Where Does Quiet Enjoyment Come In?
April 16, 2015 6:16 AM   Subscribe

Four days ago, we got an email from a realtor introducing herself as the person selling my landlord's house. She's been incredibly aggressive and rude in regards to viewings, and we do not trust her to respect our wishes if we ask her not to show the house at a certain time. It has been incredibly stressful, and it's only been one week. What are our rights here (detailed questions also within)?

If back-story isn't needed, skip this paragraph: my landlord has been really, really shady since we signed the lease last July. In December, we discovered that the apartment was illegal: the bedroom one of my friends occupies is, according to our borough, not supposed to be a bedroom (although we told landlord before signing the lease that we would be using that room as such, and he said OK), and the attic apartment that the landlord claimed was separate from us is not legally an apartment. We were forced (harassed by phone and threatened with eviction) to sign a new lease at 11pm on the night the borough inspector came, bringing the attic tenant onto our lease. That same month, we discovered that the tenant had access to our utilities and his use explained why our gas and heat bills were so fucking high (we all work; until recently, none of us were home often). A call to PSE&G (we are in NJ) verified that the attic did not have a separate meter and that the tenant's usage was affecting our bill. When we went to the landlord, he basically said "well you didn't ask, so I didn't tell you," denying all liability. When I attempted to collect back payment from the tenant (who at that point owed over $300), he demurred; when we then requested a rent reduction, he lawyered up. He eventually agreed to a monthly credit applied to our rent based on the tenant's share of utilities (the tenant is unemployed and I think a relative of his). We didn't file a complaint for fear of losing the deposit, either via the lease or in the costs of a lawsuit.

Six days ago, the landlord asked me what my plans were after the lease ended. The others are moving out, but I wanted to stay on, and indicated as much. He told me that he would renew the lease after terminating it for the others, and not give the others their share of the deposit back (which I disagreed with and then promptly warned them of). He then told me that we should adopt a month-to-month lease as a "natural" lease extension. I disagreed, but requested further clarification from him (which he didn't answer). Then we got a notice from him saying that a Realtor was coming to look at the house.

The Realtor came, took pictures of all our rooms, and placed a lockbox on the front door (none of us were home). My landlord refused to engage other tenants and only wanted to talk to one person, so I was the only one who received the Realtor's email in the middle of the night. I gave her the contact info of my housemate who did want to be notified of visits, and we requested no less than 24 hours notice of an appointment. She agreed to get our permission before entering the property. The next day, we were notified of an appointment less than 24 hours away, and we immediately rejected it - then, she texted AND emailed both us, the other housemate and the landlord demanding an explanation, well after business hours. This has been the tone of our contact with her for the four other visits scheduled this week (we rejected one weekend appointment, and she got nasty about it). Because we asked so many questions, she (again, nastily) told us that the other tenants (the attic and first floor tenants) were OK with the process and that "us two" would be handled differently.

Also, the landlord has remained silent and hasn't responded to my emails.

We get that the landlord can sell the property when he wants to, but what rights do we have in NJ while this is happening? We do not trust the realtor to keep her word, especially after discovering that she's marketing the house with one more bedroom than legally there (my housemate's bedroom - the very room we almost got evicted over even without the landlord's threats). Plus the landlord removed the locks on the side door that separates our floor from the other two, so anyone - literally anyone - can simply avoid using the lockbox and just walk into the apartment from one of the other floors. What's stopping her or any of the agents from doing a bunch of unauthorized viewings? Our lease only refers to the property being sold when it says that reasonable notice must be given prior to the landlord entering the property for non-emergencies (including to show the house to a buyer or Realtor). And also, can we have the lockbox removed? We asked a bunch of questions and she told us that no, we won't have the password/be able to see who used the lockbox to get in and said that while she didn't need our authorization to install the lockbox, that "it's in the handbook (sic)" that no agent can access the lockbox to see a property without her/our permission.

Thank you.
posted by Ashen to Law & Government (22 answers total)
Best answer: Realtors are licensed. You can complain to whatever agency in NJ licenses realtors that her behavior is unethical and (potentially) illegal, at least with respect to entering the apartment with less than 24 hours notice.

The lockbox itself is pretty standard.

As far as the landlord's super shady behavior: this is what housing court and code enforcement are for. The problem is that in practical terms, code enforcement might mean evicting the attic tenant the non-bedroom tenant, and there's little to prevent this landlord, or the next owner, from turning right around and doing the same thing to another group of folks.

It's also worth looking into whether there is some kind of tenant's rights organization in your area that might be willing to get involved.

