Finding an apartment you absolutely adore and want to stay in is a rare and special thing in the rental market today. But, unfortunately, a renter's desire to stay put isn't always enough to make it a reality.
"With increasing rents, building conversions (to condominium), building sales, and other reasons, landlords look to get tenants out of properties early," says Mark Hakim, an attorney with SSRGA in New York City. He notes that some unscrupulous landlords may resort to underhanded tactics (more about that in a moment) to try to force a tenant to vacate an apartment.
If you're facing this kind of situation, it can be difficult to know how to defend yourself. So, we turned to three attorneys with tenant law experience for their advice on how to react if you suspect your landlord is trying to boot you from your rental.
1. Closely review your lease.
When you catch the first whiff of trouble, immediately turn to your lease and thoroughly review all the terms and conditions. In most states the landlord must provide you with a copy of the signed agreement by law, Theresa Nguyen, an attorney in Renton, Washington, says.
Closely read the rights and obligations under the lease, and determine if you've been failing to meet your responsibilities as a renter. This could be allowing a significant other who's not on the lease to live with you (without your landlord's knowledge) or making maintenance requests the wrong way. "Make sure you are performing on every portion of the contract," she says. If you find you might be breaching a part of the contract, immediately make things right.
Further, in case you do have to move out, your lease will stipulate how much notice your landlord must provide. "Regardless of whether you have a lease or if you are month-to-month, the landlord must give you reasonable notice that they want you to move out," says Isaac C. Spragg, an attorney with Spragg Law Firm in Miami, Florida.
2. Know your legal rights.
In some states, such as New York, it's illegal for a landlord to harass a tenant. For example, says Hakim, they can't interrupt heat, water, and electric services repeatedly and deliberately; they can't block entrances; they can't repeatedly, baselessly commence eviction proceedings, or repeatedly physically threaten or intimidate you. (If you have the opposite problem where you want to leave rather than stay, here are the situations where you can legally break your lease.)
Tenants can also file an "action" (or a case a tenant brings against a landlord) in your local housing court on the claim of harassment. If the court determines that your landlord has been harassing you, your landlord will have to pay penalties, Hakim says.
3. Get everything in writing.
Any time you communicate with your landlord, make sure to do so via mail, email, or text—not via a phone call—so you have everything in writing, Spragg says. This documentation can help you make your case if a conflict arises down the line. "Do not take your landlord's word that he or she is going to do anything," he says.
Plus, if you and your landlord make any new conditions or agreements regarding your lease, such as an addendum, always get that in writing as well so the terms are crystal clear to a third party.
4. Pay rent on time and keep records of all payments.
If you want to stay in your unit and not be evicted, the first and best defense in court is that you have paid rent and are not in default. "If you are in default, it is hard for the court to defend you," Nguyen says.
Keep thorough records of all payments to your landlord, including rent, utilities, security deposits, and other fees, Spragg says. Never pay in cash. Instead, use a check, and always get a receipt. "If later there is a discrepancy as to what you have paid, you will need to be able to provide proof," he says.
5. Renew your lease early.
If you like where you're living, renew your lease as soon as possible and for as long as possible (such as a two-year lease) to ensure some stability in your housing. "This could save you money in the long run as the rent can't be raised during the term of the lease," Spragg says. Avoid going month-to-month, as it makes you vulnerable to sudden rent hikes or evictions (though most states will give you 30, 60, or 90 days notice).
6. Consult with an attorney.
Once things get out of hand and the landlord is not listening or being reasonable, consider consulting with and/or hiring an attorney. "A lot of landlords will not listen or act until they know the tenant is serious," says Nguyen. "They will ignore and bully you until an attorney reaches out to them." She says that she's often found that the moment an attorney is hired, the landlord begins abiding by the landlord-tenant laws and acts in a professional manner.
Spragg adds that many landlord-tenant lawyers offer free consultations to discuss your situation, and there are many non-profit organizations dedicated to offering free legal services to those who need it. "Never let the landlord tell you what your rights are or what is the law," he says.