One of the important adult life skills you learn living in your first apartment is how to deal with your landlord. If you manage that relationship right from the beginning it will help to make the first year on your own a great experience. If you mess it up, you may lose your security deposit and even end up on the dreaded tenant blacklist.
Make First Impression Count
Your first contact with your future landlord or his representatives sets the tone and may decide whether you get the apartment.
- If the contact is by phone, write down all your talking points before the call and use your best phone manners. Start by introducing yourself, then be clear and succinct about the nature of your call, be it about a specific apartment or just general inquiry about availabilities. Be polite and patient no matter how harried the person on the other end of the phone is.
- Your first contact is often by email. Again, use professional language, clear subject line, correct spelling and grammar and be brief and to the point. Respond to any emails and follow up with any information requests promptly.
- Approach your first face-to-face meeting with the landlord as you would a job interview. Look well-groomed, dress appropriately (no offensive T-shirts or ripped clothing), and bring all your documents well-organized in an envelope, so you are hunting for your crumbled pay stubs from the bottom of your purse or backpack.
The purpose of all this attention to giving a good first impression is to signal to the landlord two things that he cares about: 1.) that as you take good care of yourself, so you’ll take good care of his apartment, and 2.) that you are organized and can be counted to pay your rent on time.
Once the landlord accepts your rental application, he’ll send you a lease to sign. You must read this document thoroughly and understand what it says. Keep in mind that in real estate transactions any verbal promises made by landlord or his representatives are worthless unless they are also in writing. If you were promised new refrigerator or stove, it should be in the lease. And everything that is written in the lease that you sign, whether previously discussed or not, will stand. If something is added that you object to and you strike it out, both you and the landlord must initial the change for it to be taken out.
This does not mean that you cannot negotiate with the landlord. You just need to do it before you sign the lease. A successful negotiation always requires you to be prepared with facts. How tight is the rental market? Are open houses packed? Did you lose many apartments because someone snatched them up first? Or do you see the same apartments advertised continuously. How do the amenities measure against other buildings in the area?
In a tight market, you may not want to risk attempting to negotiate anything. Remember, the apartment is not yours until both you and the landlord sign the lease, so he may decide not to sign if he thinks you’ll be a problem tenant. In a slow rental market, feel free to practice your negotiating skills. First, you can try to get a reduction in rent, but the landlord will be more likely to give up something that does not cost him money. You might be able to have him throw in an extra amenity, such as health club membership, parking spot or storage room bin, rather than a month of free rent.
Negotiating if You Don’t Meet Landlord’s Income Guidelines
Your negotiating skills have to move to a higher level, if you do not meet landlord’s income guidelines. Most big city landlord’s have a fixed formula that they use to decide whether or not they will rent to you. The income requirement typically ranges from 35-45 times your monthly rent, so to get a $1,000 a month place you have to make $35,000-$45,000. If you are a new grad, working for a well-known company, and close to the income target, you might be get away with offering an extra month or two of security deposit. If you are much below, there are three ways to convince the landlord to give you a lease:
- Get a guarantor to back up your rent payments, someone who agrees to become legally responsible for your rent if you fail to pay. That kind person is usually a close relative. The catch is that the guarantor must show an income of 80 times your rent.
- Pay up to one full year of rent in advance. This approach also requires that someone will front the money for you and you in turn reimburse them by giving them the monthly rent check. Again, we are probably talking about a family member.
- Use an outside company such as Insurent to guarantee your rent for a fee. Their annual income requirement is more reasonable 27.5x the monthly rent, so you’d get that $1,000 place on a $27,500 salary.
Dealing with Bad Landlords
The first rule of dealing with bad landlords is not to get one in the first place. While most landlords are honest and responsible, there are some bad ones that you need to avoid. You can start by simply googling the landlord’s or management agent’s name and the address of the building. If there is some really bad stuff, it should surface. We have also outlined several other ways to find out your landlord’s reputation. The important thing is to do the check before you sign your lease.
Bad landlords come in many flavors. The unresponsive one is never available to take your complaint or fix a problem within a reasonable time. The money grabber will always find a reason to keep your security deposit or come up with ways to charge you extra money. The intrusive one will find endless reasons to visit the apartment to look for phantom problems. (The last type is most often encountered when you rent an apartment in a private home.)
What to do if you did not find out that your landlord is a sleaze, until you have signed the lease? You need to start building defenses against potential problems from the start.
