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Turf Wars: Author/Landlord Offers a Few Words of Advice for Tenants
Richard Rusdorf, author of "The Landlord's Handbook: A Complete Guide to Managing Small Residential Properties," managed a 400-plus-unit apartment building in Chicago 20 years ago. The past president of the Chicago chapter of the Institute of Real Estate Management, he has served as a real estate broker, consultant, writer, architectural photographer, and certified property manager. With such a diverse background in real estate, Rusdorf has plenty of perspective on what peeves both landlords and tenants. Tenants' number-one point of contention, he says, is "responsiveness to complaints -- even if there's nothing that can be done about the problem." Residential rental properties are a literal obstacle course of sticky situations. These fairly tight quarters are home to many people with specific concerns that they expect their landlord to address (and pay for) yesterday. Landlords, whether at fault or not when tenant complaints arise, find themselves between a rock and a hard place on such issues as security, water quality, the neighborhood, neighbors, their guests, and noise.
The majority of residential rental properties around the country aren't brand new. They were built with a number of parking spaces deemed adequate at the time. Today's renters, however, often own two or more cars. Add that congestion to guests' vehicles, and you've got a problem. Residents must park in fire lines and often face fines and/or towing fees.
Although most of us think of multifamily complexes with 100 or more units when we think of rental properties, Rusdorf says most of the nation's renters actually live in smaller buildings owned by an individual and consisting of less than six units, even in larger cities. As a result, landlords' responsibilities and tenants' concerns are easier to grapple and address -- or at least, that's the theory.
What's a renter's recourse if, in his opinion, his requests are being ignored, or a landlord's promises aren't delivered? It goes without saying, but your best bet is to get it in writing. If that doesn't help your case, "every city should have a tenant hotline," Rusdorf says. "Call the city, and file a complaint. Don't call a lawyer first."
Do renters really have a leg to stand on if they didn't get what they want in writing first? Not necessarily, Rusdorf says. "There are several implied 'covenants' of landlords," he says. Among them: Landlords must make themselves available by phone and should hand that number out to all tenants. They must also maintain the premises in "habitable" condition, meaning adequate weather protection, working plumbing, water supply and sewage, running hot and cold water, heat, air conditioning if the property is advertised as having that feature, electricity, working appliances, clean and safe grounds, garbage facilities, structural integrity of the building(s), and if present, functioning elevators. While all of these implied agreements seem like givens, some landlords can and do ignore them.
Security is, of course, a Pandora's box full of legal issues and ethical responsibilities. In more than 500 cities around the United States, multifamily apartment complexes and other smaller rental properties are participating in the Crime-Free Multihousing Program, which requires prospective tenants to sign a crime-free leasing addendum. The tenant promises not to bring any criminal activity onto the premises, and if he does, his lease is terminated immediately.
Are landlords required to disclose to prospective and current tenants any recent criminal activity, or an entire criminal history of the premises, if requested? No, says Rusdorf. "Landlords should, but it's still ambiguous," he says, adding that when he managed the large Chicago apartment building mentioned above, a crime took place across the street. When one of his tenants suggested that Rusdorf put up a sign in the lobby warning residents about the crime, Rusdorf said no. However, he adds, he would have felt compelled to do so had the crime taken place within his own building. While it's a moral issue, it's a financial issue, as well. Does a landlord reduce his chances for more tenants by reporting in the lobby of his building every crime that takes place up and down the block? Would any prospective renter sign on the dotted line after seeing such a sign? Any landlord that neglects to warn his residents about a crime in their own building, however, could be slapped with a lawsuit if the perpetrator strikes again, and the victim can prove that the landlord knew about the first crime and never said anything to his tenants. Some complexes do have their crime histories available upon request. The moral of the story: Speak up, do your homework, and whenever possible, get it in writing.
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