Landlords: The Good, Bad, and the Bizarre

On hit '70s sitcom Three's Company, flamboyant and wise-cracking Ralph Furley replaced nosy original landlord Stanley Roper. Both were good for laughs on TV; in real life, maybe not so much.


In an ideal world, landlords would do more than cash your checks every month. They'd replace shoddy cabinets and stained carpet, let you paint your walls, and make sure all their tenants were respectful and courteous to each other. In reality, renting can be a harrowing experience. Landlords are occasionally nosy, creepy, absentee, or just plain incompetent. Got a great one? You're lucky!

I rented an apartment for nearly a decade from a decidedly "offbeat" landlord. Sometimes he was great — he handed out small cash awards to creative types he admired and gave a bonus for referrals. I had a lot of friends move into his buildings. He also let me paint every room, even giving me a discount on rent to help cover the costs, and I repaid the favor by fixing up every inch of my apartment.

Other times, though, he made me extremely uncomfortable. He'd rub my back (yuck!) or say cringe-worthy things out of the blue. He'd call and harass me with political diatribes and other rants. He also was lousy at dealing with my problem neighbor, a bartender who came home stumbling drunk every night around 3am. The guy would throw dishes at the wall, shove furniture around, and yell obscenities for hours. Once he screamed the C-word directly into my open window. I told my landlord repeatedly and he did nothing. I even called the cops a couple of times — as did several of my neighbors. But that guy was still living there when I finally moved out.

I stayed for so long because my rent was reasonable and I loved my neighborhood. In retrospect, I probably should have moved out sooner. But my place was as cute as my landlord was daft.

If you're looking for a rental, it's a good idea to find out just who will be in charge of your home. Though the earliest use of "landlord" meant "host," many sure don't act like it these days — even when you're a model tenant.

Here are a few tips for finding a good landlord and dealing with bad ones.

  • Start with smart apartment seeking. Andie offered some great advice recently on steering clear of problem rentals. You should also avoid problem landlords. While on the hunt, If you bump into current tenants, ask them if they've had any issues with the building or the landlord. You can also look online for red-flag reviews, especially when it comes to larger complexes. If someone says "slumlord," run!
  • Enlist your friends and their friends for help. They may know of an opening in a desirable building with a cool landlord. Or they can at least warn you that the price is right but the landlord is a bit wonky. Then you can make your own call. Either way, ask them to put in a good word for you if you apply.
  • Don't lie on your application about pets or previous rentals. That could cause big problems down the line. Also, be straight with your landlord about your living situation. Planning to get a roommate? Say so. Will your significant other be sleeping over most nights? Mention that too.
  • Some landlords are very strict about cosmetic changes. The last landlord my husband and I had before we bought our house spent an hour discussing the expensive eco-friendly paint he'd used. We weren't even allowed to put nails in the walls. If your landlord is on the fence about painting, ask about hiring professionals on your own dime or show photos of your previous outstanding paint jobs. Offering to repaint when you leave could seal the deal. As for nail-free walls? Here are some alternative ways to hang pictures.
  • Read your lease very carefully. All that legalese may be boring, but it's really important to know what you're signing. If you're month-to-month, ask your landlord how often he intends to raise your rent. If you have a longer lease, make sure you understand the penalty for breaking it, just in case.
  • Photograph every room the day you sign the contract, paying particular attention to existing problems, like scratched floors or a hole in the wall. Landlords have been known to accuse tenants of destroying things that were already in disrepair. If you leave your apartment in the same state you found it (or better), and have proof of it, your landlord will be hard-pressed to keep your deposit.
  • If you're struggling to make rent, be straight with your landlord. Perhaps you can negotiate an extension or a payment plan. Hiding out in your apartment and avoiding phone calls will just make your landlord fume. If it's a more long-term situation, be honest. Your landlord might give you a break on penalties, or at least promise to give you a solid referral.
  • Know your renters' rights! They vary from state to state, but staying informed can save you a lot of heartache. For instance, in many places landlords can only raise your rent a certain percentage annually. No matter where you are, at least in the U.S., they can't discriminate against minorities or parents with colicky babies. They also can't evict you willy-nilly. Additionally, there are laws regarding how often rentals must be painted, how frequently carpet must be replaced, what must be done in case of pest infestation, and so on. If you're booted out of your place for repairs or other reasons beyond your control, your landlord or building manager may have to compensate you for your lodging.
  • Sometimes renters get stuck in terrible situations. I had a friend whose upstairs neighbor became enraged over every little sound, even as she clacked around in stilettos and smoked (against the rules) inside. She called my friend's landlord — the same oddball who owned my building — on a near-daily basis about my friend's perceived misdoings. He was so sick of dealing with her that he tried to evict my friend on obviously questionable grounds. This went on for months, and stressed out my friend so much that she became depressed, especially when she lost her job on top of it all. I eventually found her a pro-bono lawyer who saved the day. If you find yourself in such a bind, search your area for renters' rights organizations or lawyers that will work for a flat or low fee on your behalf.

    What are your best and worst landlord experiences?

    (Image: Screengrab via Sitcoms Online)

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