A corker from the annals of slimy-landlord lore:
About 10 years ago, a large Manhattan real estate firm bought an apartment building that contained a few rent-controlled units. Deregulated, those units would be worth perhaps five to seven times more on the open market — if the developer could nudge the remaining tenants down the road, that is.
One of them, a senile older woman who had been living there for decades, refused to leave. The law was on her side: In New York City, tenants can't be evicted from rent-controlled apartments if they have lived there continuously since at least July 1971. What happened next comes from a source at the real estate firm who chooses to remain anonymous.
Soon after the purchase, the woman fell ill. While bedded up in the hospital, the company moved all of her possessions into another apartment set up to look just like her previous one, except that it was more than a dozen blocks away.
“This woman wasn't completely aware of her surroundings,” says the source. She also had no family, so the company paid her nurse to keep up the ruse and even moved her old doorman into the new building for a few weeks to greet her. “The fact that she saw some familiar faces was enough to carry her for a few weeks.” (The company eventually sold her original apartment as a co-op for a hefty price tag.)
Most property owners don't have the guile or the resources to pull off such a stunt. Still, overly opportunistic landlords are a sad fact of life. No matter if the housing market is torrid or soft, they are always looking for ways — some downright slimy — to squeeze the most out of their properties. Your best defense: a few ounces of prevention and some knowledge of the law.
Of all the nasty maneuvers, threat of eviction is the scariest. But many of those threats don't have teeth. Generally speaking, yearly leaseholders are safer than those who rent month to month. In most states, landlords must prove that tenants with annual leases have violated their agreements before they can evict. Monthly tenants, on the other hand, can be booted without cause with a 30-day notice in most states, barring a few exceptions such as discrimination. Residents of rent-regulated apartments have a right to automatic lease renewal (unless, perhaps, they don't have all their faculties).
Most tactics don't involve such blatant strong-arming. Take repair requests. A landlord could add a clause in your lease stating that you must pay to fix that leaky sink, busted refrigerator or recalcitrant space heater. That's a crock. In fact, the law deems such clauses unenforceable, and it's the landlord's job to foot the bill.
The best recourse: Put all repair requests in writing (in case you end up in court), and be sure to record the date and time of each. If your landlord doesn't follow up after a few phone calls, hire a repair person and forward a copy of the bill. Refusing to pay part — or all — of next month's rent until the problem is fixed works too.
You apartment may not have taken a beating, but your security deposit might. Call them “creative deductions” — $100 for chipped paint, $200 for ripped carpeting and so on. The big problem: By the time you get your dented deposit back, you've already moved out, so what can you prove? Head this hassle off before you move in by doing a walk-through with your landlord, checking off any imperfections and taking pictures.
Put the findings in writing and make your landlord sign the document. Then, a week before you move out, do the same thing again. If you end up in small-claims court, you'll be well armed.
Landlords also may try to whack you extra for taking on a roommate or an extended house guest — even though federal housing statutes prohibit landlords from raising rents on tenants who do so. There are limits, of course, so you can't pile in your whole extended family. What's typical is two individuals per bedroom, plus one. So, up to three people (including children) can reside in your one-bedroom apartment before the landlord can jack up the rent or issue an eviction notice.
If your landlord really gives you the creeps, consider buying renters insurance. The cost is minimal (maybe $10 to $30 a month) compared with what you might lose in repair costs and lawyers' fees.
Really fed up with your landlord? Extract your own pound of flesh by knowing the law. Example: Tenants in Chicago can collect twice the amount of their security deposits if they can prove that landlords stick rent checks and security deposits in the same bank account, says attorney Aaron Krolik. (Most banks can help you track down this information.) If that doesn't work, Chicago renters can double their pleasure if their landlords blank on paying the stipulated interest on security deposits, currently 1.7 percent a year.
These niggling technicalities are slimy in their own right — and just the sort of thing that clogs up the courts. Then again, they asked for it.