Promises in Writing

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Pattie Whiting

If the landlord or rental agent29 promises you anything that is not stated in the lease, or if you do not have a lease, make sure to get these promises in writing. If you don't and a dispute arises later, it will be the landlord's word against yours.30

For example, if the landlord promises, to make certain repairs, get this in writing. If the landlord promises you the use of a parking space, get this in writing. If a landlord promises you the use of a basement space for storage, get this in writing.

If you make any changes or additions to the lease, make sure that you and the landlord put signatures or initials next to each of these changes. For example, if you have a dog and the lease says you are not allowed to have a pet, make sure your landlord crosses this clause out and that both of you then sign or write your initials next to this change.

Some landlords try to get out of putting their promises in writing by telling tenants that if anything extra is written on the lease or anything is crossed out, the whole lease will be no good. This is not true. As long as the change is readable and signed or initialed, the lease will be legal and all of the changes will be legal (unless the clause is illegal). In fact, when it is to their benefit, landlords do not hesitate to add their favorite clauses to the lease.

If you cannot get the landlord to put her promise in writing, the next best thing is to write your landlord (via email, letter or text) summarizing what the landlord said and send it to her. Always keep a copy for your records. You could also have a person with you when you talk with the landlord to witness what the landlord says.31 If you don't have someone with you when the landlord makes certain promises, arrange another time to talk with the landlord when you can bring someone you know. Tell the landlord you didn't completely understand what she said. When you and your friend meet with the landlord, get the landlord to repeat all of her promises. This friend should then write down the promises she heard the landlord make on a sheet of paper and sign and date it. Keep this document in a safe place with other papers about your apartment.


If possible, your witness should not be a relative or roommate because their testimony might be considered biased because of their relationship to you.

If you receive a government housing subsidy, the lease between you and your landlord will usually be prepared by a local housing authority or a state or federal government housing agency. Subsidy leases have certain clauses that the government requires. If you and your landlord want to add anything to this lease, the government agency administering the subsidy may have to approve the changes.



29 . In Massachusetts, the apparent powers of any agent are her real powers, and her actions are binding on her boss (i.e., the landlord). Danforth v. Chandler, 237 Mass. 518, 520 (1921); Binkley Co. v. Eastern Tank, Inc., 831 F. 2d 333, 337 (1st Cir. 1987).

30 . Verbal, or oral, evidence (as opposed to written) is admissible to establish the terms of a tenancy at will agreement. Walker Ice Co. v. American Steel & Wire Co., 185 Mass. 463, 473 (1904). This is an exception to what is called the parol evidence rule. Subsequent oral modification of a lease is admissible, but it must be supported by legal "consideration" (which means that each party must give up something in order for the agreement to be binding). Cohen v. Homonoff, 311 Mass. 374, 376 (1942). A promise not to vacate premises is good consideration for an additional performance by the other party. Thus, if the tenant under a written lease threatens to move out, and the landlord, to please the tenant, agrees to reduce the rent or to provide additional services, such as heat, the landlord is bound by her agreement if the tenant agrees not to move out. Commonwealth Investment Co. v. Fellsway Motor Mart, 294 Mass. 306, 313-14 (1936). See also Tashjian v. Karp, 277 Mass. 42, 46 (1931). Even without "consideration," the refusal of the landlord to honor her promise is a violation of the Consumer Protection Act, G.L. c. 93A, §2. See 940 C.M.R. §§3.01, 3.05(1), 3.16.

31 . If a landlord promises a tenant something and then denies that she made this promise, this may be a violation of the Consumer Protection Act, G.L. c. 93A. Under G.L. c. 93A, it is against the law for a landlord or rental agent to engage in deceptive acts or practices. To enforce the law, tenants should try to find witnesses other than themselves to testify that the landlord made certain promises.


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