Where can tenants turn for help?
January Rental Advice: Renting doesn't come with a guidebook. As a tenant, you'll likely receive apartment rules to follow. But where do you turn when the landlord slips on his obligations?
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It's safe to say that renting may be the most massive unregulated industry we have in this country.
More than a third of Americans — 34% and rising in 2011 — lease their home from either a private landlord or an apartment company. With average rent hovering around $1,000 a month, that's $460 billion turned over every year in rent — about what the entire grocery industry grosses annually. (Bing: What's the average rent in your area?)
But while supermarkets are subject to periodic government inspections to check things such as accurate price scans and safe food handling, landlords in all but a few locales need never fear a random visit from a housing inspector. (See "How landlords get away with it.")
As Steven R. Kellman, founder of the Tenants Legal Center in San Diego, likes to say, good laws to protect tenants exist, "but they're not going to jump up off the page." It's up to tenants to learn their rights and take action. He also likes to say that all you need to be a landlord is "a deed and a pulse," which highlights the absence of required legal training to manage a rental.
It's a high-stakes game played without a referee in sight. But we're here to try to be helpful. So here it is: Tenants can find answers and get help if they know where to look and how to frame the question.
(Tenants: We're putting together a story on scams targeting tenants in foreclosed buildings. Have you received any solicitations from individuals or groups saying they can prevent or delay your eviction for a fee? Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
"A lot of people make mistakes," Kellman says. "They'll go on the Internet and they won't get information that's specific to their jurisdiction."
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The Internet is the still the best place to start. But it's a great place to be misled, as well. The search can be particularly tricky because aside from the new federal law protecting tenants in foreclosure, tenant laws vary by state, county and city.
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You can get an idea of what protections tenants typically have in articles such as these from MSN Real Estate: "15 common renter's rights" and "Don't fall for these 10 crazy landlord claims." But when it comes to the specifics — your situation, your lease, your town, your state — you'll need to do some local research and eventually make a local call.
To find the laws for your area, start with government sites. Do a Web search for "housing authority," "consumer protection" or "attorney general" in your state. Check at the county and city level, too. Don't be afraid to call if you can't find information for tenants on those sites.
University housing offices provide information online, as do some tenant lawyers, as with this blog for San Francisco tenants.
But if you need something done, call a lawyer, tenant union, legal aid group or neighborhood legal-services organization, Kellman says. See if the court clerk or bar association knows some lawyers who offer pro bono assistance.
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"You can get information of a general nature through books, the Internet, pamphlets," Kellman says. "But the real value is if a skilled person can take your situation and apply it to the law in a way that benefits you."
Before you call, 3 questions to answer
1. What is your question, exactly? This is not as easy or as obvious as it sounds.
Janet Portman, a lawyer who writes a weekly column for Inman News, says many of the reader "questions" she receives could more fairly be described as emotional rants. This is understandable, she says, but it's not helpful. Neither is the one question that invariably follows such a screed: "What should I do?"
"Good lawyers don't tell people what to do," she says. They ask the client what he wants to do.
So what is it, exactly, that you want? Do you want the landlord to stop showing your unit to would-be buyers? Do you want the smoke from other tenants to stop wafting into your unit? Turn each gripe into a goal and then a question. For example, in town X, can a landlord enter five times in one day, with notice, if my lease says Y?
"They need to dispassionately learn their rights and their obligations," Portman says.
2. Have you notified the landlord in writing? Bill Deegan, executive director of the American Tenants Association, a nonprofit association for renters, says he gets an average of 100 calls a week from renters in search of answers, often about security deposits or maintenance issues. Nine out of 10 of his callers can be dispatched with the following question: "Did you tell the landlord?"
"No," the tenant will say.
"Well, do it," Deegan says. "Open the lines of communication. It's really a communication business. Write a letter."
It may seem obvious, but emotions can easily bully common sense. I'm supposed to sit down and write a calm, polite letter requesting my security deposit when he's already late and I'm fuming? Yes.
In fact, it's hard to think of a scenario in which the tenant's first step isn't to contact the landlord. Certainly, the legal-aid representative will ask for evidence that the landlord was notified and had an opportunity to correct the situation.
Contact the landlord in writing. Be polite and to the point. Don't indulge in emotional ramblings. You just want to detail the problem and request that the landlord address it. Close with a statement that you expect to hear back within a certain time frame — a few hours if it's a serious safety issue such as a broken heater. If the landlord doesn't resolve the issue, write again and state that you will be contacting housing authorities.
3. Did you reread your lease? Although a lease cannot supersede the law, certain situations will hinge on the lease agreement, and the lawyer will ask you for details.
I gave $700 with the agreement to pay the balance in a week.
