It's Not You, It's Me: Landlord Edition
December 7, 2013 12:38 PM   Subscribe

What are some best practices for dealing with landlords? Alternately, please tell me I'm over-reacting. Snowflakes inside.

I have had several bad experiences with landlords -- the past three have been especially bad and the current one is looking like she might be a good addition to that group as well. All of these landlords were people who rented one or maybe two properties as a hobby. They tend (with the exception of the first one) to be women of a certain age who have no job and like to see themselves as property developers.

I'd like some specific advice on how to avoid getting dinged on security deposits for things that aren't (and maybe could never be) spelled out in a lease and also for getting work done on the house (repairs, etc.) when they are bored with playing property owner.

Specific details include:

Landlord #1 not returning security deposit at all and then ignoring legal claims and then disappearing from existence (apparently) to avoid small claims court. Loss of a $1600 security deposit. Ours was his only property and he stopped doing repairs or having someone do repairs within the first four months. During the lease, he gave me permission to have my dog, which was promptly contested by the owner's association and I received multiple ongoing threats to kick me out/remove my dog/etc. even though my lease specified I could have her.

Landlord #2 charging us $500 for a leaving behind "dirty" bathtub (I had used it the night before we moved out, so it wasn't dirty by any means) that they were removing and demolishing for renovation. Were also charged for not moving the refrigerator and cleaning behind it before we left (again, fridge was being demolished as well).

Landlord #3 offering us a deal to either pay a cleaner of her choosing or pay her $200 for cleaning. After we had her cleaner come in and landlord inspected the property and pronounced it "perfect," we received a letter indicating that the unfinished basement wasn't clean enough and the stove was dirty and therefore we were not to receive our security deposit. When we moved in, there was black mold in the bathrooms and the basement was filthy (and infested with brown recluses, one of which bit me and hospitalized me).

Landlord also maintained at time of lease that she and her husband would be doing ongoing renovations to the property. After the first month, she called and stated that they were not going to do any more and left gaping holes in the siding and major renovations unfinished while we lived there.

Current landlord has not responded to any maintenance calls since around September. Our alarm system (a major selling point for us) has been broken for several weeks and requires that landlord authorize repairs. All calls from us to her have been ignored. Two appointments from her to come and look at things have been cancelled at the last minute by her. We move out next week and there has been no communication from her as to a walk-through, our security deposit or other issues (who do I give the keys to! For the love of Christ!).

While none of these issues are life-threatening (although the alarm one could be), it indicates a pattern to me of bored housewives who lose interest in a property when it isn't "fun" anymore. The issues of cleaning behind the refrigerator or the dirty basement seem too petty to spell out in a lease (it could easily run to 100 pages if you had to specify the exact cleaning levels of every single thing in every single room). Most leases suggest that the property should be cleaned to the level at move-in, but this is impossible to document completely thoroughly (again, am I supposed to think to pull out the refrigerator and take photos behind it when I move in? Or document the state of the unfinished basement -- it's a basement! It has a washer/dryer and a bunch of storage!).

As we are moving out this week and moving into another place that is owned by a housewife (we thought it was managed by a property manager, but apparently she was just renting it for them), I'd like some specific tools on how to avoid this kind of nit-pickiness, as well as tips on how to get repairs, etc. done when the initial interest has waned. Alternately, I would be happy to hear that I'm being unreasonable and that losing several hundred dollars of every security deposit is how the game is played.

Assume I do the normal things like walk-through the house with the landlord, take photos, make and sign a checklist, etc. Also assume I know local law about required repairs and collecting money through small claims court and that these one-off landlords don't seem to respond to the law, as they seem to have no knowledge of it.

TL;DR: How can I best cover my ass in order to get my security deposit back and to get maintenance done in a timely manner?
posted by mrfuga0 to Home & Garden (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
First step: ditch your unreasonable and irrational sexism. Your landlord's gender has nothing to do with the issues you've noted.

