...to a deluxe apartment in the skyeyeye.
April 16, 2007 7:23 AM   Subscribe

I'm 18 and I had to move out of my parents house. I'm in an apartment in Jersey City. I don't have cockroaches, there aren't any leaks, its a really great apartment and these are all small things that I've been dealing with the last few months.

It's the basement apartment in a brownstone-type area of Jersey City. I have my own bedroom and bathroom but a communal kitchen with the people one floor above me. They're very nice upstairs.

1. (This is the most important question because its the only one that has made me reconsider living here.) It freezes while I'm out in the winter. I have a small semi-portable heater that keeps my bedroom warm after I've been home for a while but I don't think you can leave those on while you're not home. There's nothing worse than getting home at 2 am and crawling under frozen sheets. What can I do about that, the kitchen and bathroom being so cold?

2. What do I do with the fallen leaves in the front yard area? I never thought about that growing up because we raked them into piles and then they were gone. No-one else in the apartment uses the front area except me.

3. The grout between the tiles in the bathroom are black black black and its nasty to look at. Can I bleach them or something? Also, I have to hold down the handle for the toilet the entire time its flushing or it will stop, how do I fix that?

4. The front entry way smells awful. Right under the stairs where my front door is smells like sewage, I assumed rainwater sitting somewhere. I just can't see it anywhere. It's only sometimes, sometimes it smells fine. But when it does smell bad, its unbearable. Is this somewhat common? Since I don't know what the culprit is, I hope that someone else has experienced this and has some advice. (I'm the only one that uses the door under the stairs.)

5. What do I do with the crumbling brick walls? They are coming apart as a fine powder on the carpet. (This is not as urgent, I moved the bed to the other side of the room and nothing is touching the brick wall anymore.)

6. There is a gap between the top of the windows and the ceiling. There are plastic bags stuffed in there and I haven't taken them out to inspect it but I'm pretty sure that all the heat is escaping from the windows. It wasn't a huge problem, we just had that huge rainstorm yesterday and my windows and door stayed dry so I assume its sealed but its also plastic bags stuffed in the cracks. What can I do about this? Should I use that stuff that foams up and hardens in place? Am I allowed to fix that myself or do I have to ask the apartment manager or something?

7. I have bars on the windows since its the bottom floor, so what can I do for an air conditioner? I used a fan all last summer.

Finally, is there some helpful website or book that will help me with all this?
posted by rubberkey to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well, for 90% of your concerns you're really going to have to talk to your landlord. You're a renter and shouldnt be doing work out of your own pocket. You should really give up on the trivial complaints such as crumbling brick and talk to him/her about the heat and how you can put in an air conditioner. Also, if the smell is more than an annoyance you should say something.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:31 AM on April 16, 2007

Well, it's not that great of an apartment, but congrats on moving out.
Here's what you need to do— Nearly everything you mentioned is stuff you should hassle your landlord about (and you were there when you were 17 too? Last summer?), but might not be around long enough to enjoy the benefits of.

1, 6— You need to get that hole patched. That's where you're having heat loss, and if your rooms are freezing, the pipes may as well. That's the landlord's interest in getting that fixed.

2— Nothing, really. I mean, you can rake 'em and put 'em into leaf bags (or burn 'em in a drum if you feel like it, I guess. Probably illegal, but hell, you're one step above a squat, so getting authority attention might not be so bad, and it's nice to have a warm fire...), but really, everyone else is leaving them because they don't want to deal with them, and usually the lawn is the landlord's concern, not yours.

3— The grout? Well, you're kinda fucked on that. That's mildew, and you have to strip out the grout to get rid of it. That's a landlord concern. Toilet? Well, that sounds like a low-flow toilet, and that's the way they're supposed to work. You can adjust the float on your toilet chain to change how much water is in the tank prior to the flush, but your ability to do that may be limited.

4—Sounds like you have a drain backing up. Call in your landlord.

5— You can paint them, or spray a lacquer on them. But that's something you only want to do with landlord permission, especially if you have a security deposit.

7— Use a fan. Though something to be concerned about with the bars is whether you have enough fire exits. You need at least two, neither of them in the kitchen.

So, in total, call your landlord. You're in a shitty apartment, and the landlord may or may not work to remedy that.
posted by klangklangston at 7:35 AM on April 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

You need one of these. They shouldn't be left on all the time either, but mine can be set on a timer. Otherwise, it just takes a little while for it to warm up.
posted by hermitosis at 7:36 AM on April 16, 2007

1. Your landlord is responsible for maintaining a certain temperature in your apartment, this minimum temperature varies by state, so make sure and look up tenant rights in your area so that you are prepared.

