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6 Things Tenants Should do to Protect Themselves Against a Questionable Landlord


Security Deposit Law

Written Communication is best

1. The best advice I can give is to always conduct all communications in writing. In this day and age this has become increasing easy with the introduction of emails and text messaging. I advise the conversations between tenants and landlords be in writing even when the relationship is good. Write every communication as if you were speaking in front of a judge. It is particularly important to have proof of communications when complaining of bad conditions within your unit because many housing statutes require that the landlord be put on notice of the bad condition as a prerequisite to his/her liability and/or bringing forth suit. Additionally, make sure all communications are dated with month and year. Emails are the best because they are automatically dated and time stamped. Many people use text messaging, in this case, I always tell my clients to manually date each and every text sent complete with date and year. In my experience this will prove invaluable if you ever have the need to go to court or a housing trial.

2. Know your rights!
One of the main reasons I got involved in defending tenants is to level the playing field. It never ceases to amaze me how many tenants simply do not realize they have so many rights under the laws of the Commonwealth. One of the greatest online resources is Legal Tactics Tenants’ rights in Massachusetts written by Annette R. Duke of the Massachusetts Law reform Institute. I feel it is one of the most complete and accurate resources for Massachusetts Housing law I have ever come across and the best part is, it is not written in legalese, it is written in terms that a regular tenant can understand. The website address is; www.masslegalhelp.org.

3. Investigate your Landlord
One of the great things about modern technology is the ease it allows a person to conduct research. You can begin by googling your landlord. If he or she is a company, you can look at online sites where reviews are written or the better business bureau. You can also check with your city or county Chamber of Commerce to see if they have registered complaints or have knowledge of other agencies that would have such information. Additionally, you can also look up his or her history of evictions actions or civil suits on Masscourts.org. This is a great tool to gain intelligence about your landlord or lack thereof. Check his/her criminal records, you can also do this on masscourts.org. Ehow has several ways to search for criminal records. It is important to know your landlord’s prior convictions from fraud to assault; your landlord or property manager could have a horrible history. If a criminal record can disqualify a prospective tenant, then why not a landlord? Look into tax records to find out who actually owns the property. A landlord could try to rent you an apartment he or she does not own. You could lose your deposit, or worse, your home. If you are dealing with a property management company research any recent foreclosures for their properties. If the company is underwater or filing for bankruptcy, your lease terms might be shorter than you think. You can also speak with current tenants. An unhappy tenant is likely to vocalize it. Make sure to ask the important questions such as how often their rent has been raised and what needs repair in their apartment. Finally, don’t be afraid to ask your prospective landlord for references from former tenants. If he or she pushes back, they may have something to hide.

4. Talk to a Housing Attorney
90% of tenants who appear in the housing court don’t have lawyers. Yet 85% of landlords do. How can you expect to fare well in defending yourself against an adversary who has retained a seasoned, knowledgeable expert to defeat you? The answer is you’re unlikely to win. Landlord tenant law is very complex. There of hundreds of rules and regulations that only an experienced attorney will have sufficient working knowledge of, to help navigate conflicts with your landlord. A lawyer who doesn’t practice Landlord -Tenant law can hurt you more than help you. So, don’t hire a criminal lawyer, a divorce lawyer, or a corporate lawyer to represent you in housing court. Tenants make this error all the time. The problem is these lawyers don’t understand the detailed technical practice of Landlord -Tenant law. They may know to butt heads and haggle with the landlord’s lawyer, but they don’t know what your rights are. Even attorneys who practice real estate law are often unfamiliar with the intricacies of Landlord-Tenant law. Real Estate attorneys generally handle the purchase and sale of real residential and commercial property, which is completely different from what goes on in housing court. Landlord -Tenant law is a really distinct rea. Hiring the wrong lawyer can be a very bad decision. If your lawyer doesn’t understand the complexities of Landlord -Tenant law, you’re at a greater risk of losing your case. Also, you could end up paying legal fees for both your attorney and your landlord’s attorney.

5. Always allow your Landlord access to your apartment
As long as it is for an appropriate reason, I always advise that a tenant allow the landlord to come into their apartment. Such reasons would be to inspect the apartment, make repairs, or other related tasks. There are many reasons for this. First off, pursuant to G.L. c. 186 section 15B, a landlord is allowed right of entry to a tenant’s apartment for certain specific reasons such as: inspecting the apartment, making repairs, showing, apartment to a prospective tenant or new buyer, in accordance with a court order, if the apartment appears to have been abandoned, and inspecting for damage within the final 30 days of a tenancy. Further, the state sanitary code requires tenants give access upon reasonable notice. 24-hour written notice is generally considered reasonable. Practically speaking, if you are complaining that your apartment is in disrepair and you make it difficult for the landlord to gain access it does not look good in court. This usually amounts to a great defense for the landlord. Don’t give the landlord a defense at court. If you deny access to your apartment or even make it difficult for the landlord to make repairs, you run the risk of spoon feeding your landlord a very strong defense as to why he could not remedy the bad conditions in your apartment. Also, it certainly does not play out well in front of a judge and/or jury. I advise you kill him with kindness and be overly cooperative in allowing access to your apartment. It simply does nothing to help your cause by denying access or being difficult.

6. Read the lease!!
It never ceases to amaze me how many times tenants simply do not read their lease. This is a legally binding document in which your home is dependent upon. The terms in the lease are obviously going to be favorable to your landlord because he/she or their lawyer has drafted it. Therefore, you need to understand it before you enter into it. In many situations’ landlords will be open to modifying a lease or a clause if you bring it to their attention. It is very important to take the time to read the lease thoroughly and take notes. Another plus in reading the lease is that believe or not, many times landlords will end up breaching their own lease. Additionally, knowing your lease is important later on. There are certain things that are illegal for landlords to put into a lease. The most common illegal clause I see involve late fees for rental payments. There are also clauses that the law automatically voids out and interprets in a way which are favorable to tenants. For instance, many leases contain a clause which makes the tenant responsible for the landlord’s attorney if the tenant fails to pay rent and the landlord is forced to evict the tenant. Under G.L. c. 186 section 20, If such a clause exists, the law says the clause will be interpreted to mean that if the tenant prevails in the eviction action then the landlord is responsible for the tenant’s attorney’s fees. It is always best to have an experienced landlord- tenant attorney review a lease before you sign it, but at the very least, you should be reading through it very closely and making notes and asking questions. If you don’t understand a portion of the lease or want clarification, make the landlord explain it. Finally, always keep a copy of the lease for the duration of the tenancy.

This information does not constitute legal advice and is written for general information purposes only. Individuals should consult with a lawyer for specific legal advice.

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