Honestly this situation seems really stressful and the best thing for your own peace of mind and well-being might just be to find another place.
posted by gauche at 6:29 AM on April 16, 2015 [7 favorites]

MY friend went to our province's rental ombudsman for shitty behavior from the landlord, such as the landlord showing up unannounced. She was able to terminate her month to month immediately and also receive $300 for the bad behaviour.

If you do have a rental ombudsman, then you need to contact them. The landlord and the other tenant were committing theft of your utilities and you'll likely get considerable compensation for your landlord's beliefs.
posted by DetriusXii at 6:40 AM on April 16, 2015

Best answer: To begin with, you are asking a legal question, but adding many irrelevant details. You can have a crappy landlord who acts crappy and is in general a crappy person, but does nothing illegal. My response to your question is based on the questions you asked, which are related to rental logistics in selling the property. You have identified many other behaviors (utility misbilling, removing locks) that are questionable, but are not related to whether or not it is legal for the realtor to show the apartment. Those are separate issues and do not affect whether or not it is legal for the realtor to show the apartment. This response is not to indicate that your landlord is "right" or "wrong", just about what the law requires.

we requested no less than 24 hours notice of an appointment

In New Jersey, there is no law requiring landlord access to your apartment for anything other than repairs. Hence, this needs to be handled in your lease. Your lease says "reasonable notice", which in many cases is interpreted as 24 hours (see NJAC 5:10 for the case of building repairs). However, it would be a very difficult argument to make that a single instance of a realtor visiting with notification less than 24 hours away is a violation of the lease and further, that if it is a violation, that there is anything that you can do about it. In other words, you can request whatever you want, but you're probably not going to be able to do much legally unless this behavior is repeated and blatant. Currently, it is neither.

A more pragmatic, and less legalistic, way of solving this issue is to negotiate with your landlord how to handle those viewings. Tell him that if he provides notice, you will vacate the apartment and keep it reasonably clean. If he doesn't provide notice, you will stay in the apartment (you are, after all, paying for it), and have no expectations for cleanliness. You could wear pajamas during the showing for extra awkwardness. I suspect if this actually happens even once, you will start to have notice for all showings. You aren't going to be able to make the viewings not happen, so you might as well make them happen on your terms rather than his.

What's stopping her or any of the agents from doing a bunch of unauthorized viewings?

Your lease, and that's about it. Your landlord's realtor will control access to the property (realtors don't just walk into properties they want to view; they coordinate with the selling realtor), and your landlord realtor should coordinate with your landlord about visiting the property. If your landlord's realtor doesn't coordinate with your landlord or you, then arguably there is a lease violation. However, again, for you to do anything about it will require repeated and blatant violations, and even if those happen, you would have to go to court to do anything about them. Again, you need to negotiate with your landlord rather than viewing this from a legal perspective.

can we have the lockbox removed?

Not in any reasonable way. It is the landlord's right to sell the property, and lockboxes are the reasonable way to sell a property.
posted by saeculorum at 6:41 AM on April 16, 2015 [11 favorites]

The realtor carries out the wishes of the landlord. She works for him. If the landlord gives her instructions on showings, she should follow them.

Your relationship is with your landlord. If you don't like what is going on, you need to talk to him.
posted by littlewater at 7:14 AM on April 16, 2015

Response by poster: To clarify: our landlord has taken a hands-off approach to this. He stopped responding to attempts to reach him as soon as the Realtor announced that the property was for sale (we did not get written or oral notice from the landlord that the house was being sold, otherwise). All notices that we've received so far have come from her. He is CCed on our interactions with her also and has not responded.
posted by Ashen at 7:18 AM on April 16, 2015

Best answer: You can call the local tenant rights group in your area and find out your legal rights. I think you are going to have trouble not having the realtor enter whenever she wants. My friend did something when he was having problems with realtors showing his place: posting a bag of cockroaches on the front door with a note that says, "if you see these bugs, then we weren't given notice of a viewing". You could also post a sign on the illegal bedroom etc. that says "Hi buyers! Did you know this is an illegal bedroom? Check the records!"

Whatever you do, you need to plan to move. This will never get better.
posted by Toddles at 7:32 AM on April 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Find another place, there is no way this is going to end well. This guy is a crook and the realtor is just taking his orders. Do you really want to subsidize his relative's utilities and so on forever and keep dealing with this mess?

