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When You Have a Complaint About Your Landlord

How to handle disputes with your landlord.

It's December and temperatures are below freezing, but your landlord hasn't made the necessary repairs on your furnace. Or the refrigerator the landlord provided doesn't work properly, with the result that your food is spoiling and ice cream turns to soup within hours after you bring it home from the store. Or the deadbolt lock on the front door is broken and the door can't be secured properly, depriving you of sleep and worrying you about the safety of your family and property.

In these and other situations where you need to make a complaint to your landlord, your best first step is to simply call him on the telephone. Most landlords want to keep their tenants happy, since it's much easier and far cheaper to keep a good tenant than to find a new one.

If your landlord doesn't take action to resolve your complaint, your next step is to notify him in writing of the problem. Your letter should be clear and concise, but not threatening. In your own words, tell the landlord the problem you have and the actions you want him to take, and set out a reasonable time limit, such as ten days or so, for his response.

If the problem still isn't attended to, you'll want to send another, more strongly worded letter. This time, send the letter by certified mail, return receipt requested. If the problem involves a dangerous condition on the property, such as a missing stair rail or a problem with wiring, send a copy of the letter to the local housing department. Always keep copies of any letters you send, and maintain a log of telephone calls you make in regard to a problem with your landlord.

If problems continue unabated, your next step depends on both your own disposition and the law in your area. In some states, the law allows a tenant to pay for necessary repairs and deduct the cost from the next month's rent payment. In others, you may be able to move out of the apartment and end your rent obligation by claiming that the landlord's failure to make necessary repairs amounted to what the law calls "constructive eviction." In either case, you will need to notify the landlord in advance of any actions you take, and give him one last chance in which to make the repairs you require.

Unfortunately, many tenants, especially older ones, suffer inadequate maintenance silently. In most cases, they do so out of fear of "making a scene" or because they are afraid the landlord will evict them from their homes. But in most communities, the law is on your side, and a landlord can't engage in retaliatory eviction if you report a code violation to the authorities, or if you complain about inadequate maintenance and repairs.

As a tenant, you have a right to expect that your landlord will live up to the terms of your lease and the provisions of the law. Knuckling under to a bad landlord makes things worse, not only for you but for the community at large, since poorly maintained properties have a negative effect on surrounding properties in the neighborhood.

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