Living as a tenant comes with a lot of frustration, wasted time and possibly money when you have a bad landlord. Most of us who have been tenants at some point in our lives have bad experiences with landlords. Landlords have an incentive not to care for the property any more than they must. The more money they sink into their rental properties the fewer profits they take out. As a result you may find yourself at odds with your landlord and questioning whether you should hire an attorney to help you with a landlord problem.
Individual landlords often find themselves overwhelmed by the responsibilities and requirements, especially in light of the get-rich-quick-buying-houses schemes going on. Landlords often feel like not making repairs or upgrading the rental property can “price in” to rent by discounting it for the lower quality housing, making it cheaper and easier to decline making repairs, especially to “wear and tear” when they can discount rent a few dollars instead.
Texas is pro-landlord due to the minimal protections afforded to tenants. The laws in Texas often give landlords considerable leeway and tenants very little. The good news is that some protections exist under the law. No matter what your landlord thinks, he or she cannot avoid them. The three biggest problems with landlords tend to be: problems with the lease at the time it begins; subsequent failures to make repairs; and violating tenant privacy. I’ll address some of the biggest pieces of those issues.
Problems with the Lease/Taking Possession of a Rental Property
If you are a tenant in a commercially-owned apartment complex, and likely even if you are not, your lease is probably the standard TAA lease. The TAA lease is an amazingly long list of duties put on the tenant and limitations on the landlord’s liabilities. It very conveniently leaves out most of the available remedies under the law. In my experiences as a tenant I have found leases poorly enforced – on the landlord. Each time I rented a new apartment they would walk me through the lease terms, at least those terms that put a duty on me.
Curiously, the leasing agent never walked through the terms that put a duty on the landlord. Just an occasional quip about what the landlord would not do. The language is all boilerplate, generic form. Some language must appear, some is optional. You cannot change the language (I have yet to hear of a landlord that permitted it) but you should review it on your own since it clearly states several landlord duties to make repairs and respect your privacy.
Language added to the lease
What is important to check when you are given a lease, whether it is a TAA lease or not, is any handwritten or typed language inserted by the landlord. This includes dates, rent charges, fees, and the like. It is imperative you review this information before you sign anything. It is possible the leasing agent or landlord mistyped fees, rent prices, etc. to either your benefit or theirs. Do not sign the lease until you check the math.
No new fees or higher fee amounts should appear on the lease. Refuse to sign it until it is corrected. Do not sign it and dispute it later because once you sign it, it may be very difficult to prove you did not mean what you signed. The amount on the lease may be less than you were quoted before. In that case, feel free to sign it because the lease will be construed against the landlord. Do not pay anything more than the terms in the lease.
If there are any other discrepancies or defects in the inserted language, clear this up before signing it. If the rental number is wrong, it needs to be fixed. And if they give you one key but type out two keys, make them change it because they can charge you for a “lost key” when you fail to return the second key you never received. While this may exasperate the leasing agent or landlord, it is not your fault the lease contains poor language; but it will be your liability if it is wrong.
Do not sign the lease until you have an opportunity to see the rental. While the leasing agent may tell you that you need to sign first, you need to see the rental to make sure it conforms to the lease terms. If there is a mess, trash, broken windows or doors and similar uninhabitable problems make them fix it before you move in. If the rental property is not habitable you do not have to accept it. Make sure that they clean it and make appropriate repairs and change the lease start date (if necessary) to reflect any delay.
When you move in, before you have brought in anything, you need to carefully inspect everything. Check the entire property for damage or disrepair. Test all appliances. Any scratches, scrapes, holes, bad carpeting, missing paint, peeling walls, cracks, chips and all other imperfections need go on the list. Keep a copy of this list and turn a copy in to the landlord. You may have to complete this form under a TAA lease but make sure you are completely thorough as this will help protect you from paying for repairs you did not cause.
Violating Tenant Privacy
As a tenant you have a right to privacy in the rental property. Your landlord cannot enter the premises at will. This goes for the landlord’s employees, agents and unrelated third parties, such as the police (as long as they do not have a search warrant). Under Texas law (and the TAA lease states this) the landlord cannot access or permit access to a third party to your leased property except to make repairs, perform routine inspections or in the event of an emergency. In those cases the landlord must provide notice of the entry and anything done to the property. The landlord can provide prior notice or notice after the fact.
Notice must be left at the same time as entry. Often in apartments the repairmen will make repairs and not leave notice. While it may not be a problem that they left no notice, you should address this with the landlord. These notices are a useful way to prove whether repairs occurred. It will also help protect you if the landlord or its agents come into your home and steal from you. If your landlord violates your privacy you may have a case to leave and avoid paying the remainder of your lease. It is important to note that your lease may contain specific provisions that permit the landlord or other parties to enter the leased areas.
Failing to Make Repairs
This is probably the biggest problem for any residential tenant. Landlords have duties under law to make repairs related to the health, safety and security of tenants. This includes duties to make sure exterior doors have proper locks and peepholes, functioning bathrooms, no leaking pipes, etc. In addition, landlords may have additional duties under the lease. Failure to make repairs that are not necessary for the health, safety and security of tenants may result in monetary damages or enforcement of the lease provisions; but it will not justify the tenant withholding rent or abandoning the rental property unless the lease allows that.
When the landlord fails to make necessary repairs for the tenant’s health, safety and security, first inform the landlord in writing. You can provide this by physically handing it to the landlord or agent. You can also send it by certified mail or registered mail. Do not rely on the landlord making repairs by verbal request. Once the landlord has written notice he or she has a reasonable period of time to make the repairs. Normally this means seven days; but there may be legitimate reasons why the repairs cannot occur in that timeframe. (E.g., a necessary part is on backorder.)
It could also mean seven days is too long to wait (e.g., the front door is missing). If after this time the repairs do not occur, you must provide written notice again by personal delivery, registered mail, or certified mail. Again a reasonable time must lapse without repair. At this time you may be able to terminate the lease and move out, make the repairs yourself and deduct the cost from rent, or seek a court order to force the landlord to make repairs. No matter what, a tenant may not withhold rent from a landlord for failing to make repairs.
The danger to the tenant in terminating the lease or deducting expenses from rent is that if the tenant is wrong then the tenant can be on the hook for late fees, missed rent, termination fees, etc. It is far better to seek court order when the facts allow that time. If faced with this situation, seek help from a lawyer.
Attorney for landlord-tenant disputes in Texas
The biggest challenge for a renter in this situation is that you may not have the funds to pay for an attorney at a time when you need one to keep your home. Texas law is not sympathetic to renters and makes it difficult for renters to fight on an even playing field with landlords. If you can afford to hire an attorney you should. If you cannot afford to hire an attorney you should contact local housing rights groups and bar associations for help. Many have attorneys who offer pro bono advice or services for renters.