Did you ever sign the month to month lease? I would, so that you could leave when you wanted to.
posted by emjaybee at 7:56 AM on April 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

And you want to keep living there?
posted by kinddieserzeit at 7:56 AM on April 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: To answer, and then avoid thread sitting: I didn't even get farther than stating that I wanted a year-long lease before he stopped engaging. Our lease expires at the end of July and has a 60-day deadline for notice of non-renewal on the tenant's side, 90 for the landlord.
posted by Ashen at 7:59 AM on April 16, 2015

The realtor only gets paid if the place sells. Call her, and/or call her boss, and let them know that if they work with you, you'll help them sell the place by keeping it clean and in good condition and staying out of their way. If they don't work with you, you can't help them, and you can be 100% honest with potential buyers about all of the pros and cons of the property (noise, plumbing, neighbors, etc.)

But yeah, sooner rather than later, move out. These people are unreasonable, and you want to get away from them as soon as possible.
posted by decathecting at 8:00 AM on April 16, 2015

Response by poster: We're all moving out after this, so the questions are more about how to navigate the next three months. The landlord is definitely not gonna buy us off to vacate early.
posted by Ashen at 8:01 AM on April 16, 2015

If nothing else I would secure that door that the locks were removed from.
posted by vignettist at 8:02 AM on April 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

Best answer: And to add to decathecting's advice, if the realtor doesn't want to play ball with you, and you end up being home in your pajamas when she shows up with a potential buyer, I would make noises in front of the buyer about that one bedroom not being legal.

I mean, if your LL is this shady it doesn't sound like you're going to get your deposit back anyway. And what else has he got over you? You won't get evicted between now and July.
posted by vignettist at 8:05 AM on April 16, 2015 [10 favorites]

Others have spoken more to the realtor/landlord issue, but I'll speak to the utility billing. This happened to us at our last place--we found out just before moving that we'd been paying gas and water/sewer for us and our downstairs neighbor (in a duplex). The downstairs guy owed us about $400. This was in LA, where there are some decent tenant protections against unscrupulous landlords, but those protections weren't enough to change anything for us. The downstairs guy said he'd pay us when he could (which never happened), the landlord wasn't on the hook for not telling us about the shared meter, and the only way we could see that money again was through small claims court--a process which may have cost more than we were owed. It's a horrible thing to say, but you may be better off walking away from the money you're owed and considering that the bitter price of learning what to ask before signing a lease. I'm sorry you're going through this awful mess.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 9:06 AM on April 16, 2015

Sounds like you're dealing with crazy people. I'm not just being snarky; I'm serious. Crazy people can't be reasoned with, so expect some sort of insanity from now on as long as you're still there. Again, lesson I had to learn in life: logic simply doesn't solve everything, because many people are beyond reason. God, it's depressing, but it's true. Get away if you can.

Also, if you're given inadequate notice, reject it, and then get crap for it, my gut says to make it very clear when the tenant shows up why the notice was inadequate. Not with just words. With something like, "Oh, we've been organizing, so stuff is everywhere and the realtor didn't give us adequate time to tidy things up." "Oh, this piece of furniture is blocking this room right now, and we haven't had time to move it. Sorry. If I'd been given more notice... It's a nice room behind that door, even if the landlord hasn't legally declared it a bedroom. Ohhhhh, oops." Changing the locks is probably illegal. Passive-aggression probably isn't.

Again, dealing with crazies for too long will start to make you lose your own mind and probably lead to even worse things. There's a reason I take a big ole dose of (legally-prescribed) anxiety pills before I go to work. Good luck.
posted by KinoAndHermes at 9:13 AM on April 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Report the illegal apartments to the Building Department. Stop paying rent. Be prepared to move immediately.

Similarly, report the misrepresentation of the property and any other realtor complaints to the real estate licensing board of NJ. Get clarification on which of your complaints are most serious, and put them in writing.

Having the Certificate of Occupancy revoked is a big deal. Having the realtor's behavior reviewed by the licensing board is a big deal.

Metaphorically, screw them over as much as possible and move out. Your deposits are likely not recoverable, but you should write a demand letter and send it certified. I'm assuming once the Building Inspector determines the rental is illegal you'll have to move immediately, so be prepared once you take that step.

Move out and make life very very difficult for these folks. It's the best you can do.

PS - I can't believe you were trying to stay on at this place after your lease was up. Once someone has proven themselves dishonest, stop doing business with them. You can't win. Life is short. Always move towards better relationships. You're never going to regret getting out of this situation and others like it. Clean transactions, clean transactions.
posted by jbenben at 10:10 AM on April 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Stop paying rent.