2. Who is responsible for the leaves depends on the lease and the law. Does your lease say anything about landscaping? Your landlord should probably take care of it, but I was ticketed at one apartment for not maintaining my lawn and so was everyone else in the building, we all had tiny little lawns that we assumed the landlord was responsible for.

3. Yes! Bleach that shit, one of those bleach pens usually works, but a little elbow grease might be in order. It is also they used black grout to hide grossness.

4. You could always try to scrub the masonry or whatever with brick to get rid of the smell, make sure no damp leaves are building up and rotting, that could account for a lot of the smell.

5. There is nothing you can do about crumbling brick walls except not pick at it. Its fun. Also, a side note, you should never use sand in a pressure hose to clean old brick, it will degrade the surface and you will get crumbly bricks.

6. Tell your landlord to fix this. That is just weird.

7. You will probably just have to use fans if there is no central air.

and lastly, this is all a learning experience and if you are not totally on the outs with your parents, they would probably be delighted to come down and help you with some of this stuff. That's what parents are for.
posted by stormygrey at 7:42 AM on April 16, 2007

7. I have bars on the windows since its the bottom floor, so what can I do for an air conditioner? I used a fan all last summer.
This is not what you want to hear, but I had the same problem, and it turned out that the only air conditioner that would work was a portable air conditioner. These thingies stand in your room, rather than being stuck in the window, and there's a hose that you stick out the window. The hose can fit between the bars. Unfortunately, portable air conditioners are much more expensive than window units.

For the other stuff, you should talk to your landlord. Your landlord is obligated to maintain your apartment to a certain standard, and he or she is probably in violation of that standard. You might want to do some googling and see if there's a tenants' rights organization in your city. They can tell you exactly what your landlord is obligated to do. You should start by approaching your landlord in a friendly manner, but it's good to have some backup.
posted by craichead at 7:42 AM on April 16, 2007

This might be helpful to you in determining what your landlord's obligated to do with regard to services and upkeep (see especially the section on heat requirements). Make all of your communications with your landlord in writing, and get anything they promise to you down in writing as well. If all else fails, there are often programs through legal aid organizations or the local bar association that assist low-income tenants in these kinds of disputes if you'd qualify for something like that.

Good luck!
posted by AV at 7:44 AM on April 16, 2007

(If you do end up needing legal help, Legal Services of New Jersey seems like a good place to start.)
posted by AV at 7:50 AM on April 16, 2007

First off -- you do have a lease, right? Just checking, because even in NJ a landlord's not supposed to sign a lease with someone who's too young to enter into a legal contract as an adult -- which happens at 18.

Read the lease, even the fine print. Find out if he/she's tried something funny in it, like saying you're responsible for all repairs and stuff.

After that, find out what the laws are in NJ. There are tenants rights associations as above. The general gist of the laws usually runs along the lines of -- the landlord MUST maintain the heat at a certain level, and can be fined if not. The landlord MUST fix any issues that pertain to your health. If you do fix something, the landlord should credit the repairs against your rent.

But for specific issues --

Re: Mildew in the Tile: There are clorox/softscrub bleach pens that will at least dim it to a dull grey and kill the surface level of it. Otherwise, use soft scrub. Just wet the shower down, and smear full-strength soft scrub on the tile grout where it's stained. Leave it on until it starts to dry. You'll use a lot of it, it smells horrible (don't use an ammonia-based cleaner at the same time and be sure to use a fan to clear the fumes out) and you have to be sure to clean the shower EVERY WEEK after that, because the soft scrub won't penetrate all the way to the wallboard -- but the mildew has, and it'll just regrow. But it'll at least be clean, even if it won't always look it. ;)

RE: smell: The smell is obviously something rotting. Are there bushes or whatever right around there? Chances are an animal has died, or there's a ton of leaves and debris rotting inside the beds. Cleaning that out and pruning the bushes back so they're not sitting right on the ground (i.e. nothing can hide/live in them) might help, but it's not your job to do it. (If you do it, be careful -- where I lived in Portland, junkies would chuck used needles and stuff into bushes...)

Re: Toilet -- Open up the top. Toilet repair 101 - In most toilets, there's the fill shaft, the float, the flapper valve, and the chain that goes to the handle. (newer toilets may have newer components that combine some of these parts... but I doubt yours is newer!) Generally having to hold it down means that your chain has stretched a bit and isn't pulling the flapper valve up enough. If you make the chain shorter to the handle by a few links by unclipping it, moving the clip down a few links, and reconnecting it -- it should help the issue.

