If you’re a renter, having a fight with your landlord can be a real headache. Whether you’re dealing with a security deposit disagreement, eviction threats, or simply trying to assert your basic tenant rights, it’s helpful to have a handle on the legal landscape and the resources available.
- Document everything! Try to keep correspondence with your landlord in writing, either by letter or email, rather than phone calls which can’t be archived or reviewed later.
- Consider mediation. Third-party mediators can be hired to help you finesse the dispute with your landlord—it’ll be cheaper than pursuing legal action.
- Look into local tenant or housing advocacy organizations who can help walk you through the specific details of common landlord-tenant disputes, with relevant and local guidance.
- If all else fails, research attorneys in your area that focus on landlord-tenant law.
Let’s take a look at some essential laws and tips for resolving landlord-tenant disputes.
- Understand landlord-tenant law & tenant rights
- How to communicate with your landlord
- Security deposit disputes
- Making improvements to the apartment
- Nonpayment of rent & eviction
- Rent increase disagreements
- Other common causes of disputes
- Paying into an escrow account
Understanding landlord-tenant law and tenant rights
Each state has distinct laws that sketch out your rights as well as your landlord’s obligations in a rental property.
Familiarize yourself with your state’s laws (for instance, here’s a handy guide for New Yorkers), as well as broader, federal laws like the Fair Housing Act (FHA).
The FHA prohibits housing discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, or familial status (for instance, whether or not you have kids).
The FHA also covers a range of other things: allowing people with disabilities to keep service animals; protecting tenants from retaliation if they’re pursuing their legal rights; and prohibiting unsavory landlords from harassing tenants due to their race, family status, or other protected criteria.
How to communicate with your landlord
Remember how your mother used to say that you “catch more flies with honey”? Well, adding a dash of honey to the way you bring up problems with your landlord could expedite things.
Let’s take a look at a mediocre way you might phrase your issue, along with a simple tweak to consider.
|What you feel like saying||What you SHOULD say|
|“You’re a terrible landlord—nothing ever gets fixed around here.”||“I’ve noticed a few maintenance issues have gone unaddressed. Can we discuss a plan to tackle them?”|
|“This place is a dump, and I can’t believe you’re charging me this much in rent.”||“To be honest, I’m a little concerned about the condition of the property and whether it justifies the current rent. Can we revisit this together and discuss some improvements?”|
|“Your pet policy makes no sense. I’m going to have pets in the apartment no matter what.”|
“I understand the current pet policy, but I’d like to discuss the possibility of revising it. I’m willing to pay an additional deposit or take other steps.”
Security deposit disputes
Landlords generally require a security deposit—often a month’s rent, or more—to cover damages or unpaid rent in a rental unit. The idea is that if you trash your place beyond normal wear, or leave a huge hole in the wall, or skip town, they’ll have ready cash to cover the repairs or missing rent.
State law typically requires that landlords return the deposit within a certain period, minus deductions for rent you still owe or damages you caused. If you believe your landlord has unfairly withheld your security deposit, consider taking the following steps:
- Read your lease agreement (and state law) to understand your rights.
- Document the current condition of your rental unit, using photos or videos to support your claim (also refer back to any notes you made about the shape of the apartment when you did an apartment walkthrough before moving in).
- Send a written notice via certified mail, outlining the issue and requesting the return of your deposit.
If the landlord does not respond, consider pursuing third-party remediation or legal action, such as filing a complaint in small claims court. This isn’t fun for anyone, but might be the swiftest way to move things forward if all else fails.
Making improvements to the apartment itself
Unless you live in a luxury apartment, it can be tough to get your landlord or management company to make upgrades or improvements to your rental property that aren’t strictly necessary.
Some things are non-negotiable—for instance, depending on where you live, your landlord may be required to purchase and install smoke alarms, or install security bars on windows if young children live in the apartment.
But there’s no law requiring the building owner to update the tiling in your bathroom, or replace your ancient stove with a newer model.