Tenants rights vary by location. Where do you live?
posted by nacho fries at 12:46 PM on December 7, 2013 [31 favorites]

Are you taking photos:
- On the day you receive keys during their move-in walk-through with you?
- Before you turn in your keys but after their move-out walk-through with you?
posted by Houstonian at 12:49 PM on December 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

Talk to a lawyer who specializes in tenant law. If you live near a college, start looking there.

And in the future, don't rent from amateurs. Work with management companies or professional apartment complexes.
posted by Etrigan at 12:50 PM on December 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Nacho Fries: To clarify, I'm not suggesting this is gender-based, I am reporting the fact that three of the four landlords were females who had no other jobs except 1-2 properties they managed and that the issues appear to stem from a lack of professionalism and some boredom after the initial thrill of renting a place. The first landlord was a young male who inherited his property and was (to all appearances) independently wealthy and had no other job than to manage this one apartment.

This has happened in three different states and two different countries.

Houstonian: On the day for the move-in, but usually not after the move-out walk-through.
posted by mrfuga0 at 12:58 PM on December 7, 2013

Everything you've described is within the realm of normal for landlords who own a few properties. In my experience, they're all shysters--especially come time to return the security deposit. I had one very decent, responsive landlord accuse me of stealing his mailbox and replacing it with a cheaper one before I moved out (lol wut?).

I've found that move-in photos and asking for an itemized list of cleaning/replacement costs can often get them to cough up more of the security deposit, but I've also taken to just counting that money out at the end of my tenancy. On the plus side, it helps me not worry so much about minor damages which should be counted under normal wear and tear.

As far as getting repairs done quickly, squeaky wheel. Though I generally wouldn't expect much to get done after you've given notice to vacate--it's easier for the landlord to complete repairs when you're already gone.

Renting sucks.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:02 PM on December 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Still not seeing the validity of the landlords' genders. And I think you are assigning emotions/motivations (thrills, boredom) based on facts not in evidence, and it's clouding your thinking.

How to handle the final walk-thru: Here's how I helped a couple of friends get their full deposit back. After thoroughly cleaning the place, they made an appointment with the landlord to do the walk-thru. I was present, clipboard in hand, taking notes. The landlord didn't like it; we didn't care, since the apartment was still technically my friends' rental till the final sign-off and key hand-off.

Print out the original photos and any notes you took at the time of move-in, have your third-party person attach them to the clip-board, and during the walk-thru, re-take photos of each area/appliance that was originally photographed, and anything else that occurs to you.

Use clear language at the conclusion of the walk-thu: "So, we are in agreement that the place is in acceptable condition, and my full deposit will be returned?" Landlord says yes, your third-party jots it down.

The idea here is to make it clear to the LL that you aren't going to be monkeyed with, and that you've brought backup to make sure you have a witness.

Whether all that would do much for you in a court proceeding is unknown (don't count on it), but the goal is to create the "theater" of compliance. Show some muscle.
posted by nacho fries at 1:13 PM on December 7, 2013 [15 favorites]

This really really depends on where you live.
I live in Chicago which has a law that is really in the favor of tenants. Some places go out of their way to protect landlords. In fact here, Landlord's are required to pay tenants interest on their security deposits every year! In addition, with legal guidance (there is a very specific procedure), you can do things like withhold rent to make needed repairs without consequence.

I work with housing individuals, and do a housing inspection process. Its a checklist that just states that major things are okay ( like no holes, windows open and close, electric outlets work, there are no apparent leaks) and we try our best to have the LL sign it 1)when someone moves in, and 2)when someone leaves. Taking pictures helps.

If someone withholds your security deposit, ask for an itemized bill of the expenses. Generally, there is something somewhere written in tenant law that states what can and cannot be deducted.

