According to a Pew Research Center analysis of US Census data, more Americans are renting today than at any time in the past 50 years. This should come as no surprise: It is, after all, the Millennial Agenda™ to kill the housing market and force future generations to subside on nothing but avocado toast and the fleeting satisfaction of a good fidget spin. Whether this latest surge in renting is a millennial plot or, perhaps, a result of wage stagnation, the housing crisis and the rising cost of living, the fact remains that 65 percent of adults under 35 are currently renting. It stands to reason that some portion of those renters are getting actively screwed by their landlords.
After all, behind every renter is at least one rental horror story: a landlord who jacked up the rent unexpectedly, or refused to give back a security deposit even after the apartment has been left in pristine condition, harassed tenants for made-up infractions, or ignored countless pleas for routine maintenance.
“Unfortunately, people don’t know their rights,” said Rachel Khirallah, an attorney based in Dallas, Texas, who handles real estate disputes across the state. “Some landlords are unfair, they lie, cheat, and steal. You have to be vigilant and take control over your own destiny.”
Khirallah frequently represents tenants who have been wronged by a landlord or rental company, and she’s seen landlords use several common tactics to scare residents into silence or compliance. Often, these tactics are illegal. There are precautions renters can take to avoid them, or ways to fight back once they've been had.
Withholding Security Deposits
“Probably one of most common things I see relates to security deposits,” said Khirallah. “Landlords come up with various charges or reasons why the security deposit can’t be refunded.”
Khirallah said it’s important to look closely when your landlord presents you with an itemized list of deductions on your security deposit. If they’re taking money off for things like general wear and tear and painting fees, or falsely claiming that apartment features were broken or ruined when they weren’t as a way to withhold your deposit, that’s illegal.
“An old landlord once told us we ruined the carpet, even after we steam-cleaned it when we left,” said Nicole Briese, a freelance editor who works out of her Chicago apartment. “He told us he wasn't giving us our $1,200 deposit back.”
Luckily, Briese took pictures of her apartment both before she moved in and after she’d moved out, so she had the documentation to prove her landlord’s claims were bullshit. Without those photos, she likely would've been out more than a grand.
Misrepresentation of apartment amenities on rental ads is sadly common, and once you’ve signed the lease, it’s a difficult situation to back out of, said Khirallah.
“You are legally allowed to terminate your lease if it was presented to you that a certain property had amenities that it didn’t actually have,” she said. “However, a lot of landlords will still report it on your credit if you terminate or walk the lease.”
As a result, said Khirallah, even if you have a legitimate reason for breaking your lease, your credit can take a serious hit if you do so. Landlords tend to get away with straight-up lying in online listings, because residents don’t want to face the potential consequences of fighting back.
Kayla Haskins (whose name has been changed by request because she fears retaliation from an old employer) worked at a mid-size Chicago leasing office from 2011 to 2014, and said she saw her former company engage in deceptive online marketing all the time. “They’d call a kitchen ‘gut rehabbed’ when they’d just replaced a broken stove or microwave,” she said. “And we never had actual pictures of the unit we were renting. It would always be a staged picture of a unit from ten years ago when everything was new.”
To avoid being hoodwinked, renters should insist on real life walk-throughs of the unit they'll actually be living in before signing a lease. This way, you'll get a good look and feel for whether or not it is as advertised. "When the landlord tells you, yes, we have AC, you have to physically go with them to the unit and tell them to show you," said Khirallah. "Have them turn it on. Watch them do it. It's sad, but you should assume everyone is lying to you, then have them prove they're telling the truth."
Failing that, it's important to keep all correspondence with the landlord or rental company for your records. Take screenshots of promised amenities from the site listing the property and save all texts and emails about what is you expect upon move-in. If, say, your promised hardwood floors turn out to be cheap linoleum, that correspondence or pics of misleading ads can be the ticket to making your landlord deliver, or allow you leverage to negotiate a more appropriate rent when perception doesn't meet reality.
