When you have a bad landlord, life can be unbearable. And to rub salt into the wound, you're paying this bad landlord, or their property manager, full price for a job not done well. What if you're playing by the rules by sending your rent payments on time and abiding by your lease terms, but your landlord isn't upholding their end of the bargain? What then? It's no wonder you might be wondering how to get your landlord in trouble.
It's only fair that your landlord does the right thing, especially when you are. But if you find yourself in this situation, you have a huge dilemma on your hands. While you can get your landlord in trouble if they're breaking the landlord-tenant law for your jurisdiction, you could risk not having your lease renewed if you do.
In most jurisdictions across America, if you have a lease with a start date and an end date, called a tenancy for years, the lease does not automatically renew. This means you can simply leave when the lease ends, which could be your remedy if you have a bad landlord.
But having a lease with an end date also means that unless your landlord offers you a new lease or allows you to stay on as a tenant at will (a month-to-month rental agreement), you don't even need a notice to vacate; you simply will need to move by the end date. Note that if you're in a rent-controlled situation, by law your landlord might have to offer you a chance to renew. More on that later.
You might have a legitimate reason for getting your landlord in trouble, but before you rush to do so, it could pay to first look at the big picture.
Tenant rights your landlord may not want you to know
The first step in getting your landlord in trouble is to make sure your landlord is doing something wrong. First, review your lease. Ideally, you would have read your lease before signing it, but if you didn't, now is a good time. If your landlord is not adhering to a lease term, consider pointing this out. For example, your lease might state that the landlord needs to give you 24 hours' notice before entering the property. But your landlord never does that; rather they just pop over whenever they feel like it. That's unacceptable, and your best remedy is to ask the landlord to please give you 24 hours' notice before coming over.
If that doesn't work, the next thing to do is familiarize yourself with the law. This includes both federal landlord-tenant law and state-specific landlord-tenant law. You can look up your state's landlord-tenant law online by researching "landlord-tenant law [your state's name]" to find out what your rights are as a tenant in your state. Taking the above example, some states have a law on how much notice a landlord needs to give before entering. It's usually 24 hours' notice.
If your landlord is violating a state law, you can go to HUD.gov and click on your state to find assistance. You might be able to receive help from a nonprofit organization or a legal aid service; otherwise, you might need to hire an attorney.
Federal landlord-tenant law
Under federal landlord-tenant law, you have three big guns working for you:
If your landlord does not abide by one or more of those, whether stated in the lease or not, you have a legitimate reason for getting your landlord in trouble.
The Fair Housing Act
The Fair Housing Act protects both buyers and renters from housing-related discrimination. There are seven protected classes: race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, and disability. If you fall within one of those protected classes, your landlord is breaking the law if they're refusing to rent to you or setting a different qualification standard for you just because of your classification.
The right to quiet enjoyment
The right to quiet enjoyment gives tenants the right to live in the rental property undisturbed, without the landlord or another person trying to claim the property during the tenancy. It also literally pertains to peace and quiet. For example, in a famous landlord-tenant case from 1988, a landlord was found to be in violation of the quiet enjoyment covenant for failing to stop the noise of a smoke alarm in a timely manner. In this case, the alarm was sounding overnight, and the tenant was awarded three months' rent money for the disturbance.
The warranty of habitability
The warranty of habitability requires landlords to provide a livable rental unit. The specifics vary by state, but generally, landlords must provide heat, drinking water, hot water, plumbing, electricity, smoke detectors, a property free from pest infestation, and a property that meets local building codes. If your rental is not livable, you should first tell your landlord and give them a chance to fix the problem. The landlord usually needs to get this done no longer than 30 days from the request, but this depends on what the problem is.
Common reasons for reporting a landlord
Here are a few of the top reasons tenants report a landlord:
- Keeping the security deposit: Most every state has laws on what is required of landlords regarding the security deposit. Landlords typically need to return the deposit within a certain time frame, typically 30 days from move-out. If landlords keep all or part of the security deposit, they usually need to send a reason why along with receipts.