Seek legal help. Here there are agencies that assist in helping individual's for low cost or even free.
posted by AlexiaSky at 1:20 PM on December 7, 2013

Bored housewives, what? Look, landlords of all stripes will try to screw you out of your security deposit. It's not all of them, but companies do it, individuals do it, women do it, men do it, people with other jobs do it, people who don't have other jobs do it. It's become more common in recent years, according to someone I used to work with who did landlord-tenant law from the tenant side, because the economy means that more landlords are strapped for cash and they're not usually just keeping your security deposit safe in a bank account somewhere. Same for cheaping out on maintenance. Landlords, especially people who do it as their sole source of income, have been hit very hard by the housing market. The first guy appearing "independently wealthy" might very well have been mismanaging his money to such a degree that he wound up unable to pay expenses.

Short of having a lawyer write a strongly-worded letter, about the best thing you can do is document everything, leave the place properly clean, demand documentation for whatever they withhold, and make enough of a nuisance of demanding your money back that they pay you to go away. Like with most things, if it turns out they really are broke, you will have difficulty collecting.
posted by Sequence at 1:29 PM on December 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

TL;DR: How can I best cover my ass in order to get my security deposit back and to get maintenance done in a timely manner?

Stop renting from individuals unless you already know them. Stick with outfits large enough to have full-time maintenance staff. Individuals may charge less, but that's because they aren't pricing in any work on their part beyond cashing the checks, so they won't want to do any.
posted by valkyryn at 1:33 PM on December 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

you just need to be more aggressive with suing and going after judgments you've won. the first LL, for example: did you win a default judgment?
posted by jpe at 1:42 PM on December 7, 2013

Response by poster: Sorry, not to threadsit -- I never intended to suggest this was a gendered thing. Of the three women we rented from, all three have been very clear that they are only renting for fun because they do not work and thought property management would give them something to do. Of those three, two were first-time landlords (we were the first tenants) and one had only rented her property once before. As for Landlord #1, he also made it clear that he was doing the rental thing for fun and would often tell us how he couldn't do work on the property or even come by to pick up rent because he was flying out on vacation. Maybe the bored adjective was a projection on my part, so for that I apologize and take the criticism.

Obviously we need to vet the landlords more thoroughly beforehand.
posted by mrfuga0 at 1:44 PM on December 7, 2013

Yes, the next time I hear of anyone receiving a security deposit back, in full and on-time, it will be the first time. I know I never have.

If the people who owe you money are findable, a small-claims suit and/or contacting a tenant's right association in your area is a good start.

Other than that, you *might* do better renting from a larger, more formal management company. They can be shady too, but tend to be less likely to screw people arbitrarily, because they have a reputation to think of that affects their larger business.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:45 PM on December 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

There are a lot of jurisdiction-specific questions here that really can't be answered well without knowing where you are renting. Rules vary from state to state and towns within each state. A local renter's association will be able to give you better information.

(and drjimmy11, the last time we were tenants, we got our deposit back in full, with a thank you note for taking such good care of their property. So it does happen.)
posted by ambrosia at 2:03 PM on December 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also: don't underestimate the value of winning a court judgment. We're talking about landlords, i.e., people who have assets almost by definition. Your individual- and slumlord-type landlords will have fewer, perhaps, though some of them do far better than they let on. At the very minimum, they own the property you're renting, plus most likely a house of their own.

In any case, say you've got a judgment and the landlord just won't pay it. Now you get to do things like, for instance, sending the sheriff to the bank where the landlord deposits your rent check to clear out their bank accounts. Or even more fun, going over to their house, towing their car, and auctioning it off, using the proceeds to satisfy your judgment. Heck, if you're lucky no one else will bid on the car, so you can bid using your judgment and get the car for a song while still having a lot left on the judgment. Turning around and selling the car for a profit won't affect the amount of the judgment outstanding, either.

And this is another reason it's better to stick with larger companies. More assets, easier to find, and it's a lot harder for them to just drop off the face of the planet if they want to duck you.

But basically, the answer is "Know your rights and be prepared to defend them." That may well involve getting a lawyer, or at least formal legal advice.
posted by valkyryn at 2:04 PM on December 7, 2013

I've received my full security deposit back from three different landlords: In 2002, in 2004, and in 2011. In one case it was a large company. The other two were individuals who each had other jobs and owned one piece of property on the side.

