Renting from a shitty landlord....with dignity
The post could have really ended right there, but maybe you're looking for more than that. Or maybe you need validation for your anger or the question answered about your rights as a tenant.
It's been 8 years since I started renting on my own at 18. After 13 moves, 3 court dates and every rental issue known to man, I now consider myself a veteran. I've learned about roommates and sharing. Of contracts and business law. Of pest infestations. Of deranged drug addicted housemates and my rights. And, most importantly, about what I can and cannot expect (especially while a parent) to be reasonable while renting.
I've been the reason two landlords have lost their properties due to their own negligence and wrongdoing. I've gone to court several times. I've been both the best tenant you could ever hope for and the downfall of your life. And here, I share with anyone who is interested, the top 10 truths about renting:
- Mi Casa Es Su Casa: Let's be reasonable here. You are a tenant. You are one party in a business relationship. While you do pay "good money" to live in your landlord's property, you need to be responsible and accept tenant responsibilities. (What, you thought this opinion piece was solely about bashing landlords?) You need to know what is and isn't your right. I can't tell you how many times I've heard gripes from people who didn't read their lease or think they can just pack up and leave without paying rent because their landlord is making them get rid of Fluffy, the lease-violating wonder cat, after the landlord specified "no pets." The woes from victims who think they are immune from policies and standards of living. What you sign off on is what you agree to do. If you agree that there is no smoking in the unit, don't be surprised when you lose your security deposit for puffing two packs a day indoors. Don't cry and call your parents to sue when you find it unfair that your "greedy" landlord is sending you a bill for the cleanup and extermination of the ants you attracted by leaving spilled beer and open food across every inch of your apartment.
- Then again... Just because you have an obligation to your landlord, it doesn't mean you have no rights. Even if your landlord lives upstairs, next to you or across the country, they are required to give you reasonable notice of entering your property (typically 24 hours notice, except in an apparent emergency such as a leak, fire or hazard) and you can refuse them entry if they fail to do so. You are entitled and protected to have fair and reasonable use of the property you rented- comfortably. Oh? Landlord didn't call or write to say he needs to get in to fix something? You can tell them they must give you notice and that it's not a good time, closing the door in their face. You can send the repair guy away. You can tell the landlord no, they can't just come in to check something or do a quick repair. Your landlord can't just waltz in to spy on you, check out your living conditions or "fix" things without you approving. If you find that they have entered unlawfully, you need to document it with photos and written correspondence. The more evidence you have, whether it's e-mails, text messages, certified mail or a log sheet made in a program like Excel, the better. Be sure to log times, dates and reasons for your landlord's visits. You can even call the police on them citing you think there's a burglar in your home or a landlord trespassing. If your landlord ever tries to evict you on his own, kick you out, throw your belongings out, turn off any utilities, lock you out or otherwise tell you that you have to leave without first winning in court and having the sheriff come on over, you can sue in many states for double or triple the damages. Landlords can be fined hundreds of dollars a day for violations in some states. Always call the police in escalated situations or times where a landlord has illegally kicked you out or intruded. If he changed the lock or told you that you have to be gone in 3 days, you don't. You have rights. You can't just be forced out. Bad landlords depend on you not knowing your rights so they can get even more money.
- Pest Control: Your lease holds all the answers, but a property MUST be in safe, clean habitable condition. Regardless of what your state might say, if your lease states that pest control is your responsibility as the tenant, you're going to be the one shelling out the cash to fix the problem. Of course, there are exceptions such as a severe infestation or a pre-existing condition known by the landlord. Did you move in and document ant traps all over or mysterious powder in the corners? Better document it and ask the landlord. Bedbugs are almost entirely the tenant's responsibility, though if you document the start of a problem and can show the problems were present at or very close to move in, you can be protected. If you live in a multi-family dwelling and your neighbor has an obvious infestation or problem, you may have protections against that and the right to have the landlord fumigate. A few sugar ants in the kitchen is on you to clean up. A spider or two isn't an infestation. Be responsible and diligent about cleanliness. Ants writhing out of the ceiling light fixtures, through the walls and out the pipes are your landlord's job, providing you live cleanly with food in containers, etc. Always check your state laws and tenant's right guide, but if your landlord refuses to do anything about your pest control problem or fails to respond to your written notification of a pest problem within a reasonable amount of time (typically 10 days- check your state laws), you may be able to pay for services you need and then deduct the amount from your next rent check. This is called "Repair and Deduct." Some pests, like ants or roaches, may not even count as vermin according to your state- just a mere inconvenience that don't pose a health threat. Even if you have a baby in the house, you may not be entitled to have the costs of repairs or pest control completely covered by your landlord. ALWAYS check your tenant's rights and state laws!
- A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words...or Dollars: Take pictures of everything. Take pictures of the house or apartment before you move in, while you live there and when you've moved out. Take pictures of how YOU keep it. Keep dated materials (i.e. a newspaper with date) in the picture to verify dates. The "timestamp" option on a camera is no longer admissible in many courts.Your word against the landlord may not be enough to persuade a judge to get him to give you back your deposit or pay for repairs or even provide pest control if your landlord has better evidence against you. The same goes for voice recordings and emails. Both are court admissible. Check local state laws, but you may be allowed to record conversations without ever having to disclose that you are!
