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How To Resolve A Dispute With Your Landlord

Because as a renter, conflicts are inevitable.

There are plenty of benefits to renting instead of buying your home. For one, you don’t have to pay for major repairs and maintenance out of your own pocket. Plus, you can pick up and move with relative ease, since you aren’t tied down by a mortgage.

But if you find yourself in disagreement with your landlord, things can turn ugly quickly.

As a renter, conflicts with your landlord are bound to occur at some point. Whether you disagree over who pays for a repair or how much of your security deposit you should get back when moving out, it can feel like you don’t have much negotiation power as a tenant. That’s not necessarily the case, however. Here’s what you should know about landlord-tenant disputes and how to resolve them.

3 Common Sources Of Landlord-Tenant Disputes

Many disagreements between landlords and tenants happen when there are conflicting interpretations of clauses within the lease. It can be helpful to know what potential disputes might arise, and to do your best to clarify the terms of your rental ahead of time.

Wear and tear vs. damage

Baseball through the kitchen window? Damage to your drywall? Accidents happen, and sometimes those accidents cost you.

“However, sometimes tenants are blamed for damages that aren’t necessarily their fault,” said Lance J. Robinson, a criminal defense and personal injury attorney in New Orleans. “When the landlord requests money to make repairs and the tenant believes they aren’t at fault, heated conflict may ensue.”

The problem is that the line between what’s considered normal wear and tear and actual damage can be blurry, according to Brian Davis, a landlord, real estate investor and co-founder of SparkRental.com.

“Sometimes tenants will feel that landlords have deducted money from the security deposit for what should be considered normal wear and tear,” Davis said. A general rule of thumb, he said, is that damage is usually caused by one singular incident, whereas normal wear and tear is something that happens gradually over time. Think a red wine spill on the carpet vs. a trail of discoloration in a high-traffic area. Of course, both parties want to interpret the difference in their own favor, he said.

Nonurgent repairs

It’s in the best interest of a landlord to take care of emergency repairs such as a damaged roof or burst pipe as soon as possible. After all, the longer the problem exists, the more damage that results. However, when it comes to less urgent repairs and upgrades, landlords are more likely to push back, since every penny they spend on a rental property is a business expense that counts against their bottom line.

“Repairs are one of those issues where landlord and tenant interests aren’t always aligned,” Davis said. “If a tenant feels that there’s an important repair that the landlord is dragging their feet on, that’s often an area where landlords and tenants really butt heads and tenants get upset.”

Davis noted that some lease agreements will have a clause stating that the tenant is responsible for repairs that cost less than $50, and the landlord handles repairs worth more than that amount, for instance. But typically, the landlord is responsible for all repairs and maintenance other than routine things like replacing light bulbs and air filters. “There are just too many things that can come up for a lease to spell them all out in detail,” Davis said.

Subletting and guest policies

Davis said there are two sections of your lease agreement that you should pay special attention to. The first is the guest policy, which refers to the point at which a guest needs to be added to the lease as a tenant. This, he said, is particularly important for single tenants who are dating or have a significant other who spends a lot of time at the property. “A thorough lease agreement will restrict the number of nights that the guest can spend the night in a given month, without being added to the lease as full tenant who’s liable,” Davis said.

The other section you should review carefully is related to subletting, or renting out a space that you’re currently renting to someone else. Davis said this has become more of a point of contention in recent years with the rise of Airbnb and other short-term rental services.

“If a tenant is thinking about renting out rooms or even renting out the entire unit on Airbnb, that person should pay particular attention to subletting clauses,” Davis said. Many rental agreements explicitly prohibit this practice without the landlord’s written consent.

Robinson added that subletting is a luxury that not all landlords offer. Even so, “it’s a rule that a lot of tenants break,” he said.

How To Handle A Conflict With Your Landlord

If you do end up in a battle over money or interpretation of the lease, your goal should be to resolve the issue quickly ― the roof over your head might depend on it. Here are the steps you should take.

Be a good tenant. Working out a resolution with your landlord will go a lot smoother if you have a history of being a good tenant. “If you pay your rent on time, try your absolute best to follow their rules and always be communicative and transparent, any conflict you encounter with your landlord should be many times easier to manage,” Robinson said. When discussing the problem at hand, remain calm and respectful, and remind your landlord you’ve been a stand-out tenant. They would probably rather keep a good tenant happy than to lose out on rental income while they find a new one.

Understand your lease agreement top to bottom. Next, you should re-read your lease and make sure you fully understand all the terms. “The better you understand your lease, the more leverage you have,” Robinson said. You’ll also have more power to negotiate if you disagree with a particular clause. “You’d be surprised how reasonable landlords can be if you know your stuff and they trust you,” he said.

So, before you contact your landlord with a few strong words, read the contract thoroughly so you can best state your case.

Keep detailed records. When it comes to landlord-tenant disputes, many disagreements boil down to he-said, she-said situations. That’s why you should keep records of your home’s condition, communications with your landlord and anything else that could be used as proof should a conflict arise.

“One of the most important things you can do when you move into a new apartment is to take photos and keep a detailed log of all the pre-existing damages,” Robinson said. “This way, the landlord will have no reason to be suspicious of you if they come across damage they weren’t aware of previously.

When it comes to communicating with your landlord over a dispute, it’s a good idea to keep a paper trail in case things end up in court. “Certified mail is best, because it’s independently verified through the Postal Service,” Davis said. He noted that email is also acceptable and usually holds up in court.

Take them to court. Finally, if you can’t come to a resolution on your own, you might need to take a more serious approach. Davis said the threat of legal action can be effective, especially if the communication comes from an attorney. Most landlords don’t want to take time off from work and go through the hassle of small claims court, especially if it’s over a relatively small about of money.

“It depends on whether the landlord feels that they have a very strong case ... if they don’t feel confident that they can defend themselves in court and win, they will often back down at that point,” Davis said.

Davis also pointed out that some cities and states are much more tenant-friendly than others, and landlords will be especially hesitant to go to court when the judge is unlikely to rule in their favor ― a situation he’s personally experienced. “There were times when tenants did threaten legal action, and even though I was quite confident that I was legally within my rights as a landlord to deduct money to repair damages, I still ended up budging on it and giving the money back because I knew that the judge was probably going to side with tenant,” he said.

Apartment hunting site Rent Cafe examined landlord-tenant laws in 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, comparing 10 common aspects of the landlord-tenant relationship such as security deposits, rent increases, eviction notices and more, to rank which side each state’s legislation tended to favor. Of course, you shouldn’t threaten legal action with the assumption your landlord will back down, but it can be helpful to know where you might stand a better chance.

Ultimately, every tenant-landlord relationship is different. And, as many know from experience, some are much better than others. The best thing you can do to prevent conflicts with your landlord is to take the time necessary to find the right place.

“The absolute worst thing you can do when apartment hunting is to settle,” Robinson said. “Although it’s common to make compromises when comparing landlords and properties, you should never settle and hastily sign a lease just because you’re ready for the search to be over.”

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