woman on phone fighting for tenant rights

Struggle to get your landlord on the phone? Trust us: It could be much, much worse.


It may seem as though landlords have all the power, but tenants have rights too.

Birds suddenly appear, stars fall from the sky — it’s true, you’ve found the perfect apartment. But a difficult landlord situation can make even the most beautiful apartment for rent in Boston, MA, feel like an anchor. Luckily, renters are not without rights.

But it can be hard to take full advantage of your protections under the law if you don’t know what they are, so study up on local tenant-rights laws (or reach out to a renter advocacy group in your state) and take action if you’re in the right. To give you a sense of how these situations often play out, here are four real-life nightmare rental scenarios, with advice and guidance from David Roberson, principal of Silicon Valley Property Management Group, which manages apartments for rent in San Jose, CA. (Names have been changed to protect the renters.) Have a great landlord? You’ll be even more grateful to them after you read these four tales of renter woe.

1. Unfair rent increases

“I lived in the Upper East Side of Manhattan in NYC in a walk-up one-bedroom apartment and signed my lease in early 2009 when the real estate market was crashing. At the time, I knew I was receiving a very good deal, as my unit had been recently renovated with brand-new appliances. I signed a two-year lease for a ‘free market’ unit. When it came time for renewal in 2011, my landlord gave me a renewal with a 20% increase. My husband and I were very upset but figured there was nothing we could do, and considered renewing with the 20% increase.

I decided to do some research and check into if my apartment was rent-stabilized. I pulled the rent-stabilization records for the unit; my unit was still rent-stabilized and any increases should be capped at 2% to 3%, per NYC rent-stabilization regulations. I called my landlord to check into this, and unfortunately, they got very defensive, stating my apartment wasn’t rent-stabilized, and hung up on me! It was radio silence thereafter, so I was very confused but decided to wait it out. Two weeks later, I received a new lease in the mail, with only a 3% increase.” — Abby, who continues to live in her one-bedroom apartment in New York, NY

The expert says: Many counties and cities have pro bono legal aid groups who can answer questions for tenants in situations like this — consulting one is the first thing a tenant should do. Some markets have rent control or other restrictions, which are not well-publicized. Many landlords are either uninformed or devious and may not know the laws or will try to circumvent their obligations. Abby’s landlord finally sent a legal rent increase, but in many situations, landlords will just try to bully their way through. Take advantage of any resources available to you so that you can be your own advocate.

2. Privacy violations

“Before we had officially moved out, our landlord used keys to enter our home without our knowledge and without our presence ‘to ensure the home wasn’t damaged.’ She told us she was taking possession of the home and keys to the home before our actual lease date was up. She also didn’t return our security deposit but instead attempted to charge us for repairs she should have made during the three years we lived in the home. She also presented fake repair receipts for replacing pavers in the backyard, and while the utilities were still on our name, she used the garden hose to refill the pool on our dime. We never paid these fees. Per our lawyer, even if we had paid her and then won against her in small claims court, we were not guaranteed to recover any of the money and would have to go to civil court to collect, which would’ve cost us more in legal fees.” — Nancy, who used to rent a home in Waxhaw, NC

The expert says: Clearly, the landlord invaded this tenant’s privacy. Each state will have different rules and statutes, which will allow the tenant recourse against the landlord. Moreover, a landlord can only legally withhold money from a security deposit for actual damage that is properly documented. Most states have statutory periods for a pre-walk-through inspection, which is a good opportunity for the tenant to show the landlord the condition of the unit. Photographs and checklists are a good way to document the condition of the unit when you move in and again when you move out.

3. Failure to make repairs

“During our three years with this particular landlord, we had numerous issues with a leaking roof, moldy shower (which he refused to fix), and a horrible water heater. We had repairmen who said the water heater was severely corroded and needed to be replaced, but the landlord wouldn’t replace it, so we always had cold water. A couple [of] months before we moved, he called and yelled at me about unpaid HOA fines from having toys and a propane tank on our patio. (No one had ever contacted us to tell us we were being fined.) I let things go until our lease was up. Then we were out. He came and did a walk-through and said things looked wonderful and that he had no issues. After specifically talking to him about some of my small concerns for being charged, he said not to worry about any of it.

Then I get a bill in the mail for more than $1,300 for damage that didn’t exist. We are poor college students with three kids, and something like that would have been devastating. I reported him to the Better Business Bureau [BBB], and he was not happy. He said he’d waive a small portion of the fee if we removed [the BBB report], but I wasn’t budging. Our friend is a lawyer and, as a favor, sent [the landlord an advisement of] our intentions to take him to court. He threatened to take us to collections. I said, ‘Do it!’ He never did. He stopped communicating with us. We never paid another dime.” — Robert, whose family escaped this faulty home for rent in Denver, CO

The expert says: Landlords are required by law to provide habitable units for their tenants. It sounds like this landlord violated this basic principle of landlord-tenant law. If a landlord attempts to back-charge security deposits for damaged items without supporting evidence, tenants have remedies in small claims court; the landlord has the burden of proof.

4. Plumbing problems

“My landlord owned a bunch of quad-plex apartments in my neighborhood. Once, in the middle of the night, I heard this really loud noise. The ceiling in my bathroom had literally caved in. If someone had been in the bathroom when it happened, it would’ve been extremely dangerous — but thankfully no one was hurt. I contacted my landlord the next day. At first, they weren’t returning my calls. It took weeks (over a month!) for the landlord to agree to fix my bathroom. I only had one bathroom, and I couldn’t even use it. I was using friends’ bathrooms to shower and running across the street to McDonald’s to go to the restroom. It was awful. It took him a week to two weeks to get someone in the apartment to start fixing it. I told them, ‘I have a right to a bathroom, and I’m not paying my rent until you fix it.’ I withheld my rent and they took me to court. I ended up having to pay [full rent] anyway.” — Betsy, who now says “fully functional apartment” tops her list when looking for an apartment for rent in Charlotte, NC

The expert says: Because this tenant was without a bathroom, there is an argument to be made that they were entitled to a certain credit toward their rent. However, it’s unlikely most judges/courts would credit the entire amount of rent, because other portions of the unit weren’t affected. I assume that 75% of the unit was still habitable, thus the tenant would presumably have to pay for those portions of the unit.

At the same time, the landlord had a duty to provide accommodations for the tenant to use a bathroom, either by way of a hotel or other unit’s bathroom. It’s surprising that a court/judge would require the tenant to pay the full amount of rent, but it’s possible [that] if a tenant couldn’t provide photographs or other proof, it may have been more difficult for the judge to decide in the tenant’s favor. But remember, landlords are required by law to provide habitable units for their tenants. This is the law in all 50 states. If the only bathroom of a rental unit is not usable, then at the very least, the landlord has a duty to provide an accommodation for another bathroom.

Have you fought back against a landlord and won? Share your tips and experiences in the comments!