That’s where it pays to have an open and honest relationship with your landlord. If you’re looking to push for major or minor renovations in your place, we’ve got a guide on how to navigate the conversation.
Nonpayment of rent and eviction
If you’re unable to pay rent, it’s essential to understand your rights and the eviction process:
- Talk to your landlord ASAP. Be transparent about your financial situation or employment struggles and try to negotiate a payment plan or rent reduction.
- Review your rental agreement and state law to understand the terms surrounding unpaid rent and eviction notices.
- If you receive a written notice to vacate, or an eviction notice, make sure it follows your state’s legal requirements—such as the appropriate number of days’ notice and proper delivery method.
- Seek legal advice from a legal aid organization or attorney specializing in landlord-tenant law.
Rent increases and lease agreement issues
Rent increases and other changes to your rental agreement can easily lead to arguments. After all, you probably already think your rent is too damn high—and now it’s going up?
Here’s how to begin tackling the issue:
- Review the terms of your lease, and state law, to understand the rules around rent increases and other modifications. Some states require a specific notice period, or limit the frequency of rent increases. But you may be surprised to learn that in your state, there’s no cap on how much rent can be increased, unless your apartment is rent-controlled or rent-stabilized. (This is why many folks had a rude awakening when their pandemic bargains disappeared.)
- If you believe the rent increase is unjustified or discriminatory—for instance, if you think it violates the Fair Housing Act—contact the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or your state’s fair housing agency to file a complaint.
- Seek legal advice or mediation services to help negotiate with your landlord and resolve the dispute.
Some other common causes of tenant-landlord disputes
Maybe you’re fed up with your noisy upstairs neighbor. Maybe your upstairs neighbor thinks you make too much noise. Either way, your landlord can end up in the middle.
As always, communication is key. Also consider keeping specific notes tracking exactly when there are issues (as in “upstairs dog barking for three hours on Thursday afternoon,” or “next door neighbor’s techno rave lasted until 4am on a weeknight”).
Lease violations due to pets or subletters
Maybe you thought your landlord would never notice that Cane Corso who’s moved in as your fourth roommate. Or that you’ve decided to turn your place into an Airbnb for the summer.
Try not to sneak around these issues (not in the least because some management companies may have cameras in common areas or entryways).
Right to entry
No one likes to feel that their space isn’t their own. Tenants may feel their privacy is being invaded if a landlord enters their unit without proper notice, or in a way that doesn’t abide by laws. Explain what bothers you, and gently back it up with local regulations.
Paying into an escrow account during a dispute
Let’s say your landlord is refusing to make repairs or correct an unsafe condition in your home. You don’t simply want to stop paying rent out of protest—but you could pay rent into an escrow, to increase your leverage.
Escrow is a neutral third-party service that holds the disputed funds until the dispute is cleared up—giving you time to resolve it yourself, or to seek legal help. If you want to go this route, first consult local laws to verify the legality of “rent escrow” where you live.
Next, find a reputable escrow service, create an account, and deposit the rent payments according to the agreed-upon schedule. Clear documentation and communication with the landlord are essential here.
Before we go…
Understanding your legal rights and the terms of the lease, seeking help when necessary, and approaching conflicts with a calm and clear perspective can help you get through most disputes with your landlord.
And if you’re looking to sharpen your interpersonal negotiation skills, you can’t go wrong with this popular self-help book, penned by an ex-FBI hostage negotiator.
Do your research, keep a level head, and soon enough the argument will be in your rearview window. And if not? You can always consider moving out for a fresh start.
A few quick words, because we <3 our lawyers: This post is general in nature, and any statement in it doesn’t alter the terms, conditions, exclusions, or limitations of policies issued by Lemonade, which differ according to your state of residence. You’re encouraged to discuss your specific circumstances with your own professional advisors. The purpose of this post is merely to provide you with info and insights you can use to make such discussions more productive! Naturally, all comments by, or references to, third parties represent their own views, and Lemonade assumes no responsibility for them. Coverage may not be available in all states.