Most of the time, landlords are decent business-owners. The majority of landlords treat you fairly, make repairs when necessary, and as long as you pay your rent on time and don’t violate the terms of your lease, they generally don’t bother you. Unfortunately, unscrupulous entrepreneurs exist and you might find yourself tricked into renting an apartment with undisclosed issues from an absentee landlord who either is impossible to get a hold of or shows up unexpectedly.
This is the kind of landlord who is most likely to weasel out of refunding your security deposit when you move out, even if you’ve left the apartment in the same condition in which you found it. When your renter rights are breached, you have the right to take legal action and sue your landlord, especially over an uninhabitable living area.
Should You Sue Your Landlord?
As with making any decision, you must ask yourself whether or not it is worth whatever time and money may be involved, as well as any possible risks. Court costs vary depending on what state you are in, but regardless, you will have to present and defend your case in front of a judge.
The Best Time
- When your landlord has gone MIA. If after making several attempts to contact your landlord about major repairs or money owed, you find that he or she is intentionally avoiding you, litigation may be your best option.
- If you are risking your health or safety. If unrepaired items are putting you or your family at risk – physically, mentally, and/or emotionally – you may need to consider legal action to get justice.
- If your landlord owes you a lot of money. As long as you have left the unit clean and free from damage, aside from normal wear and tear, your landlord should have no reason to withhold your entire security deposit. Read through your lease agreement, review the initial move-in inspection you performed at beginning of your lease, and don’t forget that it is acceptable for your landlord to require you to pay for cleaning services (at a reasonable price).
- You have proof. If you plan on taking your landlord to court, make sure you have all the proof needed to give you a legitimate case, such as time-stamped pictures, written testimonies from repair men, affidavits, or anything else you think might help you win. Always come to court prepared, and when needed or reasonable, hire a lawyer to represent you.
When It’s Not Worth It
- If you haven’t tried any other way to resolve the issue. So your landlord isn’t answering his/her phone or returning your calls. Have you tried writing a formal letter? Oftentimes, a formal letter of notice offers proof that you have taken the necessary steps to inform your landlord of your complaints and/or issues. Start by engaging in open dialogue and your landlord could very well respond to that. If that fails, at least you gave the opposite party a chance to resolve issues in a civil manner.
- If it’s just not worth it – money and time. If your landlord owes you $300 from your security deposit and filing the claim plus legal fees would cost $400, not to mention wasting 10 hours of your life to see the litigation through, is the lawsuit still worth it? Even worse, if you have to miss time from work and you have a high hourly wage, the lost income can add to your costs. If you want to sue for misconduct or personal “damages”, consult a lawyer who can help you decide how much the case would be worth.
- If your case isn’t airtight or a slam dunk. Without actual proof or legal precedent on your side, you are unlikely to win. Having your best friend vouch on your behalf isn’t going to go over as strongly with a judge as a photograph, affidavit, written records of communication, receipts of costs incurred, or some other more formal type of documentation. To file a lawsuit, which again takes time and money, and then lose the case is your worst case scenario. Be prepared to accept that loss.
How To Prepare
Depending on where you live and your situation, the law may not be on your side if you’re thinking of suing your landlord. For example, in California, you can’t take your landlord to court for neglecting the mold in your living room if you haven’t already filed a report with the health department.
Unlike the court cases you see on TV, civil suits won’t require a jury. You and your landlord will approach the judge and each give your side of the story. The judge will weigh the merits of each party’s arguments and hand down a verdict. Like anything else in life, your case and position will be stronger if you prepare.
- Compile Evidence. Remember those photographs and written testimonies we discussed above? It is very important that you obtain proof by taking time-stamped photographs of your clean apartment or any unrepaired damages. Make sure you’ve kept copies of any letters you have sent to your landlord or invoices from repairs that you’ve paid for.
- Get Written Testimony. While a mere eyewitness account won’t suffice as evidence, witnesses can add to the credibility of your case. If a repairman has indicated that something needs to be fixed, but your landlord refuses to do it, you can ask them to appear before the judge, or have them write a letter.
- Know The Law. Research and analyze your state’s laws and prepare your arguments based on legal precedent, not necessarily common sense. The law isn’t always what you would expect it to be.
- Practice. Knowing what to say will give you the self-confidence you need to stand before a judge.
Should You Hire A Lawyer?
For small claims court over $100 or $200, you will likely need to represent yourself. The cost of a lawyer would far exceed what you would be awarded and even if you break even, you’ll never get all that time and energy back. If you’re suing for thousands of dollars, then hire a lawyer. Never underestimate the benefits of professional legal representation.
Your Day In Court
Treat your court day like you are going on a very important interview. Practice your story once more, wear professional business attire, and make sure you have all of your necessary documentation. Leave early in case of traffic, parking problems, or getting lost in the courthouse.
Are You Still Living In The Unit?
Unfortunately, not all the reasons to sue a landlord stem from financial matters after moving out; sometimes your living space simply needs major repairs and you are still occupying the apartment. Maybe your living area is uninhabitable due to unsanitary or unsafe conditions. If you bring about litigation while staying in the problematic unit, you may be worried about the tension with your landlord. Here is some advice until your court date.
- Don’t pay your rent late. Not paying your rent on time looks bad and may cause the judge to take your landlord’s side.
- Review and follow the terms of your lease. Tenants should never violate their lease. Breaching the terms of your lease is not a way of getting retribution – you will simply weaken your case and give the landlord a basis for a counter-argument. Be the perfect tenant to avoid giving the judge any reason not to side with you.
- Keep accurate and detailed records. Before and after you’ve filed and won your case, continue keeping a record of anything and everything that goes on between you and your landlord. Include dates and times of communication, repairs and costs. You may have to present another case in court.
Nobody wants to go to court; it’s frustrating, time-consuming and the outcome is never certain. If you plan on renting a property, thoroughly research your landlord to avoid future issues.