For a short time I was a landlord, and I returned my tenant's full security deposit. So it does happen.

But yeah, it's far from the norm.

My assumptions as a tenant have been:

* Assume you will never get the security deposit back, but make it as hard as possible for the landlord to justify it.

* The landlord will always recall the place as being in better condition than it ever was. Do a walk-through with the landlord or manager on move-in day and document everything you can find that isn't perfect. Write a specific description of what's not perfect about it. Have them sign off on it. Take pictures. On move-out day, do another walk through with the manager/landlord and check everything against the original.

* Clean like crazy before you do the final walk-through. I've even spackled and touched up with paint to obliterate every hole, scuff and ding. It's a royal pain in the ass and takes a lot of time. Sometimes the landlord still screwed me out of the deposit. But I get my money back more often than most people seem to.
posted by Longtime Listener at 2:13 PM on December 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

One way I've gotten around this: if I have a decent relationship with my landlord and give them notice with plenty of time to find another tenant (this can extend to me posting an ad on Craigslist to find another tenant for them so they'll let me out of the lease), in the past I've made arrangements to use the security deposit as my last month's rent payment.

I am in Massachusetts, though, and we have very strong tenant rights, and I am also in the Boston area which has a very tight rental market, so none of my landlords are looking at months of mortgage payments without tenants.
posted by data hound at 2:15 PM on December 7, 2013

The world is full of people with unrealistic expectations who think they've got what it takes to be an entrepreneur but whose idea of capitalism comes from scanning the Cliff Notes to Atlas Shrugged and whose business model, at best, was drawn up on the back of a Steak and Shake place mat. (Small engine repair, welding and saw sharpening see a lot of this. Hell, Gordon Ramsey has made a TV show out of it.)

As others have said - a real live management company with decent reviews on yelp et al is definitely the way to go. If renting from an individual, make sure there's a healthy sized, well written contract. I rented from a guy who was a lawyer, who was looking at property management as a sort of long term strategy and who handed me a 45 page opus upon our moving in, but he had a plumber on our doorstep when the toilet started acting hinky and was generally OK to deal with.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:16 PM on December 7, 2013

(I am not a landlord, but I work in the development/civil engineering/infrastructure world)-

My experience dealing with it from a code enforcement/public health direction my overall perception matches pretty close with the OP. I have seen a lot, A LOT of amateurs come into the property management business since the housing crash. It seems they either inherit/pickup a cheap foreclosure/have to move and can't sell the property for what they have in to it and so rent and then discover that property management is a job like any other and not a guaranteed path to wealth and a life of leisure or a good way out of a (very) upside down property. They have NO idea of the costs of running a rental, how to manage cash flow or really anything about owning income property.

Often the only way we (the city I work for) has been able to solve some problems, like a broken sewer spewing sewage into the yard, is with condemnation. We are currently suing one house with our local DEQ agency due to piping their sewage into the nearest creek (really).

I foresee a LOT of these neglected rentals hitting the market in the next few years that will keep the housing market from really taking off again.

Don't underestimate the power of a good video. Especially for a judge. The usual winners in small claims court are who has the most documentation. If you have a good video dated when you move in, and out, you are going to win (assuming you did clean/repair what you broke).

So, only rent from someone who has several properties (they will have their own LLC they property is held under) and if they house isn't well maintained to begin with, run away. Also a GREAT way to vet the landlord is to go to city hall and ask the planning/code enforcement desk about any outstanding building permits or code enforcement actions on the property. In my experience the kinda people who play these games with property management can't run anything else very well in their lives and it shows (and the planning staff might be able to help you on reputation if you are nice and explain why you are doing it-trust me these kind of people have a reputation with the people who have to clean up after them).

