1. "This building is in foreclosure."
In late 2009, Melody Thompson called her landlords to ask about the well-dressed picture-takers outside her four-bedroom Portland rental home. "Oh, we're refinancing," she remembers them telling her. Then in late April, a formal bank notification arrived in the mail, stating that the home was in foreclosure and would be put up for sale in late August. "I was immediately angry," says Thompson, the executive director of Financial Beginnings, a financial literacy nonprofit. "They lied." The sale has been postponed twice as the landlords apply for a mortgage adjustment, but Thompson is still hunting for a new place.
Renters accounted for 40% of families facing eviction from foreclosure in 2009, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. And unfortunately, they often hear about it as Thompson did -- from the bank, just weeks before the sale, says Janet Portman, an attorney and the managing editor of legal book publisher Nolo. "The landlord wants the tenant in there, paying rent," she says. The lack of notice was so pervasive that last year Congress passed the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act, which gives tenants at least 90 days from the foreclosure sale to move out. (Previously, they had as few as 30 days, Portman says.) Provided the new owner doesn't want to live there, the law also lets legitimate tenants -- those who signed a lease before the sale and pay a market value rent, among other qualifications -- stay through the end of their lease.
2. "You should complain more."
When a steady drip, drip, drip of water from the ceiling led a third-floor tenant to complain, Adam Jernow, a principal at property management firm OGI Management in New York City, assumed they were dealing with a leaky pipe. It wasn't until a week later, when the tenants on the top floor two flights above that apartment finally called, that he realized they were dealing with a big roof leak from heavy summer rains. Had upper-floor tenants complained sooner, Jernow says, they could have limited the damage, and that third-floor tenant might not have had a problem at all. So while renters often assume quirks like hot-then-not showers or moisture on the walls is just part of big-city living or that complaining to the landlord will just open up a can of worms keeping a property owner informed can actually help a problem get fixed faster. Besides, most states require landlords to keep the property in good repair, with home systems and appliances in working order.
3. "There's more to negotiate than the rent."
Rental markets in many cities around the country have improved this year, which means landlords have less incentive to cut you a break. Just 31% of landlords lowered rent in 2010, versus 69% in 2009, according to property marketplace Rent.com. All the major real estate investment groups are asking for higher rent on new leases, and about half are doing so on renewals, says Peggy Abkemeier, the president of Rent.com.
But the market hasn't improved so much that landlords don't have incentive to keep good tenants, she says. The survey found that 44% of landlords are willing to lower security deposits, and 22% will offer an upgrade to a fancier unit (think better views, quieter neighbors, newer kitchen) without raising rent. And there's still that 31% of landlords who will offer a price break. "It never hurts to ask," Abkemeier says. In markets where vacancy rates are still high, such as Atlanta, Las Vegas, Orlando and Phoenix, tenants have a better chance.
4. "Your neighbor is not my problem."
Loud music. Late-night parties. More foot traffic than a mall on Sunday mornings. Kevin Amolsch, the owner of real estate investment company Advantage Homes in Denver, Colo., has heard all of these complaints and more from the tenants in the buildings he manages. Trouble is, there's not much he can do. States' tenant rights laws make it tough for landlords to intervene when there isn't a clear violation of the lease. Even when a "right of quiet enjoyment" is in the lease, those noisy neighbors usually have time to mend their ways. "Two weeks later [when they are free and clear], it's going to start up all over again," Amolsch says. And so does the clock on their grace period to pipe down.
The best bet is to reach out to the other tenant and try to smooth things over directly, Amolsch says. If that doesn't work, report problems to the police as well as the landlord, so the situation is well-documented. That makes it easier to initiate eviction proceedings, he says.
5. "You may have more rights than I do."
Brianne Vorse, a longtime renter, knows the number to her local tenant rights group by heart. Vorse first sought help four years ago to force her landlord to fix windows that wouldn't shut all the way, letting in cold air and the San Francisco fog. She called again after a sub-letter offered a higher rent if the landlord would break Vorse's lease and let him take over. "I found that [the landlord] couldn't legally do this," says Vorse, who sent the landlord an official tenant petition she found on the web site of the San Francisco Rent Board. "In the end, I got the apartment and kept the original lease."
Tenant rights vary widely by state, says attorney Portman. Arkansas doesn't even require landlords to provide "fit and habitable housing," but that's extreme. In the most renter-friendly states, including California, New York, Illinois and New Jersey, renters without say, hot water, can withhold rent until it is fixed (or pay to fix it and deduct that from the rent). "If the landlord tried to evict you for that, you would win that lawsuit," she says. Landlords aren't necessarily any better informed about what they can and cannot do, so it's up to the tenant to figure it out. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development maintains a database of tenants' rights by state, including groups that offer assistance with disputes.