- Foreclosure Doesn't Mean You Leave: So, you've paid your rent, written your checks out monthly for your utilities or pay them in your name and now, all of a sudden, there is a notice on your door about you being evicted and the property put into foreclosure. 40% of all foreclosures leave people who don't own the house homeless. What can you do? In many states, you are no longer required to keep paying the landlord rent, but you need to call a local lawyer for more info on this. In others, you may have "first dibs" on the property and the chance to buy it out from under the landlord and either keep or flip it. As of a newer law, you have 90 days from the notice of foreclosure before you have to be gone from the property. This gives you time to search for a new place and prepare your evidence if need be. If your landlord illegally prevented you from knowing you were in a property entering foreclosure or otherwise ripped off the notices telling you about it leaving you with absolutely no time to find a place to live, you may have a larger issue and need legal help immediately.
- Discrimination May Be Allowed: Believe it or not, there are times when "discrimination" may be allowed and it's not illegal. While Federal Law states that it's illegal for a landlord, apartment manager, rental agent or real estate agent to discriminate against someone due to race, sex, religion, color, national origin, age, familial status (i.e. NOT necessarily marital status, but it does cover children, pregnancy, etc) or handicap (either mental or physical), a landlord can pick and choose candidates based on other factors. Especially if they own fewer than a certain number of properties in some states. A landlord has every right to say that you, as a college student cannot live in their basement because they don't like students. They cannot say, however, that you have to leave because you are pregnant. They can't tell you you can't rent because you are Jewish. Your partner (whether same or opposite sex) isn't entitled to live with you if you are not legally married in that state, so don't count on your girlfriend or boyfriend being allowed to live with you. Pets can be discriminated against. If you think you've been illegally discriminated against, you can file a complaint with your state or federal agency. If you are a special case, such as a victim of domestic or sexual abuse or are in the military and need to leave early, you are exempt from obligations to a lease and may be able to leave early with no penalty.
- You can't withhold rent: No matter how bad, mean, nasty, negligent or anger inducing your landlord is, you can't just not pay rent. You also can't just leave without warning if you're on a lease. If repairs aren't getting done or if other problems arise, you are required to do everything legally or risk losing your security deposit or even be sued for the remainder of your lease or agreement. This might mean waiting mandatory 10 day periods or sending requests via Certified Mail and proving that the landlord ignored requests or otherwise acted unfairly. You can't just decide not to pay if your landlord didn't fix a light bulb or even if your heat hasn't been working a week (though many states have provisions about being able to call the local housing board if heat/water/electric hasn't been on for 24-72 hours as an emergency situation. In those cases, you can call police or appropriate authorities to restore utilities and refuse to pay rent until the situation improves). You can, however, check with local laws and lawyers to see if you are allowed to put the money into an Escrow account in good faith to show you're not scamming the landlord and do intend to pay, but the situation is forcing you to not pay. In some situations, you may be allowed to pay for repairs yourself and then subtract it legally from your rent. Either way, consult local laws before you do anything so you are protecting yourself.
- Your Lease Is Holy: So this was mentioned at other points, but your lease is the most valuable thing you own when you rent. Whatever is in that magical piece of paper is the law of the land. Don't have a lease? That's OK. Without a written lease or with a verbal agreement, you are considered a month-to-month tenant. Month-to-month tenants also have rights. Not the same rights, but you still can't be treated unfairly. You can't just be kicked out instantly. You can't have your utilities turned off or your stuff stolen or sold. You can't be locked out of your apartment by a landlord evicting you on their own without a court. Always either get a lease if possible or everything recorded one way or another.
- Deposits are for Damage Only: A security deposit is only allowed to be used to cover damage beyond normal wear and tear. Thumbtacks used on the walls to hang posters are not unreasonable. Holes in the wall from the party you held is. You can't leave or otherwise not pay your last month's rent saying that "the security will cover it." It doesn't. It won't. And you can be sued. If your landlord wants to claim there were damages, you'll have your pictures of every square inch of the place at move-out to prove them wrong. ALWAYS get a walk-through inspection with your landlord and voice recording of the experience (if allowable by law). From personal experience, I've had a complex tell me they took $400 of my security deposit to re-paint and re-carpet because "every tenant gets new carpet and paint before move-in." That's not anyone's problem but THEIRS as landlords. Unless you stained the carpet or destroyed the walls beyond a tiny scuff, you are entitled to your security back. Security can't be used to make repairs. It also can't mingle with a landlord's other monies. Security deposits are supposed to be put into a separate bank account that accrues interest and, unless your lease states otherwise, you as the tenant are allowed to collect that interest when you move out. If a landlord puts your security in their personal account or in the same account as other money, it's hot water for them. You do not have to pay money because it's "just something they do." And yes, they have to refund your security within a reasonable amount of time- definable as 14 days in most cases.
- Room-mates May Bring Headaches: If you live with someone else who bails or otherwise doesn't pay and you're on a lease, the rent due is on you. The landlord is allowed to collect rent from ANY tenant. So if your roommate is responsible for a portion of the rent and disappears or otherwise leaves to go live with the love of their life, you can be pursued for the entirety of the rent. Your recourse? You have to sue your roommate personally to recover damages thrust upon you. And, as with a lawsuit with a deadbeat landlord, you can't squeeze blood from a stone. If they have no money or assets, even if they lose in court they can declare bankruptcy and never end up giving you a cent. Always sign roommate agreements and always sign roommate contracts. Contracts aren't because you don't trust someone- it's because you DO trust them to follow any agreement you make. If they won't sign, look for another arrangement.