When you rent a property, you assume several basic things: that your property will be safe to live in; that your landlord will take care of basic repairs in a timely manner; that, if you take good care of the property, you will be able to get your security deposit back when you move out. Unfortunately, things don't always go according to plan. What happens when you find out you need to sue your landlord?
Here's the thing: we're not lawyers. We can't provide you with legal support. We do, however, know how frustrating it can be when your landlord isn't holding up their end of the rental agreement--and we'd like to offer some guidelines about how to handle the legal process when it's necessary.
When Can I Sue My Landlord?
Most of the time, people prefer to sue former landlords after they've already moved out of the property. You may be reluctant to rock the boat while you're still living in the property, or you might not realize that there's a problem--withholding your deposit, for example--until you're ready to move out. For some tenants, however, whatever the problem is, you need to sue your landlord while you're still living in the property to get their attention and get it taken care of. Take a look at these scenarios:
You can't get your landlord to take care of repairs. In most states, your landlord is required to take care of maintenance in a timely manner. Your property should not be uninhabitable. Now, if it takes a few days or even a couple of weeks to get your dishwasher repaired, that's one thing. On the other hand, if your heater breaks in the middle of winter, you may have a more serious problem!
It's probably not worth suing your landlord for a small maintenance issue that takes a short period of time to fix--say, less than a month. You also have other options for paying for repairs related to the functionality and safety of the home: for example, after putting it in writing, you may withhold rent until the repairs are taken care of. If you do choose to withhold rent while waiting for repairs to be taken care of, it should be placed in a special account to show that you plan to pay the rent amount when the repairs are taken care of.
Your landlord kept your deposit when you moved out. You took great care of the place. Perhaps you even made upgrades before you moved out; and you definitely took care of anything defined by your rental contract, whether that was hiring someone to come in and do the cleaning or going through and filling nail holes and repainting. You have pictures of the property when you moved in and pictures from when you moved out, and all of them show that you should have gotten your deposit back.
Unfortunately, you didn't.
For some families, especially those that have moved away from their previous city, going after a former landlord for the deposit may not be worth it. Others, however, need that money to help them get started in their new home. Depending on the amount of the deposit, it may be well worth taking your landlord to court to get it back.
You were wrongfully evicted. Sometimes, landlords have good reason to evict tenants: they fell behind on their rental payments, they weren't taking good care of the property, or they frequently broke the rules of the building, for example. In other cases, your landlord might not have had a good reason to evict you. They might have evicted you simply so they could rent the property to someone else at a higher rate, or they might have wanted to offer the property to someone else.
Suing your landlord for wrongful eviction can accomplish several things. If you haven't found another place to live and don't want to, you may be able to sue to stay in the property. On the other hand, if you've already moved, you may still want to sue your landlord for the wrongful eviction to clear your name and have the eviction removed from your record.
You suffer injuries due to repairs that weren't taken care of in a timely manner. You tripped and fell in a hole that should have been patched up. Flooring fell on your head after the unit above you flooded and repairs weren't taken care of. If you suffer serious injuries as a result of your landlord's negligence, you have the right to damages for your injuries! Keep in mind, however, that this does not include injuries that occur as a natural result of you using your residence. For example, a trip and fall accident on a normally-maintained floor is not your landlord's fault. The landlord is also not at fault for injuries that occur as a result of your damage to the house.
Your landlord doesn't respect your right to privacy. You're living in a property that belongs to the landlord. They have the right to inspect that property or to come in to make necessary repairs. They do, however, have to schedule those visits ahead of time--they can't just show up out of the blue and expect you to let them in regardless of what you're doing. You have the right to privacy on your rental property, from reasonable notice that someone plans to enter the property to security that someone isn't just going to open the door and come straight in while you're there. Your landlord also doesn't have the right to constantly hang around or in the property or to continue to use it for their own purposes while you're living there. It's your home, and you're paying for the use of it!
You suffered housing discrimination. The landlord didn't refuse to rent you the property on the basis of your religion, your skin color, or your orientation, but they did leave you with stricter rules than others in your building or who rent from them. If you suffered housing discrimination, you may want to use your landlord for damages, including emotional pain and suffering or excess fees you were required to pay as a result of your race.
How Do I Sue My Landlord?
You've assessed that you have a reasonable right to sue your landlord--and a reasonable chance of securing the damages you deserve. What comes next?
Talk to a Lawyer, If Needed
Every state--and often individual cities within the same state--has different rules about when you can sue your landlord. Some, for example, allow you to sue for moving expenses if you were wrongfully evicted. Others will only allow you to sue for actual financial damages. In some cities, you may be able to sue for the cost of repairs to your property; others will permit it only if those needed repairs caused a health hazard. Working with a lawyer is one of the most effective ways to determine the exact statutes for your city.
A lawyer will also be able to tell you when it's worth it to sue and when you need to walk away. For example, if the court costs will amount to more than the amount you're suing for, it's probably not worth filing a suit against your landlord.
Furthermore, talking to a lawyer will help you move through the legal process. A lawyer can provide you with valuable advice, offer key information about the process, and walk with you as you move through it. Many lawyers also provide free or low-cost consultations, so you can have a quick conversation with a lawyer to determine what you need to do next.
In some cases, however, you may not be able to hire a lawyer for a small claim against your landlord. These cases will be handled in small claims court. Not only that, hiring a lawyer to represent you may cost more than the amount you're suing for, which makes it not worth your time. A reputable lawyer's office will advise you about those concerns before you file your case.
What evidence do you have of the landlord's wrongdoing? This may include witness statements, photos of conditions that made the house unlivable, or anything else that could prove to the court that your landlord was in the wrong. Collect copies of your rental agreement, including the relevant paperwork including who is responsible for repairs around the house. Make sure you have everything you need to prove your case.
File Your Case
You'll need to file your case against your landlord with the local court. Before you go to court, you'll probably need to pay your court fees, so make sure you are prepared to pay that amount before you head in to file your case.
Prepare Your Statement
On your court date, you'll need to present your statement to the court. Take the time to plan it out ahead of time--don't try to go in and wing it! While you probably don't want to read a pre-prepared statement verbatim, you can practice giving your statement ahead of time and even take notes with you so that you'll have a better statement, which can improve your odds of convincing the court of your argument.
After You Go to Court
Keep in mind that even if you win, your landlord might have a period of time to pay the funds they owe you--and it may take time to get them in hand. Suing your landlord typically won't end with you walking out of the courtroom with money already in hand. Be prepared to continue to wait even after the court date is over--and be prepared for the possibility that, with an unethical landlord, you may have further problems before you get the funds you deserve.
Suing your landlord is a long and often difficult process. In many cases, it can be costly--and no matter how good your case appears, the possibility exists that you will lose. On the other hand, if you've reached a point where it is necessary to sue either a past or current landlord, you've likely already made the decision that it's well worth your while. Do you need a new residence, with a quality landlord who won't leave you struggling to get repairs for your property? Contact us today to learn more about how we can help get you in a new property more effectively.
About the author
Matt Angerer is the Founder and President of VerticalRent. He enjoys writing on a variety of topics that help Landlords, Property Managers, and Renters across America. He is particularly interested in helping renters understand their local marketplace, pick the best places to live, and find an awesome roommate. Since 2011, VerticalRent has grown to service over 100,000 landlords and renters across America.