How to handle billing disputes with your landlord

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Renters Rights: What to Do If You Have Landlord Problems

There's plenty to like about apartment living, from enjoying rent payments that are often cheaper than a monthly mortgage to never having to mow the lawn or shovel the driveway. But when things do go wrong – often stemming from financial disputes with a landlord or building manager – apartment life can suddenly become no fun.

Becky Cole, a Minnesota-based consultant to nonprofits, can attest to that. She says a building manager once stole things from her apartment, but the owners of that particular building either didn't see it as a big deal or didn't believe Cole.

"Instead of firing her, they chose to not renew my lease," recalls Cole, who says she also lost half of her security deposit because the building manager did the walk-through before the move was finished and before Cole hired a cleaning service to clean her apartment. The landlords, once again, sided with the building manager.

The moral of the story? You can do everything right, and it may not matter much. But generally, if you're in a billing dispute with your landlord, the following strategies should help alleviate your headaches.

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Know the facts. Beef up your understanding of your rights as a tenant. Find out if you're righteously indignant but actually in the wrong. And if you are right, then you can go back to feeling righteous.

For starters, read your lease, says Donovan Reese, who is based in Phoenix and is the president of Renters Warehouse, which manages thousands of properties throughout the U.S. Answers to questions like "who is responsible for fixing small repairs – you or your landlord?" are typically in it, he says.

And if you familiarize yourself with your state laws and tenants' rights, even better, suggests Jonathan Eppers, co-founder and CEO of RadPad, an apartment search and rent-payment website.

"That should help you know if you really have a case or if the landlord does," he says.

For instance, Eppers points out that it would help to know if you've given your landlord "a holding deposit or a security deposit. In some cases, a holding deposit cannot be returned, even if a renter decides to not move into an apartment rental after signing a lease," he says.

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Document everything. Hopefully you've been doing that from the beginning – from the moment you did a pre-inspection tour with the landlord or building manager, Reese says.

"This is your first line of defense when it comes to spotting any problems or damages that may need repair," he says.

After all, if you're not going to get your security deposit back, it's likely due to some disagreement about damages or cleanliness.

Reese says he often takes a video while inspecting a unit with a tenant before a move-in and after a move-out, and he recommends renters do that, too. He says it's a good idea in case a landlord or building manager doesn't believe you when you say the carpet or walls have always been like this.

"If a picture is worth a thousand words, then video is worth a thousand pictures," Reese says.

Communicate. Generally, if you're in a dispute with a landlord, you're communicating, but badly.

And that's understandable. You may be firmly in the right, and if you're out money that you desperately need, your emotions may be firing on all cylinders. But try and be as professional as possible, Reese suggests.

"As the saying goes, you catch more flies with honey. Reputable landlords will be willing to work with you in a timely and professional manner if you approach the situation in a reasonable way," Reese says.

That's the important question. Do you have a reputable landlord? Not every landlord or building manager is ethical and honest, and that's where problems can come in.

Consider going to court. You probably want to take your landlord to small claims court instead of hiring a lawyer, says Bruce Ailion, an attorney and real estate agent in Atlanta. Usually, landlord-money disputes involve amounts that don't justify hiring legal representation, he says.

But if you do hire a lawyer, it doesn't mean you will ever stand before a judge, he points out. Chances are, the court will supply you with a mediator to see if a resolution can be reached, Ailion says. He adds that in his state, if the court ends up siding with the tenant when it comes to the landlord holding the deposit, the tenant will receive three times the amount of the deposit, and the landlord will have to pay attorney fees.

That's why knowing the law is so important; letting your landlord know that you know the law is also a smart bet.

If your state's laws are tenant-friendly, according to Ailion, "this provides a strong incentive for landlords to behave properly and settle prior to court."

Still, sometimes you'll simply have to know when the money and time aren't worth the fight and when to walk away. Cole says she considered a conciliation court, "essentially a small claims court for housing issues," but she would have had to pay a filing fee. What's more, even if she had won, the court wouldn't have been able to force the landlord to pay. In the end, she says, "it would cost me more to pursue it than the amount they took."

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So she walked. You may have to leave your money behind, too, but if that happens, you've at least paid for a life lesson. If you're going to move into another apartment, research your prospective rental company online first. Look for complaints and reviews from other tenants. In other words, just as landlords do a background check on a tenant, it wouldn't hurt to do your own background check on a landlord.

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