Illegal Things Landlords Do – and What You Can Do About It

I count myself lucky that I made it through four decades of life without a bad landlord story.

Over the years, I’d heard countless tales from friends about their landlord nightmares, some of which ended in small claims court.

But I still maintained a naivete about landlords that was based mostly on my inability to understand wanting to blatantly rip off another human being who’s been a good tenant, simply to fatten your own bank account. Yes, I’m that naive. (I believe in karma, too. Call me crazy.)

My own run of good landlord luck ended with what I hope will be my last landlord. Ever. I recently moved into a home of my own – no small feat, particularly as a single mother living in California, one of the priciest states in the country.

After I moved out of the condominium I’d been renting for three years, my landlord took more than two months to return my security deposit. And he only returned the money after I emailed and texted him numerous times citing California law, under which deposits are to be returned within 21 days of the property being vacated.

His failure to return my deposit in a timely manner was just part of the struggle. My landlord also charged me for repairs to items I could not have possibly damaged on my own. (Like a warped door that needed to be sanded. I’m not Superwoman; there’s no way I can personally warp a door — my superpowers are not that strong.) Yet when I asked him to explain why I was being charged for such frivolous items, he simply did not respond. Radio silence.

My landlord also told me that my pet deposit was “non-refundable” and never returned it. I later learned that if you call something a deposit in California, it should be returned when the tenant moves out, or the landlord must provide an explanation as to what damages the money is being used to cover. Simply calling a deposit non-refundable and pocketing the cash is not allowed.

With my own negative landlord experience now well behind me, I decided to track down a few experts and ask them how tenants can protect themselves against less-than-ethical landlords, and what remedies they have when faced with challenges.

Protecting Yourself as a Renter

As a veteran of the New York City real estate industry, Ben Landy has seen more than a few landlords take advantage of tenants, particularly those in rent-regulated apartments. All of which inspired Landy to leave his brokerage job and begin fighting on behalf of tenants.

Unfortunately, landlords unjustly keeping a security deposit happens all too often, says Landy.

“Security deposits are a huge issue I hear about all the time. Landlords are in it to make money and they’re not going to write you a check so simply,” he explains. “And most of the time it’s a David and Goliath battle.”

In case there’s any question, Goliath is the landlord in this scenario. But there are a few proactive steps tenants can take to minimize challenges surrounding a security deposit.

“When you first move into an apartment, take pictures and document the condition. And as you’re surrendering the property, take pictures again. If there’s a dispute, you can prove how you received the apartment in the beginning,” said Landy, who founded Lease Buyout Advisors after leaving his brokerage job. “Nowadays, with iPhones and technology, it’s worth documenting everything with pictures and also in writing, so it can’t be disputed.”

Jonathan Stein, a California consumer law attorney, also suggests going out and buying a newspaper and including it in those move-in and move-out photos, so there’s no doubt about when the images were taken.

“As you walk through the empty unit, put that newspaper in every picture,” said Stein. “With digital pictures these days, the date that a picture was taken can be tweaked fairly easily. But I have yet to meet someone who can print a newspaper in advance.”

Once you give notice that you’ll be vacating a rental, request a walk-through in writing. And that walk-through should take place at least 10 days to two weeks before move-out day.

“That way, if there are any issues, there’s time to fix them,” said Stein. “Having a walk-through the day before you move out does no good for anyone.”

Familiarize Yourself with the Laws in Your State

In addition to documenting a rental’s condition to avoid security deposit challenges, it’s important to arm yourself with knowledge. I had no idea it was illegal to call a pet deposit non-refundable. I hadn’t done my research ahead of time and simply accepted my landlord’s explanation.

“First and foremost, anyone who’s even considering renting an apartment needs to do his or her due diligence and have a solid understanding of the landlord-tenant laws in that state,” said Emile L’Eplattenier, chief real estate analyst for TheClose.com.

Most states have real estate divisions or landlord-tenant groups that can explain the laws in plain English, added L’Eplattenier. Additionally, it’s important to understand that no matter what your lease says, clauses that violate state law are never enforceable when push comes to shove.

Entering the Premises Unannounced

Among the most frequent complaints of tenants (behind not getting a security deposit back) is a landlord entering a property without notice.

The terms and conditions under which a landlord may enter a rental vary from lease to lease and from state to state. Most states require a landlord provide between 24 hours and two days notice before entering. Some states however, simply require “reasonable” notice.

In all states, a landlord or manager is allowed to enter rented premises while the tenant is living there without advance notice in an emergency (think: fire or serious water leak).

However, if a landlord does not follow state law or the guidelines set out in your lease, in theory you’re entitled to damages, said Stein.

“But in reality, unless you can prove some sort of harm, judges don’t really want to see those types of cases,” Stein explained. “They view filing a case like that as a nuisance. If a landlord forgets to provide notice and comes into the house, if that’s the only thing the landlord has done wrong, then call the landlord and let them know they did something wrong.”

Shutting Off Utilities

In some cases, the utilities for a rental property may be in a landlord’s name and paid by the landlord each month. It should go without saying that a landlord not paying utility bills and allowing lights or heat to be shut off is frowned upon.

“It’s illegal for your landlord to shut off your utilities even if that individual is the one paying for them,” explained Shawn Breyer, of Breyer Home Buyers, a company that buys and manages rental properties.

If you find yourself in this situation, call the local code enforcement agency. When the lease states that the landlord is responsible for the utilities and the landlord shuts them off during the tenancy, it’s a code violation and against the law, Breyer said.

Refusing to Make Repairs

Property repairs can be expensive, so many landlords are not exactly eager to do them. But that doesn’t mean a landlord can entirely ignore your requests on this front.

“When it comes to fixing a maintenance problem in a rental, states have very specific laws. There are two categories of maintenance issues – emergency and non-emergency,” said Seth Stephens, sales director for Renters Warehouse. “If an emergency situation is not handled in a timely manner, the laws give tenants clear recourse for how to handle the situation. If the matter is a non-emergency situation, the state also has specific guidelines for completion. It’s important to know your state’s laws so that if an issue pops up, you know your rights.”

Breyer also suggests recording needed repairs with photographs.

“Always take pictures of the issue and email it to your landlord so that you have documented proof,” he said. “If your landlord does not take reasonable action, meaning they’re not getting quotes and scheduling repairs, then it’s a good idea to report the needed repairs to your local code enforcement agency. They will come out to the property, assess whether it’s a code violation, and fine the landlord.”

The Bottom Line

One of the best ways to avoid landlord hassles is to develop a good relationship with him or her, advises Stein.

“That resolves a lot of the issues,” he says. “If you have relationships with people, you can work through a lot of these problems.”

But trust me when I say, I had a great rapport with my landlord for three years. It didn’t make any difference in the end. Your best bet is to be armed with knowledge and evidence.

And even Stein admits that, despite a tenant’s best efforts, you might never see your security deposit again once it’s surrendered to a landlord.

“I typically tell people: When you’re going to rent, make sure you have enough money put away that you can pay the security deposit when moving in, and assume you’re not going to get it back,” he said.

Mia Taylor is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. She has worked for some of the nation’s best-known news organizations, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the San Diego Union-Tribune. 

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