Getting your landlord or leasing office to fix broken appliances or make routine repairs can be difficult no matter who you’re renting from, and Haskins says the reason for this at her former employer was a combination of disorganization and misplaced frugality. Her old company managed some 100 buildings but only worked with a couple different contractors or plumbers that gave them sweetheart deals, and work orders piled up as a result.
If it's taking weeks for your landlord to get to your leaky faucet or broken toilet, the best thing to do is be super, super annoying, Haskins said. Email and call constantly. If this gets you nowhere, threaten to write public Yelp reviews with photos in order to force a response. The law is on your side most of the time in those situations, because an apartment needs to be livable in order for you to, ya know, live in it. If landlords are ignoring or refusing to address an issue that's making it impossible to live in your apartment, it's legal to withhold rent until they get it fixed and bill them for other accommodations (i.e. a hotel room) until it's fixed. Laws on this matter, however, vary by state, and it's important to check a trusted resource before going down this road.
Ultimately, what works best is being consistent to the point of pestering. “It’s cliché, but the squeaky wheel actually does get the grease,” Haskins said. “With so few people handling thousands of tenants, we’d ignore pretty much everyone except the people who wouldn’t let up. Be the phone number that makes everyone at your leasing office groan when they see it pop up.”
Self-Help and Harassment
Matthew Kreitzer, a Virginia-based attorney who has represented both tenants and landlords in eviction and collection proceedings, said he sees a lot of landlords engaging in what’s called “self-help,” or trying to evict tenants without going through the proper legal channels. “Sometimes it’s an investment decision where they want to flip the house,” he said. “Other times it’s because of a nonpayment of rent situation.”
Either way, Kreitzer said it is illegal in most jurisdictions for a landlord to use tactics like cutting off a tenant’s utilities, changing the locks, removing property, or making verbal or written threats to get a tenant to move out. Eviction proceedings vary from state to state, and landlords often try to get around these rules as they can be expensive and time-consuming. However, Kreitzer said that when tenants document instances of self-help, they can use the law in their favor fairly easily.
“Landlords who have engaged in self-help typically lose in court,” said Kreitzer. “It is simply a matter of showing the court that they did it. If someone can come in and prove that they shut off the heat or electricity without a court order, it’s a relatively simple case.”
All renters can expect a slight increase in their rent from year to year, but this is supposed to be a small inflation based on the value of the property. But, honestly, unless you're in a rent-stabilized or rent-controlled building, you're largely at the mercy of your landlord or the rental market when it comes to pricing. Beyond sucking it up and paying, or choosing to move, there's not much you can do if find yourself in this scenario. That said, in most states, landlords are required to give 30 days notice of a rent increase. More if the increase is substantial enough. (California, for example, requires 60 days notice if the rent is raised by 10 percent or more.) It's also illegal for landlords to raise your rent dramatically in order to punish you in some way or to get payback if, say, you had to hassle them constantly about maintenance or hold their feet to the fire about a misleading ad. You'll likely know if your rent skyrockets for reasons that feel retaliatory or if you've not been given proper notice.
When it comes to getting a leg up against these kinds of schemes, Khirallah, Kreitzer, and Haskins all agree suing is rarely your best option. It’s expensive, takes a long time, can ruin your credit, and you’re not guaranteed a win—especially if you’re going up against a rental company with deep pockets.
Instead, Khirallah said you should always assume things might take a turn for the worse, and document literally everything. Get all promises from your landlord or rental company in writing—whether by text message, email, or formal letter. If you have a phone conversation, take a screenshot before you hang up to prove you had a conversation with someone in the office on that time and date, and make meticulous notes on who you spoke to and exactly what was said.
You should also educate yourself on your rights as a renter, said Kreitzer. He recommends reaching out to tenants’ rights organizations in your state, going to Bar Association workshops in your city, and reaching out to legal aid when you suspect your landlord is doing something below board.
Follow Caroline Thompson on Twitter.