THE BLOG
08/20/2014 01:11 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2014

4 Things to Know Before Suing Your Landlord

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A bad landlord can make even the best apartment feel like a trap. If issues progress past the point where you can have a rational discussion and you stand to lose money, you might consider suing your landlord.

If you do decide to pursue legal remedy, there are a few things you should know before -- and after -- you serve your landlord.

Weigh Your Options Before Suing Your Landlord

There's no point in suing your landlord for a few hundred bucks when court and attorney fees could cost thousands. Weigh the return on investment before you hire a lawyer.

Bennie Waller, a landlord and real estate professor at Longwood University, found out the hard way back when he was in college.

"I was younger and trying to prove a point," says Waller.

While his attorney told him he would win the case, the cost to hire a lawyer would have been more than the amount he was suing for, so he dropped it.

"Sometimes you just have to swallow your pride, take it and move on," Waller adds.

Come to Court Prepared

According to Waller, tenants have a hard time winning most cases, because they don't have the right documentation.

"Make sure that you have all communications with the landlord in terms of the issue," says Waller.

Use emails and certified mail rather than phone calls when talking to your landlord about problems. If you have witnesses to bolster your case, bring them as well.

Be sure to document any pre-existing damages on the property. Even if a hole in the floor isn't related to the issue you're suing for, an unscrupulous landlord could try to place the blame on you.

"Landlords hate to return deposits," Waller notes. "They hate it. So if there's an opportunity to take advantage, they'll take it."

If you have evidence of damage prior to your arrival at the property, be sure to bring it.

Taking Your Landlord to Court

The amount you're suing for will determine which court you'll go to, but in most cases you'll wind up in small claims court. Rules and compensation limits for small claims court vary by state, so ask your small claims clerk about local fees and rules.

Keep in mind these fees can be several hundred dollars.

"Generally, the individual doesn't have the capital or the general wherewithal of a landlord," says Waller. "Many times a landlord can thread out a poorer tenant with fees."

Chances are your landlord has a lawyer, especially if they manage multiple properties. However, landlords who manage only one or two homes may not.

Know Your Rights When Suing Your Landlord

If there are clauses that can cost you money, like mandatory cleaning, they will be in the lease. Likewise, your landlord can't surprise you with rules not in the lease.

Check your state's tenant's rights laws if you feel your landlord is overstepping boundaries.

While things may be tense, your landlord can't evict you without proper cause and an eviction notice while you are on the lease.

Check the lease for other stipulations -- for example, if you waived your right for a notice to vacate, your landlord doesn't have to give you prior notice before suing you for eviction.

Not all disputes have to end in court.

First, talk to your landlord. The landlord may be willing to settle.

If not, you may be able to arrange for arbitration, which is cheaper than going to court.

Get more advice for renters on realtor.com.