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How to Deal with Landlord Problems:
8 Tips for Tenants
Signing a lease, having the landlord make repairs, or getting your deposit back
after moving out can be simple or stressful, depending on the landlord. Here are
a few quick tips for preventing or handling common landlord-tenant conflicts.
1. Read the fine print.
A verbal agreement is legal, but it’s better to get it in writing. And don’t just
skim through a lease or rental agreement before signing it; really read it, and
ask questions. Be sure you understand everything. For example, a lease may renew
automatically at the end of a year, locking you into another 12 months of rent unless
you give the landlord written notice in advance – typically 30 or 60 days before
the lease would renew. Landlords often use a standard lease form with all tenants,
but if you don’t like something it says, ask for changes. The landlord might agree.
All changes should be initialed and dated by both you and the landlord.
2. Protect yourself with walk-through, photos.
Before moving in, walk through the unit with the landlord and make notes about dingy
carpeting, a cracked window pane, chipped tiles or other problems. Even better,
take pictures or video; these can be valuable after you move out and want your deposit
back. If the landlord won’t do a walk-through, ask a friend or family member to
look at the place with you, and have them sign the written notes.
3. Keep good records.
Create a rental file or folder. Use this to hold your copy of the lease or rental
agreement, the walk-through notes, your rental receipts (especially if you pay in
cash), any notices you get from the landlord, and copies of anything you send to
the landlord. If there is a problem, make detailed notes each time you talk to or
attempt to contact the landlord. Whenever possible, put it in writing and keep a
copy in your file.
4. Know your rights.
It varies by state, but typically a tenant must pay the rent on time, keep the unit
clean, dispose of all garbage or trash, avoid damages that are more than daily wear-and-tear,
and respect any neighbor’s right to a quiet and peaceful environment.
Generally, landlords must keep the place in good shape, make reasonable repairs,
and allow for the tenant’s “quiet enjoyment” of the rental; in most states the landlord
is not allowed to turn off the utilities, change the locks or in any way try to
force the tenant to leave without going to court for an eviction order.
For more details, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) lists tenants’ rights by state. And check with your city or county to see if there are local landlord-tenant laws that might give you even more protection.
5. When needed, seek outside help.
Online dispute resolution services, such as this one, can help you list all the
facts, state your complaint and goal, and provide a chance for your landlord to
agree to a solution. If the landlord remains stubborn, contact the office of your
local mayor, city manager or state attorney general and ask about
free or low-cost mediation services in your area, to work out your differences without
going to court. If you do need legal help and can’t afford it, often Legal Aid or
other agencies provide free or low-cost services; the American Bar Association lists
legal resources by state.
6. Report illegal acts.
If your landlord is abusive or making threats, call 9-1-1. If you think a landlord
has discriminated against you based on your race, color, national origin, religion,
or sex, or because you have children or a disability, file a complaint with HUD. If despite repeated requests the landlord refused to fix fire, health,
or safety hazards – such as no heat or utilities, sewage problems, a major mouse
or rat infestation, hazardous lead paint, or structural defects – send a written
complaint to the local health or building inspection department. If you have paid
rent to someone pretending to be a landlord who does not own the property or your
landlord has cheated you (such as making you pay for electric or other utilities
for more than just your unit), contact your local consumer protection or district
7. Take the right steps before moving out.
Whether you have a signed lease or are renting on a month-to-month basis, always
tell your landlord in writing the date you will be moving out, and keep a copy for
yourself; don’t depend on a conversation or text message. Look through your copy
of the lease or rental agreement for anything that lists what should happen when
you move out. Repeat the walk-through with the landlord, comparing how the place
looks now with the notes and pictures that you took before moving in.
8. Know how to get your deposit back.
State laws will say how long a landlord has to return a deposit
after a tenant moves out (often 30 days) and the reasons a landlord may keep part
or all of that deposit (typically for excessive damages or for overdue rent). If
your landlord does not return the money on time or keeps it for reasons not allowed
under state law and the amount is $2,500-$15,000 or less (it varies by state), you
can file a claim in small claims court, without involving lawyers.
If you do have problems with your landlord, the best approach is to keep calm. Decide
exactly what you want to see happen – “The furnace needs fixing immediately” or
“I want my deposit back” – and quietly make it clear that you won’t settle for less.
You might want to yell or argue, but it won’t help the situation, and could make
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