And never hesitate to let the city know if the landlord is skipping maintenance required by law-like sewer/power/habitability issues. Most of these issues are civil and not something the city can touch, but some major ones are cause to condemn the house and that WILL get the landlords attention.
posted by bartonlong at 2:16 PM on December 7, 2013 [6 favorites]

only rent from someone who has several properties (they will have their own LLC they property is held under)

You'd think that, but it's not always the case. I'm in the process of suing a local slumlord who did go through the process of creating his own LLC and having the LLC rather than he himself be a party to the residential leases.

Problem? He forgot to actually transfer title of the property to the LLC, so all he's really managed to do is create an entity that's acting as his agent. Which is great and all, but principals are liable for the actions of their agents. This isn't going to shield him from liability in the slightest. He's going to be very, very surprised.
posted by valkyryn at 2:46 PM on December 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

When it comes to something like Landlord #1, the one who told you yes you could have a dog, only to have the homeowner's association say hell no: anytime there is a HOA, their rules will always trump an individual owner's lease arrangement..... this is why a responsible landlord would give (not 'lend': GIVE) their tenant a copy of their HOA's rules & regs beforehand. Don't rent from any landlord who refuses to give you a copy.
posted by easily confused at 5:19 PM on December 7, 2013

I have both been a tenant and am a landlord. In fact, I am a woman with 2 properties, though I do have a job. Here's what I have to say:


Sorry that you thought you could have a dog, but then was told you weren't. When you move into a condo, not only do you have to obey the lease, you also have to obey the HOA rules. The landlord was remiss in not giving them to you, but next time, be proactive and ask for them (or to sit with the HOA on their next meeting).

I don't know what kind of repairs you are talking about him not doing. One of my houses has a pretty dilapidated fence. I made it clear to my tenant that I had no plans of replacing it. He said it was okay. It has not been replaced.

Sucks that you lost your deposit, but that happens as often as not with small-time landlords. Just assume the money is gone. (Even as a tenant in a larger building, I've had issues getting my deposit back.)


Again, yes landlords will sometimes try to do scummy things like that. Again, get photo documentation of before and after and sent a certified letter, citing local laws (including how soon the deposit is supposed to be returned and the "useful life" of things). Most of the time that will clear things up.


While it's true that landlords sometimes will try to charge you for a "cleaning" fee unreasonably, that is not always the case.

A good/experienced landlord will NOT tell you that the unit is "okay" or "clean enough" during the walkthrough. This is because it is uncomfortable to inspect things too closely when someone is watching. And then you'll argue about it. And anyway, sometimes, things like cat pee can be covered briefly and then the smell will leak through after a couple of days.

My experience as a tenant was that I always had to pay cleaning fees unless I hired a professional cleaner. My experience as a landlord is that I always have to do cleanup after a tenant. When my last tenant left, she thought everything was clean, but there was dust and scratched up wood floor. I took some photos, spent sometime rubbing Old English Oil on things, and charged her $15 for it.

If the unit was clean (in the basement and behind the fridge) when you moved in, you should've cleaned it before you moved out. Otherwise, the landlord has to do the cleaning, or have someone do it, which takes time. The key here is to leave things the way you found them.

And it's true that you can't document everything. As a tenant, I've always assumed that my deposit is a sunk cost.

Your current landlord.

I have never done a "walk through" with a tenant upon move out. See reasons above. This is why *both* parties should take photos and take notes.

Your landlords are admittedly not stellar, but you also sound like a fussy tenant. Are you trying to find "good deals" for your rentals? If that's the case, consider paying a bit more and getting your money's worth. Or buying your own house.

I own a house that we live in, and when the sewer got plugged, it took us 9 days to get it fixed. The tenant just called this afternoon to say the washer drain is backing up and so I arranged to plumber to be there this evening. Managing your own house and rental units are very different and you can definitely get inexperienced landlords who are a pain to live with.

