Richard Rooney, an attorney here, has heard from various friends over the years, far too many tales of woe about bad landlords–often from tenants who didn’t really protect themselves properly. While some landlords will roll their eyes and recount their own tales of bad tenants, or “professional” tenants who play games, this article by Richard is a good reminder that staying on top of things is the best approach:
“How to Deal with a Slum Lord”
by Richard K. Rooney, J.D.
Having spent a few years dealing with landlord tenant matters as an attorney has been an interesting process. I have represented landlords as well as tenants. Landlords often must face so called “professional tenants” who manipulate the landlord tenant laws in order to acquire free boarding. On the other side of the ledger, are “slum lords” who skirt their obligations and often rip off their tenants by shifting their burdens onto the tenants.
Landlords should and do expect this behavior as part of the overhead cost of being landlords. Not every tenant is going to pay in full or on time and often landlords have to make use of the courts eviction processes. Sadly, most renters dealing with “slum lords” don’t have the financial means to hire a lawyer and go to court. So what can a tenant do to protect himself?
It probably goes without saying that not renting from a slum lord is the best option. But what if financial circumstances don’t allow for that? Here are some quick tips that can help protect you against slum lord rip offs. That said what article by a lawyer would be complete without some disclaimer. These are my common-sense suggestions and are a starting point. They may not be applicable to your situation, in no way constitute legal advice, and are not a substitute for actually consulting a lawyer.
1. Document the Premises
This advice is a good rule of thumb for all tenants whether or not they suspect their landlord is a slum lord. Fill out the itemized checklist and return a copy to the landlord within the first week of occupancy and inform the landlord of any preexisting conditions to the apartment that need to be addressed. Keep a copy of the list for your records. Take photographs of the premises both before you move into the dwelling and last thing before you turn your keys in, so at the beginning and end of the tenancy. By taking these steps you will have evidence of the actual condition of the apartment.
2. Read the Lease
I know. Really. Who reads contracts besides lawyers? As a tenant this is a vital step to understanding what you are responsible for and what the landlord is responsible for. Under Michigan law, there are obligations that a landlord is responsible for by default. Some of these things, can be altered by the nature of the contract while others cannot. For more information on the details, I strongly urge tenants to consult the publications available on the MSU College of Law website.
3. Make Any Communications Regarding Maintenance of the Premises in Writing
This issue can trip people up but it’s important. If you need something fixed maybe just going down to the office or calling the property manager can get things solved. However, if you see no action within a reasonable time follow up in writing and keep a copy of your correspondence. This is especially important if the issue is a major one that would justify withholding of rent.
4. Know About Constructive Evictions
In residential leases, the landlord is responsible for maintaining a habitable environment. This means if certain things aren’t working properly, the landlord cannot legally charge you rent until they are fixed. This is an obligation that landlords cannot change with language in the lease. Some example issues include malfunctioning plumbing, heating, electrical. No heat, no power, and no water – assuming the reason for lack of the utility is within the landlord’s control – means no rent. This means that you can’t withhold rent because you failed to pay your gas bill or because a transformer went down in a storm. But if there are bad pipes or electrical equipment in your rental and thing stop working your landlord is responsible. Other major examples that constitute a constructive eviction would be flooding of the rental, bad roofing causing internal leaking, and failure of any landlord supplied appliances.
If such a condition occurs it is best to inform the landlord immediately and follow up with a written demand for repairs. If the issue isn’t resolved in a reasonably timely manner, you then have the option to send a second written communication indicating the constructive eviction and inform the landlord that you will be escrowing/withholding rent. While it is not necessary to get a “escrow” account, you should at least park the money in a separate account with no other funds. The purpose is that if a district court finds you owe some or part of that rent, you want to be able to show the judge that you acted in good faith and you want to have the money.
5. Know How to Get Your Security Deposit Back
Often, slum lords just assume the security deposit is theirs and find creative ways to keep it. By law landlords are holding that money but it’s the tenant’s money. In fact, if they fail to return that money unjustly, they can be required to pay back double or even triple based on statute and common law causes of action. But, to make the process a smooth one, tenants have certain steps they need to follow.
Those steps are 1. fill out the itemized checklist and return a copy to the landlord the first week of tenancy, 2. provide the landlord with a new address within 4 days of moving out, and 3. mail the landlord written dispute detailing what damages are not the tenant’s responsibility and why within 7 days of receiving the itemized list of damages from the landlord. (For more information on disputing charges against the security deposit see the publication linked above). Know what you are and are not responsible. Security deposits can be held for unpaid rent and damages to the dwelling, not as cleaning fees or for ordinary wear and tear to the apartment.
Often, slum lords will make up bogus charges knowing that most tenants won’t be legally sophisticated and won’t know they aren’t responsible for certain things or they won’t timely provide a sufficiently detailed dispute the itemized list of damages in writing. Slum lords also know that hiring a lawyer to collect even triple the cost of the security deposit is not worth it for tenants to bother.
The following suggestion is somewhat controversial and you should at least talk to a lawyer or legal aid if you think you may end up in this situation. If you are legitimately concerned about a landlord trying to stiff you on the security deposit, you might consider putting your last month’s rent in escrow. Because security deposits can be up to 1.5 times your monthly rent, this doesn’t fully protect you and it opens you up to possible eviction proceedings.
However, if you have good reasons that would convince a judge and you set that money aside as a show of good faith, you can protect yourself. This is the game that “professional tenants” play. Most leases have a 3-5 day grace period. Not until that period has expired can a landlord send what’s known as a notice to quit for non-payment of rent.
A notice to quit for non-payment is a document letting you know that if you do not pay or voluntarily vacate within 7 days, the landlord can then go to court and get a date for an eviction hearing. The hearing will therefore at a minimum not occur until close to halfway into your last month of tenancy. You can further request the hearing be adjourned to acquire a lawyer which already gets you near the end of the month.
While the second hearing cannot typically be adjourned, you have an opportunity to present your reasons to the judge as to why you have that last month’s rent parked in escrow. If you have compelling evidence, the judge might allow the rent to remain in escrow. If not, the landlord must wait another 10 days before they can have you forcibly removed from your dwelling, by which time your lease probably expired anyway. You’ve essentially shifted the burden of who must go through the pain and expense of litigating security deposit issues for the small amount of money involved. Of course, following this track means that you should have all your documentation and follow all the security deposit law requirements.
6. When in Doubt, Talk to a Landlord Tenant Attorney
If you have concerns about provisions of your lease, about getting your security deposit back, about repairs and constructive evictions, or other landlord related concerns, consider talking to an attorney familiar with landlord tenant law. Sometimes, just a strongly worded demand letter from an attorney can get you your money back and those don’t cost nearly what filing a court case would.
I hope these suggestions help anyone faced with a dishonest landlord but remember the best option is to avoid such individuals if possible.