How to Fire Back Against a Lousy Landlord

US News

If you've ever considered becoming a landlord, you've probably wondered if you really want to deal with renters. Whoever rents your property could be a careless slob who sets fire to the home or falls behind on payments. It might be a nightmare experience.

Tenants worry, too. With 43 million Americans renting properties, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, some are finding that not every landlord is responsible and ethical.

So if you're living under the rule of a landlord who seems unhinged, here's some advice from experts and renters on how to protect yourself.

[Read: 6 Things Renters Should Do Before Signing a Lease .]

Get everything in writing. This is advice from Kyle Birkemeier's ex-landlord. Birkemeier, a marketing director, says that two years ago, he, his wife and young son were renting a small house in a working-class neighborhood in Tempe, Arizona.

"The property had been cheaply remodeled but was in decent condition," Birkemeier recalls, adding that half of the yard was fenced, which meant that it was kind of useless and looked strange. Fortunately, he says, "The landlord promised before we signed the lease that he would be completing fencing the property."

The Birkemeiers took their new landlord at his word and signed the lease. "A few weeks after we moved in, the fence wasn't being built," Birkemeier says, and he asked the landlord about it.

"I'll give you a free life lesson, Kyle," the landlord replied. "Always get things in writing ... Since you don't have it in writing, you're not getting a fence."

Sam Gonas, a real estate attorney in Miami, agrees that when it comes to renting, just about everything should be in writing. He says tenants should even take photos of the property -- with time stamps -- when they move in. That way, if there are disagreements at move-out time, tenants can refer to the photos. Gonas also suggests doing a walk-through of the property with the landlord and asking him or her to sign off on a checklist (many apartment complexes routinely do this).

Know your rights. Landlord and tenant rights are different in every state, with regulations on everything from how security deposits are handled to when a landlord is allowed to enter the rental property.

Most states have a statute called a "covenant of habitability" that can be used to make a landlord fix problems that make the home unlivable, says Sandra Powers, founder of LawyerReviews.com. "Most statutes cover defects such as a leaky ceiling, invasion by vermin or inadequate heat and water services," she says.

The best way to find information on your rights is to type "tenants," "rights" and your state name into a search engine. You should be able to quickly learn if your obstinate landlord is actually operating within state law.

[Read: Breaking an Apartment Lease: What You Need to Know .]

Collect proof. You don't just want to document your environment when you move in. When you're living in a rental property, especially if there are problems, you should create an ongoing record that you can refer to later.

"Put every complaint, every communication, in writing," Gonas says. "Creating a paper trail goes a long way in protecting a tenant's rights."

That's what Birkemeier did. After his landlord gave him the get-everything-in-writing lecture, Birkemeier heeded the advice and documented all of the repairs needed. The shower door had issues, as did the kitchen cabinets. The drains backed up regularly. "We finally hired a plumber on our own and found that the tree roots had broken into old pipes," Birkemeier says, adding that his landlord never returned phone calls regarding the repairs.

The drainage issues were soon solved, though. "The plumber knew an inspector at the city who was able to force the landlord to fix it," Birkemeier says.

Fighting isn't always worth it. If your problems are significant enough, you may end up going to court. But often, tenant-landlord disputes don't go far because it isn't worth the trouble of hashing everything out in court.

Rob Cucchiaro, a principal of Cucchiaro Wealth Management in Walnut Creek, California, says when it was time to move out of his rental house several years ago, he did a walk-through with his landlord. "She said there were no damages, and I would get my full deposit back," Cucchiaro says. "She even sent me that in writing later that day."

Then she sent him a check that only covered 30 percent of his deposit, explaining that the home needed to be repainted. "We had lived there for two years, and in California, you can't charge a tenant for having to paint after they move out if they've been renting for two consecutive years," he says.

Cucchiaro called his lawyer, who said that the best recourse was small claims court, where he would likely win. But between running his business and parental responsibilities, Cucchiaro felt he didn't have the time to pursue it.

Julie Bonette, a communications professional, was living in Boston in 2012 when she and her roommates encountered a bad landlord. "The apartment was in Mission Hill and not in a good state when we moved in," she says. On a form given to them by the landlord, Bonette and her roommates mentioned all of the issues in the apartment -- broken railings on the steps, holes in the walls, non-working fire detectors. The form should have protected them, but after they moved out, the landlord refused to return their $2,400 security deposit.

What's more, he told them they owed hundreds more for damage that Bonette says existed when she and her roommates moved in. "We wrote a letter to our landlord after we already moved out, explaining why we weren't going to pay and why it was his problem and not ours," Bonette says. The letter eventually came back as undeliverable, and she never heard from him again. "So we never got our security deposit back, but we also never had to pay more money," she says.

[See: 11 Expenses Destroying Your Budget .]

As this shows, knowing your rights and gathering documentation isn't a guarantee that you'll rent happily ever after, but you may be glad you took the time to create a paper trail if you ultimately go to court.

A little over a year after the Birkemeiers moved into the house with the unfinished fence, the landlord surprised them with a five-day notice to vacate. Cursing and yelling, he promised that if they didn't get out of the home, he would seize their possessions and sue them.

They cleaned the home, departed and returned the keys. "We left the house in better shape than we got it," Birkemeier says.

It didn't matter. The landlord sued, claiming the Birkemeiers caused thousands in damages and then abandoned the property. The Birkemeiers countersued and won. What helped was taking their landlord's advice to heart. They had a lot of documentation.



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