Bad Landlord? Protect Your Tenant’s Rights

Just about everyone knows someone with a story about a nightmare landlord. One that didn’t fix the air conditioning, or stole the security deposit on a shaky claim. Unfortunately, there are no landlord police to come along and rescue you. You have to know your rights, document everything, and understand what you are signing.
Landlords do have legal duties, but often they are not even aware of them. Tenants also have legal rights but it is up to them to find out what they are. Be aware that tenant rights vary from state to state. If you run into problems, probably the best thing to do is find a tenant’s association in your area. They will be able to fill you in on what your legal rights are and what steps you need to take to protect yourself.
Having said that, there are some tenant’s rights that are pretty basic, no matter what state you reside in.

Common landlord problems

The landlord enters your apartment without notice. The landlord may claim that, since he owns the property, he can come in whenever he wants. In fact, he does have a legal right to enter, even for an inspection, but he must give you a minimum of 24 hours notice, and give you a time that he will come. The only time a landlord may enter unannounced is in an emergency situation. You, as a renter, have legally established tenancy and you have a right to privacy.
The landlord tells you to just sign the lease – it’s a standard lease so you have nothing to worry about. The truth is, there is no such legal document known as a "standard lease". There are different varieties of leases to be found everywhere. Many of them are legal, but some contain clauses that are not. The term "standard lease" is likely used to satisfy you, the tenant, and keep you from asking questions. Some leases may ask tenants to waive their legal rights, such as notice to enter, or repair and deduct rights. The bad news is that often, the tenant does not know that these clauses are not legal. So what can you do? Always ask for a copy of the lease to review for 24 hours. If you do not understand something, or it doesn’t seem right to you, have a tenant’s association advocate or a lawyer look at it for you.
The landlord wants to withhold your security deposit for ordinary wear-and-tear. It is not legal for your landlord keep the deposit for small nail holes in the walls, paint discoloration, scuffs on tile or carpet, or the like. If there are actual damages, the landlord is required to provide a receipt detailing the repair costs, and deduct that amount from your deposit. A landlord also cannot charge you for pre-existing damages. The best way to protect yourself from this is to take photos of the rental unit before moving in and document everything. If you have to go to court, the burden of proof for damage is on the landlord.
The landlord tells you to just live with the broken (dishwasher, air conditioner) because other people don’t have them in their apartments. A rental agreement is between you and the landlord; what other people do or do not have is irrelevant. If your landlord drags his feet on performing repairs, one solution may be the repair and deduct rights that tenants have in many states. In other words, you can get the repairs done yourself and deduct the amount from your rent. You should always send your decision to repair and deduct in writing to your landlord and keep a copy for yourself. Your tenant’s association should be able to help you with repair and deduct rights.

Remember that your landlord is in business, and repairs cut into the bottom line. Just as you would do when dealing with any business, get everything in writing, ask lots of questions, and document all relevant exchanges with photos, phone logs, or e-mails.