A/C - keep an eye on eBay for portable A/C units. The other peeps are right in that it's pretty much your only option for A/C. If you can afford it. Otherwise -- sorry, you'll end up fanning it again. :(

I'd let your landlord know about the heat issues and the plastic bags over the door, and use the suggestion above that you don't want the pipes to freeze next winter.

And as far as helpful websites -- you found it. :)
posted by SpecialK at 8:02 AM on April 16, 2007

Congratulations on your first apartment. Make sure you have a way out in the event of fire. If there aren't two exits, I doubt that the building is up to code - maybe your landlord doesn't care?

Tilex makes a spray-on mildew remover that you should try first. Yes, your shower will smell like bleach, but it shouldn't hurt the tiles and it should get rid of the worst of the mildew/mold without you having to touch it. After that you can try soft scrub or bleach pens or whatever.

I second that it sounds like a clogged or leaking drain pipe or vent. Sewer gas is toxic - make sure it's not going into your basement apartment. Could make you very sick.

If you don't have alternatives for heat & your landlord won't fix it, you can get an electric blanket. That will warm up your bed on a cold winter's night. They're on sale now, if you can find any, because they're off season.

Who's paying for the heat in your apartment?

That spray-in foam stuff or caulk will fill the cracks around the window, but you really should try the landlord route first. Take pictures of everything - everything - before you start.

Good luck!
posted by clarkstonian at 8:21 AM on April 16, 2007

I don't see any mention of a lease or a landlord, which isn't surprising because the basement doesn't sound like it is fit for habitation. Unheated space and raw sewage (yes, the raw sewage smell can be, in fact, raw sewage, especially if you are in a basement) is clear grounds for withholding rent or breaking a lease if you need to. If you do have a landlord you need to bring this to his attention immediately. Do so in writing and keep a copy for your records.

Contact the New Jersey Tenants Organization with your questions regarding the heat, smells, and bars on the windows. They should have up to date information regarding tenant/landlord issues. As an 18 year old you should probably contact them regardless, so you can get a better understanding of how landlord/tenant relationships work.

If you don't have a lease and your housemates don't have a license to rent the space you are living in you are likely SOL.
posted by The Straightener at 8:37 AM on April 16, 2007

Try the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser for your grout. I swear, I don't know what is in that stuff, it really is like magic.

What about those plastic insulating sheets that you seal with a hair dryer for the cracks around the window?

Air conditioner: there are portable air conditioners that vent through a hose that goes out your window.

Also, I know you probably don't want to deal with anything legal, but there is probably an implied warranty of habitability on your apartment. Many of these complaints probably don't rise to the level of making your apartment uninhabitable, but the heat problem very well might.
IANAL, but you can probably find an organization that deals with this kind of thing that can tell you your rights and how to approach this.

And yes, take pictures of everything.
posted by walla at 8:38 AM on April 16, 2007

One more thing - I've found that Craigs List is a great place to buy air conditioners, so you if you're short of money you may want to try that out for a portable one.
posted by walla at 8:43 AM on April 16, 2007

Get an airconditioner that has a flexible tube that goes in the window. Costco carries them. I am sure other places do as well. And they make them that exhaust the moisture so you don't have to empty a tray. They do a super, quiet job.
Go to www.Costco.com and search for portable air conditoner to see what they look like.
posted by JayRwv at 9:21 AM on April 16, 2007

Great advice for the specific problems. But let me reiterate what SpecialK said. Re-read your lease. Find out what you can/can't do, and what your landlord will/won't do. Hopefully, he hasn't set things up too badly for you. But always tell him about any problems. Find out when he'll fix them (or, if you want to tackle them yourself, when you can start). And make sure he follows through. And document everything; keep a written account with details and pictures.

Again, as per SpecialK, there are standards that an apartment must be up (minimum temperature in winter, etc.). If not, the landlord is liable (i.e. he MUST fix them).

If the area you're in is anything like Long Island, then most apartments (as part of an existing house, not a complex) are illegal, and this can be used to motivate a landlord - he won't want it known (to the city/town or the IRS) that the apartment exists.

I wish I knew all this now, back when I was in your situation. Good luck!
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 9:24 AM on April 16, 2007

Agreed with everyone that you should be on the horn with the landlord about most of this stuff. One little thing that might help, though, is to get a heated mattress pad. It's like an electric blanket but it goes under your bottom sheet. Turn it on when you're getting ready to go to bed and your bed will be nice and toasty when you climb in. (Turn it off right away, now that you're in; sleeping with it on is a Bad Idea.)
posted by bink at 10:00 AM on April 16, 2007

Response by poster: I appreciate all these answers about the landlord not holding up their part of it, but I bet thats true. There is no lease, we pay month to month. My friend was in it since last March (thats why I know about the fan last summer.) As for paying for the heat, the utilities are included. I pay to the apartment manager who's my roomate upstairs, I've never even met the landlord or owner. My bedroom used to be the living room, and then also in the basement is the kitchen and another small living room and the other roomates bedrooms are upstairs. (There are more apartments above that but I've never met any of them.) I don't want to cause trouble because I'm in a beautiful neighborhood for next to nothing rent, I just wanted to make it a little nicer to be in. It's around Hamilton Park for those of you familiar with those style apartments.

