When you sign a lease, you have certain, reasonable expectations: Your home will be clean, safe, and your landlord will be available to perform (or hire someone to perform) repairs. When you move out, you expect to have your security deposit returned, so long as you leave the place clean and undamaged.
Most of the time, everything works out. However, sometimes, things aren’t so easy. You move in only to realize you’ve signed a lease with a slumlord who won’t make repairs, violates landlord and tenant laws by showing up at odd hours, and just treats you unfairly. Or, you move out and never receive your security deposit.
You have certain rights as a renter, and when those rights are violated, you need to take action. One option is to sue your landlord. It can work, but requires a lot of time and effort.
Suing Your Landlord
Is It Worth It?
Before you do anything else, decide whether it’s worth the time and risk to sue your landlord. Most likely, you’ll sue in a local civil court, and will have to pay court fees (they vary by state), prepare your case, and defend yourself in front of a judge.
When to Sue
- When Your Landlord Won’t Respond. If you’ve tried to contact your landlord about major repairs or an unpaid security deposit refund to no avail, a civil suit may be your best option.
- If Your Rental Is Unlivable. If you’re risking your health or safety living in a rental, you may need a judge to order the repairs.
- When You’re Out a Lot of Money. If you should have received your entire security deposit or had to pay for a large repair yourself, it might be worth the time and court costs to try and get your money back.
- If You’ve Got Proof. If you have written testimony from a repair man, time-stamped pictures of a clean apartment, or any other documentation that makes you think you could win a court case, proceeding in court could be your best option.
When Not to Sue
- If You Haven’t Tried to Mediate. I’ve found that sending a formal letter to my landlord or trying to negotiate works most of the time. If you haven’t tried reasoning with your landlord, take this step before you consider a lawsuit.
- If the Cost Doesn’t Add Up. If your landlord took $50 out of your security deposit and the court fees are $75, it is not worthwhile to file a suit. It’s unfair, but you can’t sue for more than what you’re owed, and you won’t come out ahead on small amounts. If you’re trying to sue for something that doesn’t have a specific value, such as mistreatment from your landlord, talk to a lawyer before you file a claim. A lawyer can help you decide how much you could win in your case.
- If You Aren’t Sure You Can Win. If your entire case is based on your eyewitness testimony, you may not win. The judge might require more proof than that.
Learn the Rules
Civil court laws vary by state, so keep in mind that each state has different laws regarding how and why you can sue your landlord. For example, some states may not allow you to sue for moving expenses if you had to move due to your landlord’s neglect. Other states might not let you sue for repairs that weren’t considered a risk to your health or safety.
Typically, you need to file a case with your local court, pay the court fees, schedule a date, and appear in front of a judge to present your case. If the judge decides in your favor, you’ll work with a court clerk to get your money back. You can get all the information you need by visiting your city or county court office in person. You can also do some online research by visiting your state’s official government website.
Prepare Your Case
Civil cases are a bit different than the criminal trials you see on TV. You won’t have a jury – instead, you must explain your side to the judge. Then, the landlord tells his or her side of the story, and the judge must decide who to believe.
You can greatly improve your chances of winning your case if you prepare ahead of time, and to do so, you must follow a few simple steps:
- Gather Evidence. Collect any evidence you have proving your case, such as photographs of unrepaired damages or a clean apartment, letters you sent to your landlord, or invoices you paid from repair or cleaning professionals.
- Collect Testimony From Witnesses. You don’t have to ask people to appear in court, but a well-written letter from a witness can help your case. For example, if a repairman told you the water heater needed to be replaced but your landlord wouldn’t pay for it, get this in writing.
- Practice Presenting Your Side of the Story. Practicing telling your story can help you gain confidence and determine exactly what to say in court. Find a friend or family member, tell them the story, and get their opinions.
Hiring a Lawyer
In some states, hiring a lawyer may not be allowed for small civil court cases. However, even if it is allowed, it may not be worth it. For example, if you’re suing your landlord for $500 and the lawyer’s minimum fee is $500, you’ll only be able to break even in a best-case scenario. In most cases, hiring a lawyer is only worth it if you’re suing for a large amount or the lawyer is willing to work for a small fee.
Second, consider your own confidence level. Many civil cases are held without lawyers. If you’re comfortable talking in front of a judge and have evidence to support your case, you’ll save money and time by representing yourself.
Going to Court
On your court date, make sure you’re prepared several hours in advance. Gather all your evidence and witness letters, and go over your story once more. When you appear in court, be sure to wear business professional clothing. Arrive early so you can find the courtroom and be on time – being late does not make a good impression on the judge.
During the hearing, do exactly as the judge says. Talking out of turn, interrupting your landlord, or causing any other problem could cause the judge to side against you. Don’t risk it.
What to Do If You Still Live in the Rental
Typically, tenants sue their former landlords after they’ve moved out, usually over security deposits or another financial matter. However, sometimes you have to file a civil suit to get the attention of your current landlord. For example, if your landlord won’t make repairs, you may need to sue. If this happens and you’re still living in your rental, take these steps to keep things running smoothly:
- Pay the Rent on Time. Late payments could cause the judge to side against you.
- Follow the Lease. Whatever you do, don’t move in a pet, throw loud parties, or do anything else that would violate your lease while you’re waiting for your court date.
- Keep Records. Keep a written record of any communication you have with your landlord. Include the date and time and anything that was said. If your landlord starts harassing you before the court date, tell this to the judge.
Suing anyone is stressful, especially when you still live at the property. If you’re still living in the rental during your lawsuit, act normally. Pay your rent on time, follow the rules of your lease, and resist the urge to be hateful or argumentative to your landlord.
What additional tips can you suggest for those who need to sue a landlord?