- Ignoring repair requests: If your rental is unsafe or otherwise not in livable condition, the landlord needs to fix the problem within a certain timeframe.
- Entering without proper notice: Landlords usually need to give you advanced notice before entering your rental. Failing to do so, or doing so repeatedly, could be considered landlord harassment.
- Pest infestation: A pest infestation (and, no, we're not talking about seeing one or two critters here or there) requires attention, as this would make the unit unlivable. Your landlord needs to call an exterminator. If not, you would be wise to do so yourself and then sue for your costs. The longer a pest infestation goes untreated, the worse the problem tends to get - doubly so if the pest in question is a bedbug.
- Noise: If there is a noise issue that is under the landlord's control, such as the earlier example regarding the smoke alarm, the landlord needs to do something about it. However, keep in mind that some noise issues are out of the landlord's control.
Some areas of the country are subject to rent-control laws, most notably New York and California, but some other states and counties have rent control, too. Rent control involves government mandates regarding rental regulations, namely how much rent landlords can charge and when landlords are allowed to evict a tenant.
Rent control serves to keep rent prices down for tenants, but because tenants are probably not paying market rate rent in a rent-controlled situation, landlords are usually not motivated to make repairs or to even maintain the unit. They often can't afford to. This can lead to tenants becoming frustrated, searching for ways to get the landlord in trouble. It's a vicious cycle, one that is often exacerbated by rent-control laws.
The saving grace for tenants who are living in deplorable conditions is that the landlord, in most rent-controlled situations, operates under "just cause" eviction rules and must offer to renew the lease when the lease is up (unless there is just cause, such as if the tenant stops paying rent, breaks a law, or violates a lease condition). Therefore, you wouldn't need to worry too much about an eviction notice for reporting a bad landlord situation if you're under rent control: The landlord would still need to offer to renew the lease.
Learn your remedies
If you think your landlord is violating the Fair Housing Act, you can get that landlord in trouble by filing a complaint at HUD.gov.
Your remedy for breach of quiet enjoyment is to terminate the lease and move or sue in small claims court.
If the landlord is unresponsive to complaints about a livability issue, your possible remedies here would be to terminate the lease and move; repair and deduct, where you make the repairs and deduct the cost from your rent (providing a receipt to prove the amount); or sue for damages.
Determine whether it's worth it to sue your landlord
Knowing you can sue your landlord should provide you with some peace of mind. The threat of being sued can also serve to regulate landlords. But it's not always worth it to sue your landlord. It might be, but it pays to weigh the pros and cons.
For one thing, suing someone can be time-consuming. You need to make sure you're all in and can devote the time and energy that goes into taking someone to court, such as preparing your case, filing, and then appearing before a judge. Plus, if you lose, you'll need to pay court costs.
Before you sue, you might first want to try again to get your landlord to respond. If you have tried communicating only by text or email, try sending a formal, certified letter, often called a "demand letter," with your request. Some landlords take that more seriously.
If you are living in a dangerous or unlivable situation and your landlord won't respond, if a lot of money is at stake, and if you have enough proof that leads you to believe you have a good case, it might be in your best interest to sue.
How do you sue your landlord?
If you determine that suing your landlord is your best option, you should first look up the procedure for your state. You can do this by researching, "file small claims in [your state]" online. You would then need to look up your state's limits to determine how much you can sue for. The next step is to file a complaint with your state clerk's office at your county courthouse and pay the filing fee. You then wait for your landlord to answer the complaint.
If the landlord doesn't answer your complaint, you can go to court without your landlord. If the landlord does answer your complaint and shows up to court, your landlord could file a counterclaim against you. Bring proof to court of what you are suing for, and then wait for the verdict. If you win, you still need to collect your judgment. It's a process, but if your landlord wronged you, small claims court can be a good option.
The bottom line
Before you decide to get your landlord in trouble, take a breath and consider the big picture. Your landlord may deserve to get in trouble, but you should do what's best for you. Whether that's reporting your landlord, suing, moving, making peace with the situation, or even learning that the landlord really wasn't breaking any rules after all, you're now armed to make a wise decision.