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From the old cities of the East with high-rise apartments in shoddy condition, to small college towns in the Midwest with rental homes that haven't seen an ounce of remodeling or repair since the home was built, to rental units that must endure the long, fierce summers of the Southwest, and the moisture-ridden dwellings of the Pacific Northwest, there isn't a region in the United States that is exempt from the renter's nightmare scenario.
Broken appliances, heating and cooling systems, plumbing, electrical, and anything and everything that can go wrong with a home or apartment is something that can happen to anyone. Rental units that appear immaculate during the move-in process are far from immune to the scores of home maintenance repairs that every single building must endure. Hopefully, you're fortunate enough to find a landlord who is willing to keep the unit in good condition and make repairs as they're needed. If not, you have recourse. Whether your unit is uninhabitable from heating, cooling, electrical, or whether your unit has a broken appliance, holes in the drywall, or a pest problem, you need not suffer endlessly.
Chain of Commands: Ask, Demand, Act
There is no reason to be confrontational at the outset of a problem. Contact your landlord and plainly state the problem you're having with your rental unit. The telephone may be the most efficient, but email works well in the sense that you'll have a built-in record of the request. One of four possible outcomes will result from this request: The landlord fixes the problem, the landlord actively refuses to fix the problem, the landlord ignores the request, or the landlord says he or she will fix the problem, but then fails to do so.
If the problem isn't fixed in a reasonable amount of time, you need to approach your landlord again. This time, be sure to create a paper trail that, in a worst-case scenario, can be presented in a court setting. Explain what is wrong with the unit, to the best of your knowledge what caused this problem, clearly give your landlord a reasonable ultimatum to remedy the situation, and explain what you will do if the landlord continues to ignore the problem.
Possible courses of action that you can take if you still haven't received a satisfactory response include finding a renter's association or local housing authority to mediate for you, seeking judicial assistance in getting the unit repaired, and having the problem fixed yourself and sending the bill to your landlord.
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Proportional Response: Measure the Problem, Size-up the Landlord
If this summary of dealing with your landlord sounds vague, there is a good reason for this. The situation will play a large role in the exact timeline and how confrontational you should appear. Having your furnace or heating system fail in January can register as a true emergency that, by law, the landlord must fix within 24 hours of notification. Minor cracks in the drywall or a clogged garbage disposal, by contrast, don't rank as emergency repairs. You should also take into account your landlord's track record or for new landlords, the general vibe you got from signing the lease and moving in. If you have an uneasy feeling, you might consider being more stern during your initial approach.
Of course, the best thing to do is to try to identify and avoid negligent landlords from the start. In the case of an individually managed property, you should meet and discuss the lease before it's signed. This will allow you to build a rapport with your landlord. If you can generate the impression that you're a stand-up person, you may be able to get some leniency from your landlord from time to time or garner privileges such as being able to paint your new apartment the color you want. For a property management company, you should take a look at online reviews. Few companies will receive perfect marks, but you can also easily identify the worst offenders in your area.
Why Scribes Rule the World: Make a Record of Your Landlord's Abuse
The golden rule of dealing with landlords is to keep a paper trail of everything. Although you never hope it comes to this, many disputes must be settled through renters' associations, local housing authorities, or small claims courts. In essentially every case, your ability to produce legitimate documentation of your landlord's offenses will determine the outcome of these proceedings.
In some cases, you can even game the system to your advantage. One renter from Chicago, IL recounted this anecdote. "I had a door that was out of jamb. I sent my landlord an email and made a copy. He didn't respond. A few days later, I sent him a notarized letter, formally asking him to have the door fixed. I waited two weeks and then had a friend of mine, who had owned a small handyman business, fix the door. He didn't charge me, but I gave him a beer in exchange for a receipt for $125. I made a copy of the receipt and submitted it with the next month's rent with a rent check that reflected the difference. So, then, the landlord tries to sue me for the rent money, and the judge looked at the notarized letter and the receipt and upheld my actions."
While few renters are in a position to duplicate this piece of deception, creating the same, solid paper record and hiring a professional contractor will often yield a similar result in terms of getting your rental unit fixed. Keep in mind, however, that this only applies to reasonable repairs and will vary from state-to-state and, possibly even, from judge to judge. Certainly, you can't simply claim taupe walls as a decorating grievance, paint your interior neon pink, and subtract the paint store receipts from your rent.