Question: My daughter will be a college senior next year and plans to live off campus. Most of the rental properties near the college are expensive and owned by landlords who reportedly do not take good care of their rental properties or handle tenant complaints fairly. My daughter wants to live in one of those properties (a large rental house that's big enough for her and seven other girls from her sorority).
The landlord wants a $3,000 deposit from each of the eight girls. When I visited the house, the current renters said they had wanted to stay another year but were being kicked out. They've heard that the owner always keeps the entire security deposit, regardless of the condition of the place, and rents to a different group every year. Can you tell me anything we can do ahead of time to prevent this from happening to our daughter and her friends?
Answer: Yes, don't rent from this landlord. If your state limits the security deposit to a multiple of the monthly rent (in California, for example, it's twice for unfurnished rentals; more if furnished), you know right there that this owner is violating the law (unless the rent is $12,000 a month).
If the word on the street is accurate, you can expect he'll keep your $3,000, as well as the deposits of the other tenants. Should this happen, you could, of course, sue in Small Claims Court for the deposit's return, but that will be a major hassle (especially if the college is out of state).
You could try to set this landlord straight at the outset, but don't count on reforming him. Check with the university housing office, and if you find that he lists there, share your information. Pressure and threats of de-listing from that sector might give the landlord pause.
You could also speak with the local city or district attorney, or legal aid, asking whether they are interested in bringing an "unfair business practice" case. They will need someone to be the plaintiff, a former tenant who has been ripped off already, and since that hasn't yet happened to you, you'll have to find a willing ex-tenant.
Rather than spending energy on all this, suggest to your daughter that she and perhaps a much smaller number of roommates look for a smaller place or a rental a little farther away from campus. They'll have more options and a greater chance of finding a reputable landlord.
Dark stairwell? Enlighten owner
Question: I have a problem with the time our building lights go on and off, particularly the lights in the enclosed stairwells. In the morning, I have to use a flashlight because the lights have gone off before dawn. This has been an ongoing problem with the landlord. How should I handle this?
Answer: This is not the place to cut corners. Any security expert will tell you that the simplest, most effective way to deter crime, besides locks, is to have effective lighting in the right places. Because lighting is so easy and relatively cheap, failure to implement it will increase the chances that your landlord will be found responsible if a criminal incident or injury occurs that might have been prevented by good lights.
Educate your landlord. First, point out your landlord's heightened risk of liability. Then, involve the rest of the tenants and draft a polite letter to the landlord, explaining the situation and setting forth what you want. This letter will be "Exhibit A" if, heaven forbid, you or another tenant is assaulted or trips and falls on the stairs in the dark, for it will prove that the landlord was notified of the problem.
Next, ask your local police to come by and conduct a security evaluation, and ask for written recommendations.
Present these to the landlord, and by this time, maybe he'll get the picture.
Janet Portman, an attorney specializing in landlord/tenant law, is co-author of "Every Tenant's Legal Guide." She can be reached at email@example.com.