Yes, it's true that a lot of inexperienced landlords will not know that the tenant's unit has more urgency. But I also think that you're doing something wrong, because the only common denominator in all of your bad experiences is you, and I have personally never had such a bad experience, nor have I been such a bad landlord (in my humble opinion). Maybe next time, when you visit a house to rent it, have a conversation with the landlord as if you're interviewing him or her.
posted by ethidda at 5:47 PM on December 7, 2013

Yeah, speaking as one, this can be a problem with landlords. I know a lot of them in the less stellar parts of town have reputations for never giving back deposits -- but then I'm in this same part of town and, while we have given back full deposits to tenants, there have also been times when there is no way that the deposit even begins to pay for what needs to be repaired/cleaned/replaced. Sadly, the slumlord situation tends to breed tenants who view apartments as, to put it bluntly, consumables: destroy, and move on. What the tenants hold over the slumlords' heads is a city code department that is complaint-based. (When I had to evict a family member for non-payment of rent, they reported a laundry list of minor problems to the city, including some that they were aware of when they moved in. For a variety of reasons, my documentation of this was lacking. But the retaliatory "city hall" strategy is something many tenants learn is their only workable tool.) So it works both sides of the fence.

Still, this is about how to deal with the problem yourself. As others have said, document, document, document. When I've held back deposits, I've written detailed lists of what needed to be done, and I've had digital photographs available on request. The basic situation here is that you're playing chicken with your respective tenacity. The landlords hope that just saying "Sorry, no deposit for you!" is sufficient to sap all your will.

The best way to deal with that is
a) to know your local law;
b) to have dealt forthrightly with the landlord over your tenancy;
c) to show your landlord you KNOW your actual legal rights;
d) to demonstrate your willingness to exercise them, in court if necessary. (In my state, landlords are responsible for double damages and attorney's fees if they are in the wrong.)

Basically, your goal is to show the landlord you're not a pushover, you have an awareness of the actual law and can cite statute (e.g. deposit return deadlines), and you WILL take them to court despite the hassle if they don't have a legally defensible reason for stalling. A couple of certified delivery letters may be enough to do the trick -- 1, return deposit by X, do not miss deadline, 2, last chance or I will file in court, etc.

But yeah, you need to consider that you're interviewing the landlord at the same time as they're interviewing you. Look at everything from the ad they placed, to the professionalism of their business cards, letterhead, move-in documents, and signage, and whether they use themselves, handyman Joe, or professionals to do repairs, whether they're available 24/7, that sort of thing. If somebody's slacking on repairs, tries to get around entry notice requirements, and so forth, you had better start documenting all of that before move-out.
posted by dhartung at 12:21 AM on December 8, 2013

There is a really simple way to get your security deposit back. The landlord has a months rent as security? More? Less? Whatever. When you've given notice and are going to move out. Stop paying rent. Just don't pay them the last months rent. They will ask you where the rent is. You tell them that you've had problems with landlords making stuff up and stiffing you on the deposit. You'll be happy to pay them that last month when they give you your security deposit back. Clean the house. Move out. Congratulations. You've just made sure that you DEFINITELY get your security deposit back.

I have done this to every landlord that I ever felt was a bit dodgy. Smile. Be a good person. As you have already experienced it is VERY difficult to get small amounts of money out of people if they've decided they aren't going to pay you so you engineer a situation where they just don't owe you money.

Don't waste your time with courts. Seriously. Who has the time to sue people over a few thousand dollars. Landlords hate you doing this to them but there is nothing they can do about it.
posted by aychedee at 3:26 AM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Landlords hate you doing this to them but there is nothing they can do about it.

Yes there is. They can file paperwork in small claims. Then they'll get a judgment against you for nonpayment of rent, and try to screw you on the deposit. And the lease probably provides that you pay for their attorney fees and court costs, so you're the net loser here.

Who has the time to sue people over a few thousand dollars.

Landlords. Filing the papers and going to the hearing will take them about two hours. Maybe three. Given that we could be talking about over a thousand dollars, that's a pretty good wage.
posted by valkyryn at 3:14 AM on December 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

You can always pay them should it get to that. I'm not suggesting you don't have the money to hand.
posted by aychedee at 1:01 AM on December 14, 2013

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