6. "I don't know about your problems -- and I like it that way."
Tenants who think they have a beef with the property owner may actually find their true discontent with the management company hired by the landlord. The Better Business Bureau logged 5,297 complaints about property managers last year, a 13% increase from 2008. They're among the most-complained about industries, ranking 37th of the 3,024 the BBB tracks. "You would hope that the person who owns the property has done their due diligence, but that just may not be the case," says Kimberly Smith, the co-founder of short-term furnished rental site CorporateHousingbyOwner.com. Inexperienced or incompetent property managers may not have a good system in place to handle repairs -- especially emergencies -- or neglect to keep your security deposit in a safe place, she says.
While a landlord is ultimately responsible for providing habitable housing, they hire management companies precisely so they don't have to deal with the day-to-day decision making and every tenant request. This is a case where the squeaky wheel definitely gets the grease (see No. 2, above). If there's a pervasive issue, try to reach the landlord directly, Smith says. Public records will list the property owner. You might also consider paying by credit card if that's an option, she says, which can make it easier to file a dispute if requested repairs or other complaints aren't resolved.
7. "I never wanted to do this."
The recession has generated plenty of "accidental" landlords -- property owners who wanted to sell, but can't find a buyer. At first glance, the surge seems like a boon for renters. Inexperienced landlords' biggest and most common mistake is not asking for enough rent, says Steve Dexter, who operates more than a dozen properties throughout Southern California and teaches real estate investment seminars. But that poor financial management can also mean a substantial rent increase upon renewal, or worse, living in a poorly-maintained home at greater risk of foreclosure.
A tenant's best defense is to ask questions about the landlord and the property's history, Dexter says. Among the important ones: how long has the property been a rental? Why is the landlord renting it out? If the answers involve anything that reflects on the recession or the landlord's need to increase his cash flow, be cautious. Look for foreclosure and sale notifications on sites such as RealtyTrac, StreetEasy and Zillow.com.
8. "If you smoke, you can't rent."
The Fair Housing Act prohibits landlords from discriminating against a number of groups -- but smokers aren't one of them. So discriminate they do. Although smokers account for 20% of U.S. adults in most cities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a search of New York City apartment listings on Craigslist turned up just six explicitly allowing smoking. Nearly 700 explicitly prohibited it. Their reasoning: once a rental property is occupied by a smoker, it's tough to rent to non-smokers without a thorough, expensive cleaning that includes repainting the walls and professionally cleaning the carpets, says Matt Kuhlhorst, who rents out four single-family homes in Allen, Texas. "Even if the tenant doesn't get their deposit back, that's still not enough to cover the cost," which can easily top $2,000, he says.
Laws in several states require landlords to disclose smoking policies upfront, so if it's important for you to be able to light up indoors check the details before signing a lease. Policy violators could find themselves facing loss of their security deposit or eviction, if their smoke wafts into a non-smoker's domain. And if a chain-smoking neighbor is in violation, your landlord will be glad to take your complaints it's one thing that will allow him to evict a tenant.
9. "What you see is what you get."
The rusty, cracked stove was nearly a deal-breaker for an otherwise great apartment in Boston's North End. But the landlord promised to replace the clunker and make other repairs, so Joanna DiTrapano and her roommate signed a one year lease in March. Suddenly, the landlord's tune changed -- although the gas company documented the dangerous stove leaking gas, he insisted it wasn't damaged enough to warrant replacing. It took six months, numerous phone calls and finally, a formal letter citing city tenants' rights laws to get a new stove, DiTrapano says. The smaller repairs the landlord promised? She's simply given up.
Some landlords were never good about making necessary repairs, but the recession has forced many to postpone anything that isn't absolutely vital, says Dave Zundel, a co-founder of Arizona property management firm HomeLovers. The firm has seen a 70% drop in maintenance projects, and just 13% of landlords are still spending on regular upkeep and cosmetic improvements such as replacing worn carpets or repainting. Your safest bet is to assume the condition of the apartment you're viewing is about what it will be when you move in, Zundel says. If the landlord promises to make repairs, get it in writing.
10. "You'll pay for my rebellion."
The building or community homeowners' association may have it in for you. Some renters -- and owners -- learn this the hard way, Abkemeier says. During the downturn, many associations have taken steps to limit owners' ability to rent out property, or require extensive screening before a lease can be signed. And owners who try to avoid or ignore the rule-changes end up making it difficult on tenants who suddenly find themselves faced with lengthy rental applications or fines for a litany of association rules they never knew they had to uphold. The extra layer of administration can also make it tough for tenants to get damage repaired, because they're dealing with the building and not just the landlord.
Check the association rules (aka covenants, conditions and restrictions, or CCRs) before signing a lease, she suggests. Also check whether the association will fine the property owner or reach out to you directly, to better head off problems.