7 Steps for Fighting – and Beating – a Bad Landlord

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Don't let a landlord run your life or ruin it. They may own the property, but you have rights. You just have to know how to use them.

Someone coined the phrase “slumlord” for a reason – some landlords just don’t care. And if you’ve ever rented an apartment or a house, you probably have at least one horror story to tell. This is mine.

I moved into a rental duplex two years ago. The landlord was full of promises, the place was clean, and the price was right. Unfortunately, I had yet to learn the 5 Ways to Spot a Bad Landlord. I didn’t ask enough questions, I didn’t talk to current tenants, and I didn’t do any background research.

So it’s no surprise I ran into problems. But the severity of the problems was downright creepy – four long months later, he was sending me nasty text messages, and we had a (very) public fight on my front lawn.

Ultimately, I left before the lease was up. I lost my security deposit and had to find a new apartment on 24 hours’ notice. But you don’t have to suffer the same fate – and frankly, neither did I, if I only knew then what I know now. You can fight your landlord and win. Here’s how…

1. Start a written record

The problems with my landlord started almost immediately after I moved in. Within a week, he was knocking on my door at odd hours – often before 6 a.m. or after 10 p.m. – just to “check in.”

A month into my lease, I was getting ready for bed when I heard a key in the front door. I came into the living room to find my landlord entering the house. I threatened legal action if he didn’t leave. He did, but two weeks later, my neighbor met me outside one night to tell me the landlord had gone into my property again.

As a tenant, I knew I had some basic rights – like the right to privacy – so I started to log my landlord’s visits on a spreadsheet. I noted the time, reason for his visit, and duration every time he stopped by.

If you’re having problems with your landlord, keep good notes. If the problems escalate, those notes will help you prove your case against the landlord in court. Hopefully, it won’t get that far. Often, reasonable landlords will be swayed if you…

2. Check your lease agreement

If your landlord agreed to something in your lease, he has to follow it. Sometimes, landlords simply forget what’s in a lease until you remind them. Once you do, they might grumble, but they back down.

In my case, the biggest source of conflict was my dog. After I threatened to sue or even call the cops over my privacy, my landlord started retaliating by making strange demands.

One day, he came by and told me to “get rid” of my dog. When I told him he had signed a pet agreement, he said it didn’t matter because he “knew the eviction judge.” I ignored the request because I knew I had protection under the lease. Keep a copy of that lease in a safe place. It’s kryptonite to a super-bad landlord.

3. Send written requests

Not surprisingly, my landlord ignored a maintenance request I made after a door came off the hinges while I was trying to open it. I sent him a certified letter asking again for the repair. He never fixed it, but I had proof of that by keeping a copy of the letter.

Failing to make repairs is one of the most common tenant complaints. Sometimes your landlord just doesn’t care, but sometimes they’ve just forgotten. Follow up with your landlord – in writing. What should those letters look like? Here are some excellent examples from Oregon’s Lane County Legal Aid and Advocacy Center, which can be adjusted to work in any state.

4. Decide if you have a case

The relationship with my landlord continued to deteriorate. Within two months, I no longer felt comfortable in my own home. But I wasn’t sure that my landlord had really done anything bad enough to warrant a court case. I lived in New Orleans, so I went online and looked up Louisiana’s landlord and tenant laws.

I learned your landlord can’t raise your rent during your lease, invade your privacy without cause, or refuse to do repairs – but the state laws vary on the details. The legal website NOLO has a list of the landlord and tenant laws by state. Look up yours and learn your rights.

5. Seek legal assistance

Everyone has a breaking point. Mine came the morning I woke up to find a note on my front door. It claimed my dog had been barking all night and that I’d have to get rid of him that same day – or “vacate the property.”

When I called the landlord, he told me the dog had been barking at 10:30 p.m. and the neighbors had complained. I told him the dog was with me, out of the house, until well past midnight. Later that day, he showed up at my front door and demanded the keys. I refused. The landlord started shouting. The next thing I knew, we were arguing on the front lawn. When he left, I called a lawyer I knew, and he assured me I didn’t have to move.

If you can’t get a response from your landlord, or he keeps breaking the lease or the law, you’ll need legal help. Legal Aid provides low-cost (or free) legal advice to tenants based on income level.  The Legal Services Corporation website has a list of Legal Aid groups by state.

6. File a civil lawsuit

I never got to the point of suing my landlord. I left my rental the same day we had the heated argument on the front lawn. At that point, I just wanted to get away from him. But maybe I should’ve sued. I might have, if I knew I could quickly find help.

If you qualify, Legal Aid may be able to attend court on your behalf. Otherwise, you should hire a landlord-tenant lawyer. FindLaw has a database of landlord-tenant lawyers by location. If a judge decides in your favor, he may award you monetary damages or force the landlord to take action. That can more than make it worth the fee you paid the lawyer.

7. Fight discrimination

If there’s one thing my crazy landlord didn’t do, he never discriminated against me – apparently, he treated everyone like dirt. But it does happen. I know someone who was refused a rental because she was a college student. Another friend of mine was asked to move after she had a baby.

If you feel your landlord is discriminating against you based on your sex, race, or disability, you can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Local HUD offices may be able to take legal action against your landlord. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights’ website has a list of housing discrimination enforcement agencies by state.

The bottom line: Don’t let your landlord lord over your rights. The law is on your side.

Stacy Johnson

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