- At the walk-through as you get the keys, take notes and pictures of any problem areas that the landlord might blame you for when he is holding your security deposit hostage at the end of the lease.
- As problems pop up during your lease, keep good records and always communicate with the landlord in writing, by mail with return receipt requested, especially if the problem is severe. (You might be able to bypass the landlord with small maintenance problems, if you can develop a good relationship – being a good tipper helps – with the building’s super or handyman.)
However, as our blogger Alissa reminds us there is no such thing as a perfect landlord, so you just have to learn to live with yours.
While you want to avoid bad landlords, make sure you are not a bad tenant. Don’t try to hide your cat when the lease is no-pets, take good care of your place, and make an effort to get along with your neighbors.
What’s Landlord’s Responsibility and What’s Yours?
When you are a first-time renter, you may have hard time figuring out when you should deal with the problem and when you should let the landlord handle it. The simple rule is, consider who is the owner of the item in question. If it is your microwave that blows up, you are responsible. If it is landlord’s fridge, give him a call.
An easy problem – like a clogged sink – that you can fix with a plunger is fine for you to tackle. If the toilet starts spewing water all over the bathroom, call the landlord or super, immediately. Any time there is a problem with water or a potential fire hazard, landlord needs to be notified and given access to come and make repairs. If it is a life-threatening emergency, like a gas leak, you need to report it to the appropriate authorities first and then to the landlord.
If you have a non-urgent issue with landlord’s equipment, be prepared to build a case and present to the landlord the reasons why the items should be fixed. If he agrees to do it, but drags his heels, keep on following up, politely. Persistence will pay off.
End of the Lease Options
When you first moved in you should have marked on your calendar the date when you must notify your landlord whether you plan to renew your lease or move out.
Renewal of Lease
Once you tell the landlord you want to renew your lease he needs to send you a renewal lease. If you have not caused any problems, your landlord is usually happy to keep you as a tenant and give you a new lease with a reasonable increase in rent. If you don’t receive your renewal lease, you need to check the local laws to find out if you are entitled to a renewal or if you are out of luck and have to start looking for a new place.
In New York City, for example, there are three types of rental apartments:
- If your apartment is rent-controlled (extremely unlikely unless your marry someone who is already living in one!), the landlord must offer you a renewal and is limited on how much he can increase your rent.
- If your apartment is rent-stabilized, you have the right to renew your lease under the same terms as the original lease and the annual increase is set by the NYC Rent Guidelines Board.
- If your apartment is market-rate you are totally at the mercy of your landlord. He does not have to offer you a renewal and if he does, he can increase the rent as much as he wants.
If you decide to move out, you need to notify your landlord within the time period specified in your lease, often 60 days. Always do it in writing and ask for confirmation. Typically, you need then to make the apartment available at certain times for the landlord to show to prospective new tenants.
There are two reasons why you want your exit to go without a hitch. First, you want to make sure you get your security deposit back. Second, you want your landlord to say good things about your tenancy when your next landlord calls.
When you first signed the lease, you gave your landlord a security deposit to cover any potential damages to the apartment during your stay there. It’s usually an amount equal to one month’s rent, so you want to make sure you get it back when you leave. There are three things you can do to increase the odds that gets your deposit back.
- During the initial move-in walk-through, document all existing problems with the apartment that you may get blamed for later on.
- Don’t damage the apartment and don’t paint it with a color you cannot cover. Normal wear is expected.
- Give the apartment good cleaning when you leave. After all your stuff is out, go back with some cleaning supplies and give it an once-over. Then take pictures to document it.
If you still don’t get your deposit back, you have to follow up with the landlord to find out if it was just an oversight or is the deposit held on purpose. If you have followed the requirements of your lease, you have a legal right to get your security back.
Taking Your Landlord to Court
This is the last resort, after all else fails to resolve any dispute with your landlord. Don’t do it lightly — any legal action may have adverse long term implications as you look for rentals in the future.
When our blogger Doug had a problem getting his deposit back, he shared how he went about trying to get his money. In the end he was forced take the legal route, and he explained step-by-step how to do it. It is not a simple process and will take patience and good documentation skills.
Also, keep in mind that each state is different, so you need to contact your state’s attorney general’s office to find out what steps you need to take to force your landlord to comply. For example, New York City has a special Housing Court to handle landlord and tenant disputes. The downside of having to go through this Housing Court is that landlords keep track of tenants that have appeared there, and add them to the so called tenant blacklist. Being on that infamous list may make it difficult to find a rental in the future.