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How to Handle a Dispute With Your Landlord

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Like a fantasy romance, the landlord-tenant match will hopefully last a while and end, if it must, amicably. But when the relationship with your landlord ends, it's not like walking away from a few bad dates. There's money, credit scores, health and safety -- the very roof over your head -- involved. Sometimes it's not hard to break a lease or spot a scam. But when the answer's not so simple, how do you handle a dispute with your landlord?

1. Establish scope. How big is your problem? Does a broken pipe violate safety codes? Or did you just not notice that floor stain before? The first is probably worth a fight, but the second, maybe not. It depends on your expectations, of course, but you'll have more of a leg to stand on with the law, and your landlord, if you make sure problems are worth the time and effort to dispute.

2. Take notes. What exactly went wrong, where and when? If your refrigerator is dying, can you track the temperature? If your ceiling leaks, can you take a photo? This is especially vital when you move out, for proof that you deserve your security deposit back. The more detail you can muster, the more tools you give the landlord to fix the problem. Records also show that you mean business, and it starts a paper trail in case you need to take additional measures.

3. Talk to the landlord. Try to arrange a meeting. Stay calm and let the landlord have his say. Even if you disagree with his version of events, experts say that making the other side feel heard can go a long way toward both parties finding an acceptable solution. Present your side without emotion or anger, and make sure the landlord knows you will follow-up and expect results.

4. Decide how far you will go. Despite your notes and calm discourse, the toilet still won't flush. What's it worth to you to get it fixed? Are you determined to stay? Can you afford the time and money to move? Security deposits are a big source of landlord-tenant disputes, and that answer is often more clear-cut: The renter has already moved out, so they have less to lose in a fight to get their money back.

5. Write letters. You documented your problem. Now document your attempts at resolution. Write a letter that recaps your issue, and give a reasonable deadline for when you expect a resolution. Write another letter if that deadline passes.

6. Check local laws and organizations. Some municipalities have a housing court, or a housing mediator, who will hear landlord-tenant disputes. Some have active tenant's rights groups that can help your case. This can save you time and the cost of hiring a lawyer. Small Claims Court might be another option, especially if you're trying to get back a security deposit.

Bonus answers:

Should you hire a lawyer? Maybe. You might be able to hire an attorney to coach you through letters and other suggestions before going to court. But if you're faced with taking a more drastic measure, it might be time to call in the big guns.

Can the landlord evict you? Yes and no. If you violate your lease, and your landlord issues a legal notice, probably. But your landlord can't simply change the locks, and they must have good reason. The Cornell University Law school has a helpful guide to understanding the basics.

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