Whether your landlord is the largest property manager in the Bay Area or an elderly lady who lives upstairs, you will inevitably need to communicate with them at some point over the course of your tenancy. Hopefully you’ll only ever have to correspond over routine issues. But should you ever be unlucky enough to wind up in a legal dispute with your landlord, the form and content of your communications over the years – no matter how major or minor their substance - can make or break your case.
Get injured on the broken stairs you complained about months ago? Bitten by bedbugs the landlord refused to treat? Told you have to get rid of your roommate or pet despite a verbal agreement with your landlord saying you can have one?
If you find yourself in a dispute with your landlord, you’ll need to be able to provide evidence showing you’re in the right Follow these simple steps to make sure you’re covered.
1. Start a File, and Keep it Up
When you move into a new place, start a folder that contains a copy of your signed lease or rental agreement, any notices from your landlord (including rent increase notices and notices to enter the unit for repairs or other work), and copies of any important written communications with your landlord, maintenance workers, and property managers.
When it comes to important documents like leases or important letters, it doesn’t hurt to have them saved in a couple of formats—say, a paper lease and a digital scan, or the emails themselves as well as a PDF on your hard drive. If you communicate with your landlord via text message, make sure your phone saves them, and take and save screen shots to your computer for particularly significant exchanges.
2. Oral Agreements are Enforceable, But…
Since most written lease agreements contain clauses unfavorable to tenants, those of you with oral lease agreements might actually be better off in certain circumstances. However, as a general rule tenants tend to be at a disadvantage when it’s their word against the landlord’s.
If you make an oral agreement with your landlord that isn’t reflected in your written follow up with a letter or email to your landlord reiterating what you understand that agreement to be. For example, if you move into a new place and your landlord tells you to ignore the “no smoking” provision but won’t take it out of the lease, write your landlord a brief email or letter. “Hi Ms. Bigpockets, I am excited about moving in. As we discussed during the walk through I appreciate you explaining that the ‘no smoking’ provision in the lease doesn’t actually apply to my unit and it is OK for us to smoke in the apartment. Thanks again!” While this might seem unnecessary or redundant, it could go a long ways in keeping you out of trouble if your landlord later were to accuse you of acting in violation of your lease’s no smoking provision.
The same thing goes with agreements you make with your landlord later on in your tenancy. Ask your landlord for approval in a phone conversation? Send your landlord a follow-up email, text message or written letter (which you should make a copy of and save): “Hi Mrs. Bigpockets, per our phone call today I appreciate you agreeing to let me install a bocce ball court in the backyard! Are you cool if it’s 40 feet long? Also, I’m planning to paint it pink, hope that’s all right. Take care!”
Like any relationship, even the best landlord/tenant relationship can go south. Which is why, as cynical as it sounds, you need to be able to prove an oral agreement isn’t just a matter of he said/she said.
3. Show Your Work – and Theirs
Documentation can be especially important when it comes to requests for repairs and maintenance. Always document requests for repairs or correspondence regarding problems with the condition of your home.
Under the law you need to be able to show that your landlord knew or should have known that a problem existed in order to hold them accountable for it. If you can’t show you complained to your landlord you are going to have a harder time proving they knew the problem existed in the first place.
Have a leak in your roof? Put your notice letting the landlord know in writing, even if you already called them. Roaches or mice? Put it in writing. Need a repair made? …you see where I’m going here. If your landlord tells you they plan to fix or improve something orally, memorialize those promises in detail as well. “Mrs. Bigpockets, thanks so much for agreeing to install a front door! As we discussed on the phone today I am excited that you intend to finish this work next Tuesday.”
If your rental unit has habitability defects—peeling paint, leaky windows, unsteady banisters, etc.—take photos and record the dates. If your landlord’s maintenance workers do substandard work, or leave a mess, make records of that as well – and always get their names/business cards so you know who did the work. (This also goes for your building’s common areas and outdoor spaces. Don’t assume your neighbors will keep your landlord in check!)
4. Always Be The Bigger Person (Especially in Writing)
In the unfortunate event that your relationship with your landlord does get ugly, be careful about not letting this carry over to the tone of your letters. While it’s never a great idea to be rude, abusive or threatening to your landlord—that goes doubly when you’re writing to them. In the same way that your letters and emails can serve to help if you if things go bad, they can also hurt you if you act like a jerk.
Landlord/tenant disputes can be incredibly personal and emotionally charged but it’s important that you keep your calm. Even if your landlord is being disrespectful or rude, you won’t do yourself or a potential lawsuit any good by responding in kind. Sending nasty letters or emails only makes you look bad, and can leave the person reading them – and possibly deciding whether to award you money or the right to stay in your home– thinking that both sides are equally to blame.
If you’re upset apply those elementary school playground lessons and take a time out before you send that angry text or email. Consider how the text message you’re sending would sound a year from now, being read aloud to a jury. If the answer is ‘not great’ start over. Be polite, stay calm, and keep the profanities in check. Simply state the facts, or your understanding of them, and ask—calmly!—for the landlord to fulfill her obligations. If you’re not sure what to do or how to respond, consult with an attorney or a tenant counselor before sending it off.
Hopefully your folder of documents will live out its days in that drawer of Bay to Breakers costumes, never to see the light of day. But in a pinch, careful record keeping can be integral to protecting your tenancy and asserting your rights if an issue arises.