in order to live there himself? This tenant ends up less fortunate than before the foreclosure -- the tenant may lose his lease with proper notice, a result that probably would not have happened had the owner simply sold the property to a buyer who intended to occupy the property. (Normally, the new owner has to wait until the lease ends, absent a lease clause providing for termination upon sale.) In this case, the tenant may want to seek compensation from the original landlord for the consequences of losing the lease.
If a tenant can prove that the original landlord failed to disclose that a foreclosure was imminent, amounting to fraud, the tenant can sue the landlord for monetary damages -- the cost to the tenant of moving and any increased rent. (To learn how to sue for damages in small claims court, see Nolo's Small Claims Court area.) However, the tenant would still have to move out of the rental unit, which is not an ideal situation for most tenants.
All landlords are under a duty to disclose material information that any tenant would want to know when considering whether to sign a lease. Is the possibility of foreclosure something that the landlord should have disclosed to any prospective tenant? The more likely it was that foreclosure would happen (for example, the landlord has already received notice of foreclosure), the more likely it is that the landlord should have disclosed the possibility of foreclosure.
State laws are catching up with this problem, by mandating that landlords disclose to applicants any notices of default that they have received and not remedied. For example, Oregon landlords with properties of four or fewer units must disclose, before signing a lease, any outstanding notice of default, lawsuit to foreclose, declaration of forfeiture, or lawsuit to foreclose because of a tax lien. If the landlord fails to disclose any of these matters and the tenant has to move as a result, the tenant can recover twice his actual damages and all prepaid rent (Or. Rev. Stat. § 90.310).
On the flip side, if the landlord is merely worrying about a remote possibility that he won't be able to meet his mortgage, the landlord's duty to disclose this worry decreases (as well as his risk of a charge of fraud if he doesn't disclose it). We're dealing with a bit of a sliding scale here -- at the time the lease is signed, the more certain it is that the bank will foreclose, the higher the landlord's duty is to disclose the possibility of foreclosure during the lease term.
For information about tenants' legal rights in other situations, as well as tips on all aspects of renting -- from inspecting a unit to getting along with roommates -- get Every Tenant's Legal Guide, by Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart (Nolo).