The tenant/landlord relationship can be a tricky one. Whether it's dealing with a landlord who doesn't return your calls or arguing over what qualifies as an "emergency" (like that pesky mouse infestation), dealing with a deadbeat landlord can be a serious struggle.
But the good news is that there are ways to handle an unresponsive landlord without ever having to involve a lawyer. "In order to deal effectively with an absentee landlord, you should understand what most landlords most value," explains Don Tepper, a real estate agent with Long & Foster in Alexandria, VA. "And that is a tenant who pays his or her rent on time and maintains a smoothly run property." Here are eight ways to deal with a landlord who's frequently MIA when you need them most.
Pay your rent on time
You like your paycheck to arrive twice a month, right? The same goes for your landlord -- he or she wants to get paid just like you. "If the rent arrives on time, month in and month out, most landlords will be more accommodating when there's a problem," says Tepper. "That's true whether or not the landlord is absentee, but considering that problems and repairs can be more of a hassle for a landlord who is absentee, timely payment of rent can be especially useful and give you additional leverage when needed."
Do a thorough inspection
Before you move in, inspect the property up and down to make sure any pre-existing damage isn't blamed on you. Josh Myler, director of the residential division at The Agency in Los Angeles, CA, says your landlord should ensure the property is free of any material defects. All systems like the roof, HVAC, plumbing, electrical, plus fixtures and appliances should be in good operating condition before you move in and after you move out. Document everything with date-stamped photos, a thorough list of any issues upfront (emailed for a paper trail), and even consider having the documents notarized.
Don't sweat the small stuff
As in, asking your landlord to replace things like high-efficiency light bulbs. But make sure your lease is extremely clear on exactly what you as the tenant are responsible for before signing a lease. "The landlord probably is responsible for major repairs and problems," says Tepper. "The tenant is probably responsible for minor issues such as replacing light bulbs and, depending on the lease, some regular maintenance ranging from mowing the lawn to having the gutters cleaned." Be selective when it comes to major repairs too. "A plugged-up toilet is a problem -- but if it's plugged up with a toy that a tenant's child dropped in. . . ." You get the drift.
Play detective if you have to
You should never have to track down your landlord, but sometimes things don't work out like you planned. "Your landlord should provide his or her contact information at the same time the lease is signed," says Tepper. "If not, the tenant should request it. If a tenant doesn't have that information, he or she should check with the local city or county tax assessor's office. Most contact information is available online. The tax assessor's office will have the address the tax bills are mailed to. This often will provide the landlord's actual address." Keep in mind that if the property has been managed by the same company for years, the tax bill may be sent to the management company. One caveat: "Continue paying your rent while trying to reach out as this may affect your credit score if you stop," explains Matthew Kennedy, a licensed real estate agent for Coldwell Banker Burnet in Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN.
Know your rights
This may be the most important tip when dealing with an absentee landlord, especially if your situation results in legal action. "Your tenant rights will be spelled out both in your lease and in your local city or county regulations," says Tepper. Federal law protects against discrimination based on race, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin. On top of those protections, states, cities, or counties may include others, such as sexual orientation or marital status. Other laws and protections will also vary -- for example, the procedure and schedule that must be followed during an eviction or the time by which a damage deposit must be returned. Many cities and counties have an office of tenant or renters' rights that can advise you on these matters.
"Landlords have a responsibility to maintain the condition of their rental properties and should be reported if they are not doing so," adds Kennedy, "If you find yourself in a situation where you feel that your health and livelihood are at risk, don't hesitate to contact your local attorney general. They are there to help. Also, your local social services office will be able to offer you information and resources if you find yourself in a legal situation with your landlord. They will have a list of attorneys that you can gain access to if you qualify for legal aid."
Be flexible . . . within reason
Yes, it may feel like the world is coming to an end if the washing machine in your rental unit breaks. But in reality, it's best to be somewhat flexible, especially with an absentee landlord. "A good landlord will buy the new washing machine, pay for delivery, and pay to have the old one removed," says Tepper. "But if the landlord is 1,000 miles away, they can't physically meet the delivery person." In which case, you could be asked to help facilitate delivery and installation -- and it's in your best interests to do so, especially if you want your landlord to continue to resolve any additional maintenance issues quickly.
If there's a management company, go through them first
If you rent, it's always ideal to have a rental company act as the mediator between you and your landlord. However, since that's not always an option, it's best to discuss upfront what the best form of communication may be. "What method of communication works best for the tenant and for the landlord? Email? Telephone? A Web-based form? Skype? Text?" says Tepper. "The lease may specify the preferred methods of communication. If not, the landlord and tenant should figure out what works best for them and put it in writing."
Put it in writing
While it may be most efficient to pick up the phone and call your landlord about a problem, it's always best to get it in writing. "If you're notifying the landlord of a serious issue, write or email even if it's simply for a follow-up," advises Tepper. "If there's a chance that you'll need a record of the communication, you'll need a written record."
Similarly, real estate agreements must be in writing to be enforceable. Consider this scenario: You want to paint one room a new color. You call the landlord and they give you verbal permission, so you paint. Then when you move out, you're assessed $300 in damages because the room has to be repainted. Your telephone agreement isn't enforceable. But your written lease, which may prohibit repainting rooms, is. If you do communicate with your landlord via phone, send a follow-up email documenting your conversation so that you have what was discussed in the phone call on record.