Went out and got Magic Erasers, haven't tried to use them yet. The tiles in the shower are fine, its the grout on the floor tiles that is black. I get a little discouraged because we bought a vaccuum to try and get the brick dust and all it did was suck it up and blow it out the sides into my face.
As for the plastic bags, I dont even know what they are for. I didn't want to touch them incase they were important and I'd break something.
posted by rubberkey at 1:18 PM on April 16, 2007

Evaporated milk sprayed on the crumbly bricks soaks in and becomes casein and stabilizes the porosity.suprisingly waterproof once it dries, cheap also.
posted by hortense at 2:39 PM on April 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

If your vacuum is blowing out what it sucks in, it's got a tear in its bag or filter.

Rotting leaves generally smell like tea or earth, so if your entryway odor is rot-related, it's probably not those. Perhaps somebody nearby has used rat poison?

The right thing to do if you have vast amounts of autumn leaves is actually to encourage them to rot down quickly: hot-compost them. Put down a two to four inch layer of twigs and woody prunings maybe five feet in diameter, stand a garden stake upright in the center, then rake all your leaves into a big pile around the stake and on top of the prunings. The idea of the prunings is to help air infiltrate under the pile, so it rots aerobically (producing the aforementioned tea-like scent) rather than anaerobically; anaerobic rot produces a stronger smell, more like ammoniated sauerkraut, and will make your neighbors cross.

Keep building up the pile until your trees have stopped shedding leaves; you can also use a garden fork to mix in some grass clippings (mix those thoroughly enough that they don't end up in anaerobic little clumps). Keep the pile damp (not soggy wet) and take a whiz on it every now and then to add a bit more nitrogen. Once it gets big enough, you will start to see a bit of steam coming out of it. At that point, pull out the stake to leave a chimney through the middle of the pile. When the steaming has mostly stopped (another week or so), plunge the stake back in, turn the pile partly inside out with the garden fork (it will have shrunk a fair bit by then) and let it cook up again. After a couple of rounds of this, it won't steam any more, and will smell more like rich earth than tea. Let it just sit for another couple of weeks after that, then spread the result on your garden beds. Your plants will thank you.
posted by flabdablet at 4:23 PM on April 16, 2007

1. Staying Warm: Electric blanket or mattress pad. Wear a hat. There have been lots of threads about staying warm, not that I can find one right now.

2. leaves: Rake them up. Ask at a local hardware store about collection. You might have to get compostable bags. Or start a compost heap.

3. Grout: Bleach. Ajax cleanser & a toothbrush. FYI, NEVER mix bleach & ammonia. It creates poisonous gas.

4. The front entry way smells awful: Do you have neighborhood cats spraying the door? Make sure the area is clean & dry. Could be rot, could be dog or cat pee/poop. If a previous tenant had a poorly cared-for pet, the smell can take a long time to go away. Cleaning with white vinegar may help.

5. crumbling brick walls: the evap. milk thing is interesting. Again, ask at a local hardware store.

6. There is a gap between the top of the windows and the ceiling: There is spray insulating foam that expands to fit nooks & crannies.

7. A fan that you can point at you cools you. A 2nd fan blowing out depending on time of day, helps cool the room.

Good luck.
posted by theora55 at 8:28 PM on April 16, 2007

rubberkey, I just popped in to see if you followed up at all, and since you did, a couple of comments:

Just because there's no lease doesn't necessarily mean it's an unlicensed or illegal tenancy. Assuming everything else is on the up and up, month-to-month tenancies are perfectly legal and month-to-month tenants have the same rights under landlord-tenant law with regard to habitability that leased tenants do.

Also, just because your heat is included in your rent doesn't mean it doesn't still have to meet those minimum requirements (that's 68 degrees in the day and 65 degrees at night from October 1 to May 1) set forth in the laws I linked above.

I can understand not wanting to make waves, especially if affordable housing is scarce where you are. But some landlords rely on the fact that most of their tenants don't know their rights to get away with things they shouldn't. It's also possible that your landlord just hasn't realized what the conditions in your apartment are really like. In either case, a polite, succint, and specific letter addressing the problems he or she is required by law to fix might be all you need.
posted by AV at 5:15 AM on April 18, 2007

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