I do work and have paid the balance and the utility was transferred
from the owners name as agreed within two days of move in.
the total would be $870 for a month rent and security. (435)
within a few days i noticed the fridge is warm and my food
has spoiled. Notified the landlord and the maintenance guy
did service it and it worked for a few days. Meanwhile the landlord
was not open to reimbursement and told me to call my renters insurance agent.
I had already told him that the AC was not working as well and it is still summer
so we are very hot in this place. It's now been three weeks and the landlord refuses to fix
the AC because he says i have someone staying with me and he wants more money. He always
said to me that because he never gave me the lease that he can just kick me out if i don't
comply with the rent increase. Furthermore, he says we don't have legal right to the place
although we have keys and the duke energy bill is in my mom's name. He asked for his key back
and I asked for my money back. He said that I can have my deposit only it I return the keys and move out ASAP!
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if i take on a one year lease with a written agrement to pay half of just the gas utility bill..and was somehow deemed responsible for half of the total utileties and payed it ...did i **** up or did they ..breach the lease agreement...to the sum of $1100.00......help
I HAVE BEEN AN EXCELLENT TENANT FOR OVER 20 YEARS ( YES, I'M STUPID FOR NOT BUYING A HOUSE OR APT ), BUT IN SOUTH FLORIDA THE COST OF OWNING A PROPERTY IS WAY GREATER THAN RENTING.
MY RENT STAYS IN AN "ACEPTABLE LEVEL" FOR THE AREA DUE TO THE FACT OF THE YEARS LIVING IN THE BUILDING ( SO MY LANDLORD SAYS....). ANYWAY, MY LANDLORD HAS TURN INTO A SOMEWHAT "SLUMLORD" AND DELAYS OR SIMPLY REFUSES TO MAKE REPAIRS TO WATER HEATERS, CENTRAL AC UNITS, RANGES, REFRIGERATORS, ETC, ETC,ETC..
RECENTLY MY CENTRAL AIR BROKE AND THE TECHNICIAN SAID THE EVAPORATOR COIL HAS TO BE REPLACED FOR A NEW UNIT ( ABOUT $ 900.00). THE LANDLORD TOLD ME HE WOULD NOT DO IT UNLESS HE RAISES MY RENT OVER $ 200.00 A MONTH.
WINTER IS STILL HERE IN SOUTH FLORIDA WITH MILD TEMPERATURES. IF HE DOES NOT FIX MY AC BEFORE THE BRUTAL FLORIDA SUMMER HITS; I WILL DO WHAT HE DESERVES. I WILL LIVE FOR FREE FOR 90 DAYS AND TRASH THE APT. THE COST OF REPAIRING THE APT. FOR RENTING IT AGAIN WILL BE GREATER THAN THE COST OF REPLACING THE AC UNIT. IF THAT'S WHAT HE WANTS, HE WILL HAVE IT !!!
Mr Duvall is exactly right, I am waiting for the 19th of this month to get a tenant out by court order. What a joke the court system is, they can't even follow there own rules.
They basically stayed there for free for 7 months. Just can't wait to see how much damage I have to repair.
What a stupid article! I have had my houses and apartments destroyed by renters and there is nothing you can do about it. Taking them to court is a joke! Judgements do not get you your money and they just go somewhere else and do the same!
If the renter pays on time and in full each time, then the landlords I know take care of them. Now there are exceptions but by and large, it is the landlords that get the short end of the deal, not the tenant!
The landlord is in business to make money. Most have monthly notes that must be paid and paid on time. If a tenant gets a sorry landlord, move! If i get a sorry renter, I evict them! It's just that simple!
We have been landlords for almost 10 years. We have put thousands of dollars into upgrades (not repairs, upgrades) into our one rental unit. We have had nothing but deadbeat, complaining, troublemaking, whining tenants for 10 years. What can landlords do? All the laws are tipped in favor of tenants - and believe me, they know it!
You have done a great dis-service by framing this article the way you have.
Nice huh? Yes, I moved.
Sorry for the landlords on here who feel the need to trash the tenant. We were the good tenants with a slumlord for a landlord. The waterheater broke down--called him over a 2 week period--no call back, no stop by, no fix. We fixed it out of our pocket but still had to pay the rent in full on time. Rented the house but he made us pay the full water bill...even when he was stopping by against the watering rules by the city and watered the grass in the middle of the day. Police come by, guess who gets the warning--us. And if there was a fine, we get stuck with it. Unfortunately, he expected a golf course turf when their was clay 3 inches down and the grass was shallow and in no good shape when we moved in. His idea of fertizing was to "scare" the grass by a quick run over with a 1/4 of a bag between the front and back yards. So we paid a company to aerate and fertilize the yard for us professionally. He basically harassed us about the yard no matter what we did but anything involving faulty electrical, plumbing, appliances, ect was left up to us since he refused to return calls, reimburse us, acknowledge a problem while he was at the house, ignored our complaint of illegal watering, no mention of a note included with the rent payment. We should have owned the damn house since we put so much money into it.