This is very bad advice.

You can, and will, get evicted if you stop paying rent. Without getting into an argument with another poster, you should always consult with a lawyer before withholding rent or stopping paying rent. In general, a tenant's right to withhold rent/stop paying rent are extremely limited and require extremely careful maneuvering to exercise legally. Further, any attempt (legal or not) will be met with significant backlash on the part of the landlord.

You may not like the landlord (I'd agree with you on that one), you may want to move out quickly (I'd agree with you on that one), but none of that is a good reason to get yourself evicted for no good reason. The eviction will stay with you a long time and will make it difficult to rent in the future.
posted by saeculorum at 10:16 AM on April 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

This was me a few months ago:
Breaking a lease in NYC

I had many sources here in the city telling me that I was in the right, but in the end it was either going to be housing court (e.g. - put on the NYC tenants blacklist) or just sucking it up and dealing with the loss of $1700.

I REALLY needed that $1700 (and well...still need it), but I had to let it go because it was slowly killing me with rage.

I know this is more of a psychological answer, but I would say just finish out your lease and get the fuck out. Screw that damn door that they took the locks off shut with two dozen woodscrews toenailed into the frame, it's not like you are going to get your deposit anyways. If the landlord was willing to take it away from your roommates that quickly they will do it to you too.

This sucks so bad and it's crappy that you have to go through it. But I think your only option is to just grin and bear it for the next three months.

Also that thing about putting up a sign saying "this room is illegal" is pretty awesome too. Shit, paint it on the wall of the room.
posted by aloiv2 at 10:40 AM on April 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

When I had an apartment I lived in get sold (annoying, but otherwise problem-free) I locked the doorknob. The lockbox only had the deadbolt key.

In retrospect I realize this was kind of a dick move, but appropriate given your situation. I don't know what's in your lockbox, but it's worth a shot.
posted by O9scar at 12:35 PM on April 16, 2015

Best answer: when we then requested a rent reduction, he lawyered up. He eventually agreed to a monthly credit applied to our rent based on the tenant's share of utilities (the tenant is unemployed and I think a relative of his). We didn't file a complaint for fear of losing the deposit, either via the lease or in the costs of a lawsuit.

I suggest that you review the MeFi Wiki Get a Lawyer page, and specifically the section on free and low-cost legal resources. Your landlord lawyered up and was able to address a concern about financial impacts on you, and I suggest that you obtain legal advice before taking any action that may create a financial impact on your landlord, such as damaging the property or interfering with reasonable attempts to sell the property. It also sounds like it would be helpful to get legal advice with regard to what your rights are and how to effectively protect those rights.

If you don't damage the property, and your security deposit is still withheld, small claims court may be an affordable option that allows you to get your security deposit back - a lawyer or tenant rights organization in your state likely can explain how to protect your security deposit claim before you move out and the legal options that are available for your specific situation.
posted by Little Dawn at 2:33 PM on April 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

The Fire Department may also take swift and immediate action depending of the severity of the bedroom violation. Part of the regulation that makes a legal bedroom a legal bedroom (especially where certifying a dwelling as legal for residential rental) is whether or not there are windows, and the size/placement of these windows. This is so that people do not die in house fires in illegal residential rentals.

Having the Fire Department inspect your house may be another way of immediately invalidating your lease and legally moving out.
posted by jbenben at 4:47 PM on April 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for everyone's replies! We're all really worn out from the constant back and forth with the Realtor, so we've opted to take a "wait and see" approach. If we can prove that they're trespassing and staging visits without clearing it (we might just get a nanny cam soon), we'll report the realtor to whatever licensing body is local. The other tenants have also started rejecting appointments, so we think that the Realtor will probably start viewings when she knows we're not home, out of determination to sell quickly.

Since the landlord won't work with us and had been a terrible landlord in general, we won't actively obstruct the sale, but will not be helping him, either (rooms will remain in their default state instead of pristine; we are mildly messy). If the Realtor becomes more aggressive than currently, signs start going up or we give brutally honest answers to prospective buyers when they visit. If we happen to be out during a visit, fine, but none of us is willing to vacate the property as a favor to the landlord, especially when we pay to occupy it.

Also, I took a lot of photos of the property before we moved stuff into it, just in case, and will be hiring a service of our choosing. - so that the landlord has no excuse to hire a ripoff service and deduct all charges from our deposit.

I highlighted some answers for telling me what I needed to accept, or influenced our collective course of action.

Thank you again.
posted by Ashen at 6:34 AM on April 17, 2015

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