My friend and I were excited to be apartment hunting. We couldn’t wait to set up our bedrooms exactly the way we wanted, arrange the living area to resemble all the coziness of a cabin in the mountains, and maybe even invest in a “statement piece” — if we’d had room for a foosball table, it might have happened. So when we found an adorable two-bedroom apartment in the most perfect part of town, we couldn’t sign the lease fast enough.
At our final walk-through of the apartment, we met the landlord and the previous tenants, and there we noticed and pointed out a few visible things that would need to be fixed. The landlord assured us he’d make sure to get to those repairs as quickly as possible. We took him at his word, and despite the building’s exterior having less curb appeal than the inside of an old coffee pot, we signed the lease and moved into our new home.
What happened after that revealed that we were living under the thumb of a Bad Landlord. We found major problems with the rental space from day one, and the response from the property manager was tepid at best.
Your landlord should be a person you trust; after all, you’re trusting them with the roof over your head, your warmth, your safety, your home. But you can’t tell a good landlord from a bad one after just a walk-through, so if you find yourself squabbling with your landlord, here are four weapons you should take into battle.
1. Read the lease. More than once.
Before spending hundreds — perhaps thousands! — of dollars on a security deposit, first and last month’s rent, and moving expenses, you should know what you’re getting yourself into. This really isn’t the time to scroll to the last page and tick the box. Make sure to ask clarifying questions if you don’t know what something means in the lease agreement.
A lease agreement is binding for both parties — tenants have responsibilities to the landlord and vice versa. This is often lost, especially on first-time renters. Don’t let legal jargon get in the way of your full awareness of what you are signing.
2. Understand tenants’ rights where you live.
Do some research online into what to look out for in a lease in your local area so you can enter into the agreement knowledgeably. After all, this is where you are going to live — you want to make sure the space is safe, habitable, and fit for you to reside there.
You also want to know how the city does or does not protect you in the event of a dispute: Are the local laws more favorable toward tenants or landlords? Understanding the landscape of your legal agreements can help in the event of a dispute.
3. Document everything.
According to our local housing laws, our landlord had 30 days to make “reasonable repairs,” and we followed up consistently to make sure they were done. We even put them into a spreadsheet and noted how many times we’d followed up and tracked progress toward repair (thanks, Project Management skills!).
If you have a phone conversation with your landlord, send a follow up email recapping the conversation. If you have a text exchange, save the messages in a folder. The importance of documentation cannot be overstated; it could be the difference between you losing a lot of money and protecting yourself in a difficult situation later on.
4. Move out.
It can be super stressful to live under the terrible reign of a Bad Landlord. Once you’ve done all you can, it may be time to break the lease and move out. You might lose your security deposit and a couple months’ rent, but that price could be worth it to recover your emotional health and ensure physical safety.
We learned these lessons the hard way — here is how these four principles played out in our experience.
The first week in our apartment was… eventful. One night, the bathtub backed up with black sludge-water that smelled like a combination of sewer and men’s hair gel. Apparently, when the upstairs neighbors took a long shower, our tub flooded with this rancid liquid goo. We sent pictures and videos of our tub to our landlord and requested that he send someone out immediately. He replied saying that he’d get to it “sometime tomorrow.” The next day, the roof in our hallway began to leak (clear water, at least!), so we took a video of that and added it to the list of urgent — and major — repairs.
Although none of these were good signs of the current condition of our apartment, we chalked it up to a combination of bad luck and part of the charm of living in an old building. We did our best to remain positive. After all, our living room was so cute and cozy!
Eventually, the tub was repaired with some staunch chemicals that made our house smell like a plastic factory for a couple days, but at least we could shower. The leak in the ceiling was patched, but poorly, so after a few weeks water found ways to drip through different parts of the ceiling. At one point our apartment looked like an obstacle course with buckets catching water strewn all over the place. And if you can believe it, those issues were just the beginning of a longer list of troubles we would encounter.
That first week, we went through the unit and made a list of every place — big and small — where something needed to be fixed, from the flooded tub and the leaky ceiling to a sticky kitchen drawer and a missing refrigerator handle. This is customary when moving into a new living space that requires a security deposit. Basically what you’re saying is: Here’s a list of all the stuff that was wrong with the place when we moved in; this is what you cannot hold me accountable for when evaluating my security deposit at the end of my lease.
Another issue we encountered was an erratic, leaky, heater that had essentially two settings: scalding or frigid. The landlord sent a repairman out one day to fix it, but the issue persisted. Our landlord insisted that the heater had been fixed, telling us we “just didn’t know how to operate it properly.” Refusing to be gaslighted, we continued to take pictures and videos of the situation and documented all of our correspondence.
Spring came shortly, so thankfully we didn’t need to use the heater too long. Instead of bringing May flowers, however, April showers ended up coming through the roof and into my bedroom, the hallway, and in the living room. Our ceiling was seemingly falling apart above us, and we were angry, upset, disappointed, scared, and unsafe. All of this led to a significant amount of anxiety for both myself and my roommate, so we doubled down on the documentation and started putting together a folder of “evidence” with all of our communication, photos, and videos.
We took videos of everything and sent them to the landlord immediately, begging him to actually repair the roof this time. Again, he sent someone to do a patch job that would “fix” the problem for the next week or so, but never solved the core problem. We went back and forth via email at least 100 times trying to resolve these serious structural issues, and eventually realized we were never going to agree that our living conditions were no longer habitable.
After about three months into our lease, our landlord stopped communicating with us entirely. What initially began as a very amicable relationship had turned sour, and made us feel even less safe in our home. There was no doubt that we were dealing with a Bad Landlord. From there, we decided we needed to educate ourselves on our rights.
We sought advice from the local free legal association that advocated on behalf of tenants in landlord-tenant disputes. We spent hours on the phone with fellow building tenants and legal advisors, and we researched tenants’ rights cases tirelessly. We learned more about our options about paying rent — in some situations, we learned that we may be able to withhold rent due to uninhabitable living conditions. Before taking that step, though, we had to understand the implications of that decision, which could mean resolving a dispute in court. Neither of us wanted to pursue this path, but it started to seem like the only option. Our sleep was suffering, our house was crumbling, and we felt helpless and hopeless.
Unsurprisingly, my roommate and I did not renew our lease. We ended up living in that apartment for only six months, although we’d hoped for a much longer tenancy. Knowing our rights, understanding our lease, having thorough documentation, and seeking legal counsel helped us through the difficult situation.
I feel so lucky that my roommate was also one of my best friends because we leaned heavily on each other for emotional support. We made sure that both of us tended to our mental, physical, and spiritual needs in these stressful circumstances, which was no small gift. So in the midst of a tough situation, remember to take care of yourself, too.