The worst with this slumlord was bathroom tiles that were cracked, dislodging, and leaked through an adjoining wall into a bedroom with carpet. The carpet was always wet and eventually had large mushrooms the size of a man's fist in various groups growing out of it. We could not afford to redo the bathroom. Once the mold smell began causing breathing and asthma issues for myself and the kids...we then contacted a mold remediation company. $250 out of our pocket to get a test ran to confirm yes we had dangerous mold and needed to get that section of the house quarantined off with plastic and tape and blowers out the windows. After sending him a copy of our payment and the report--he finally decided to do something about it. The same company removed drywall, flooring, our belongings all to trash. This went on for over a week (we were glad to see something happening) with a new baby in the house and all the noise. What angered us was that we were not reimbursed for the belongings and furniture that was thrown away or the cost of the test. Once these guys were done--he had a shoddy friend of his coming and going at odd times of the day and night, had a key to our house, completely blew away any privacy any of us had in the house, no phone calls or anything--and did really crappy work. The mold was gone, but the job of the remodel didn't leave much in the way of repairs either. Eventually we were able to afford to move out.
And guess what--we were on Section-8 Housing Assistance at the time. And we were good tenants...whadayaknow! Pawn shops were our best friend to get things done for his house. He originally charged a lesser amount of rent than the max was for us, but once he found out what the max amount was, he increased it to the max. Never put a dime into the house until the mold remediation company did the work and then the remodel--everything else, we paid for and did ourselves with no deduction of rent, no reimbursement, no thank yous, no nothing. As far as I am concerned--landlords are all trash...I have yet to find one that actually treats tenants with respect...and that is not the only bad landlord I have been stuck with or my in-laws are stuck with either.
Some are so very very nice, and it's the horrible ones that make it bad for everyone. It's so disappointing when you put your best foot forward and really want to do right by your tenants and all they're intent on doing is making it difficult for you. They automatically assume from day one that we are adversaries and argue everything in the world. We allow pets here. I had a tenant who had a small dog, then asked to have another small dog (she got it because a dear friend passed). I said yes. After I said yes, she then started arguing about how she should be allowed to have a dog, has a medical note, etc etc. Crazy.
Who is out there to help the landlord who is trying to evict a tenant who hasn't paid their rent and is trashing the house. Who pays to replace the carpet that the tenant let animals deficate all over. Who pays to replace the plumbing that the tenant poured cement down because they were being evicted for not paying their rent for six months. Who pays to fumigate the house after a tenant moves and you discover every bug known living in the house.
I have six houses I rent out. I pay for the water so that there is no excuse for not maintaining the yard. I pay for someone to come out once a year and help the tenant clean the yard.
I pay for trash pick up so they don't have piles and piles of garbage all over the place.
And still, I don't get paid the rent on time.
And, in California, the tenant has more rights than I do if there is a dispute.
Wish there was a neutral advocate who could look at both sides of the issue because I bet they would discover there is more abuse by neglectful tenants than landlords.
I agree with you wholeheartedly RPH4. I've been a landlord for 4 years and more specifically 2 years ago when I picked up a couple more. I've had a few good tenants and a few bad tenants. My apartments aren't anything special but they are nice and clean and functional. If anything breaks I'
m ready to fix it right away. Oh wait, I had a tenant break their brand new bathroom vanity I just installed 3 days earlier and they expect me to replace it again at my own cost. Or how about the tenant who earns double the money I do who hasn't paid me rent in 4 months so I have to take them to court where they finally pay me so I can't kick them out and then a couple months later move out without telling me stiffing me for two months rent. Oh pooooooor tenants. Give me a break. All the laws are set up against the landlord now. As with everything, the government can't ever put something in place where it's a middle ground. They go everboard to try to correct problems they ignored for years. And don't get me started on the trash created and not taken to the curb 50 feet away by tenants that are on government assistance. If you have no job and are home all day and not disabled, how can your home be a disgusting disaster.
Why is it always "where the tenant can turn when the landlord fails in his responsibilities". Where does the landlord turn when he is getting the shaft? Ever try to evict someone who hasn't paid you in 6 months? Everyone should experience the joy some time then tell me about the scumbag landlords.
Here's a novel idea, how about a neutral agency that works both sides of the road landlord and tenant complaints.
I was a residential landlord for 15 years and when i finally sold that tenement i celebrated the night away. If i had a dollar for every weeks rent i was screwed out of or for every incidence of damage i had to repair or every dumpster full of the trash and junk they left for me to haul away i would be a rich man.
Don't cry on my shoulder about the poor people who are homeless or can't afford the rent half of them are dirt bags and deserve to be.
Sorry but after my experiences as a landlord if it were up to me to provide housing for everyone....well let's just say it would be a long cold night. Do i sound bitter, you bet!!