What Should You Do if You’re Renting from a Slumlord?

Posted January 31, 2012 in by Courtney Sherwood

Courtney Love

Photo: Stephen Eckert

With Courtney Love’s recent court win in the news, you may think it’s a good idea to withhold your own rent money next time you have a conflict with your landlord. But attorneys familiar with landlord-tenant law say that such a move could get you evicted. Don’t forget: Love paid her back rent before a judge ruled that she could stay in her $26,000-per-month apartment.

Whether you’re irked by your neighbor’s loud music or are at your wits’ end because of bursting pipes and broken appliances, odds are good that apartment living has occasionally brought unwanted conflict into your life. One in three Americans rent their homes, and if your landlord is starting to seem like a slumlord, it may be tempting to withhold rent until your problems are addressed.

But that could ultimately make your problems worse, according to Julie Ostrom, an attorney with Thompson and Ostrom P.C. in St. Louis, Mo.

Photo: Miami Workers Center

“Every time you withhold rent, the landlord has the right to evict you,” Ostrom said.

Don’t despair, however. If you keep a cool head and document your landlord troubles carefully, odds are good that your problems will be addressed.

First, consider how severe your problem is. A burst pipe that’s spraying water over your belongings or a broken toilet in a one-bathroom apartment warrants immediate attention. But most of the time, property managers are allowed to take at least a few days to respond to less urgent requests.

When the problem first arises, call it in and start a log in which you detail any contacts with your landlord. Ostrom recommends writing down the date, time, person you spoke with, and a few notes about every conversation you have about the problem.

You should also look through your leasing documents to see if your landlord or property management company may have outlined specific instructions on how to request repairs, she said. Often, renters don’t realize that they are supposed to call one number for non-urgent requests and another in emergencies. Larger complexes often require tenants to fill out forms requesting work.

If a form is required, keep a copy and make note of the date you submitted it. Even when forms are not required, it’s a good idea to request repairs in writing, Ostrom said. Again, keep a copy of the letter and note the date you sent it.

When your landlord is too slow to act on your concern or ignores an urgent problem, it can be tempting to withhold rent as punishment, or to pay for repairs yourself and deduct the cost from your next rent check. But taking this kind of action without legal advice is likely to lead to your eviction.

Julie Ostrom

Julie Ostrom

In Missouri, for example, tenants can only withhold rent to pay for repairs if they’ve lived on the premises for at least six consecutive months, the problem with their rental is a violation of building codes, and the cost of repairs is below a certain threshold. In Maryland, you can file a court petition to pay rent into an escrow account to fund repairs, but only if the landlord refuses to repair a fire hazard or a serious threat to health or safety. Landlord-tenant laws vary widely by state, county and even city, so you can’t safely assume that information you find online is accurate.

To protect yourself, you should consult a lawyer – and don’t let fear of legal fees keep you from making that call.

“Not a lot of tenants want to spend twice the monthly rent in attorney’s fees to sue their landlord,” Ostrom said.  But you may be able to get answers to your questions and a little bit of help for free or for minimal cost. “A lot of lawyers who do landlord-tenant work will spend 10 minutes on the phone and answer someone’s question before deciding if they should sit down and work with you.”

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