What are a tenant’s rights to improve rental property?

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What are a tenant’s rights to improve rental property?

I recently opened a small business; a juice store. I found the location and really loved it because the owner was letting me put a drive up window in the back of the building. I sell espresso and healthy smoothies. Now the owner died and the son and daughter tell me that I can’t open the drive-thru. I don’t have the drive-thru in writing as I didn’t expect the owner to die. However, it was talked about on several occasions in front of numerous witnesses and I installed a window, paid a plumber and an electrician. I was really counting on having it and without it I most likely will not be able to make ends meet. I have a lot of money and time invested in my business and want to know what my rights are.

Asked on February 19, 2014 under Real Estate Law, Idaho

Answers:

SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 7 years ago | Contributor

As a general matter, a tenant has no rights to improve rental property--he or she does not own it, after all--apart from any rights given in a lease or other contract. With no written lease or other agreement covering the drive through, the new owners (the son and daughter) do not have to let you do it; they can restrict you to uses, etc. in the lease itself. You may, however, have a claim to recover the money you put into the improvement, under either the theory of unjust enrichment (it would be unfair for them to get the benefit and increase in value of the improvements you made) or possibly promissory estoppel (even without a written agreement, you can sometimes enforce, at least to the point of receiving compensation for breach, oral or verbal promises if it was reasonable for you to rely on those promises and you did rely on them to your detriment). It would be worthwhile for you to speak with an attorney, to see if you do have enforceable rights under some  theory other than landlord-tenant law, since, as stated, landlord-tenant law would typically give you no rights in a situation like this without a written agreement.


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