When you sign a lease, you have certain expectations. You expect the home to be clean and safe, and you expect your landlord to make repairs as needed in the future.
When you move out, you expect to have your security deposit returned, so long as you leave the unit clean and undamaged.
And it usually works out that way. But not always.
You have legal rights as a renter, and when those rights are violated, civil court provides you a last-resort option to enforce them. Still, it should remain a last resort, given the cost in time, effort, money, and goodwill.
Reasons to Consider Suing Your Landlord
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 small claims court and will have to pay court fees (they vary by state), prepare your case, and defend yourself in front of a judge.
Winnable lawsuits against your landlord include the following reasons.
1. Security Deposit Violations
Landlords and tenants frequently butt heads over security deposit refunds. In the most common dispute, landlords deduct money from tenants’ security deposit for repairing damage the tenant doesn’t feel should have been laid at their feet.
That could include preexisting damage from before the renter moved in, or it could mean deducting money to repair “normal wear and tear.”
The line between “damage” and “normal wear and tear” can be blurry. But as a general rule, “damage” is caused by a single incident, like the tenant spilling red wine on the carpet, while “normal wear and tear” is caused gradually over time, such as discoloration on the most frequently tread areas of the carpet. The landlord can deduct for damage, but not for normal wear and tear.
But security deposit violations don’t end there. If the landlord collected too large a deposit or failed to provide a written breakdown of deductions within the legally required timeframe, these too violate landlord-tenant laws.
In some cities and states, landlords must place security deposits in separate, interest-bearing accounts. Failure to do so in these jurisdictions also constitutes a legal violation.
When landlords rent out a unit, there’s an implied warranty of habitability: it’s assumed that the rental property is in livable condition. If the property becomes uninhabitable for a time, but the tenant has paid rent to live there during that same time, the landlord must typically provide alternate accommodations.
For example, you pay rent for July, but halfway through the month, a tree crashes through your roof. You move out for two weeks while the landlord repairs the roof. The landlord should put you up in another unit, or in a hotel or other accommodation.
As straightforward as that example is, some cases often get less clear. If a toilet breaks, but you have two bathrooms, the property is still habitable and the landlord does not need to put you up in a hotel.
But you’re still paying rent for a two-bathroom home, and if several months go by without the landlord repairing the toilet, you have a reasonable case that the landlord is failing to meet their obligations.
3. Your Home Has Lead Paint or Toxic Mold — And Your Landlord Knew
By law, landlords must disclose the presence of lead-based paint or toxic mold if they know about it. In most cases, it renders the unit uninhabitable by health and safety laws, and the landlord must remediate it before they can sign a rental agreement with a new renter.
However, if your home contains lead paint or toxic mold and you can prove the landlord knew about it and failed to remediate it, you have a case against them.
4. No Reimbursement for Emergency Repairs
If you make emergency repairs, the landlord should reimburse you. However you should get permission first, should make an effort to pay a reasonable market rate for the repair, and should only ever put up money for a true emergency repair.
If a pipe bursts and blasts water into your home, that constitutes an emergency. A broken toilet when you have other toilets in the house, as in the example above, does not constitute an emergency.
Likewise, don’t call the most expensive plumber in the phone book to repair a low-rent unit. If you spend $5,000 on what the landlord could have spent $1,500 to repair, you muddy the waters of how much they should reimburse you.
5. Lost or Damaged Belongings Due to Landlord’s Negligence
Imagine a slow leak appears in your ceiling, from the roof. You contact your landlord to report it several times, and they do nothing. Then in a particularly violent storm, the roof in that area collapses, spilling muddy stormwater all over your white suede couch.
Because they knew about the problem and failed to address it, you’d have a case against your landlord to sue for the personal property damage caused by their negligence.
Of course, more experienced landlords typically require tenants to buy renters insurance coverage for these scenarios. It protects them from getting sued (to an extent), by providing a far easier way for you to get reimbursed for personal property damage.
Even if your landlord doesn’t require it, consider buying renters insurance regardless to protect your belongings.
6. Fair Housing Discrimination
According to the federal Fair Housing Act, landlords may not discriminate based on:
- Race, color, or ethnicity
- National origin
- Familial status
Landlords also may not impose a blanket policy barring convicted felons, although they can still take criminal history into account when screening tenants.
If you feel your landlord has discriminated against you, whether before or after signing a lease agreement, you can file a Fair Housing discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
7. Illegal Eviction
First and foremost, landlords can never conduct a “self-help eviction” where they try to bar you from the property without going through the legal eviction process. Examples include changing the locks, shutting off utilities, or physically blockading you from entering the property.
If your landlord attempted such an eviction without first going through the legal eviction process, they have violated landlord-tenant law.
Many jurisdictions also protect tenants even from the legal eviction process if performed without just cause. For example, landlords typically can’t non-renew tenants’ leases out of retaliation or revenge.
8. Repeated Privacy Violations and Illegal Entry
Among other tenants’ rights, renters have a right to privacy and quiet enjoyment. Landlords must provide a certain amount of time — usually 24 to 48 hours — in between when they notify the tenant of their intention to to enter the unit and when they do. The exception to this rule is emergencies.
If your landlord repeated barges into your home without providing proper notice, it can constitute a privacy violation or even harassment.
When You Should Not Sue Your Landlord
Even when you feel you’re in the right and the landlord is wrong, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should jump to file a lawsuit.
Consider the following scenarios when you should think twice before suing your landlord.
- If You Haven’t Tried to Mediate. Sending a formal letter to the landlord or trying to negotiate often works as an alternative to suing. If you haven’t tried reasoning with your landlord and settling the dispute out of court, 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 costs or filing fees are $75, it’s 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 Don’t Have Any Evidence. Empty accusations don’t make for a convincing court case. You should be able to prove any allegations you bring against your landlord, or else let it go.
- If You Want to Live in the Property for Years to Come. No one wants to continue working with someone who has sued them. Your landlord may not be able to non-renew or evict you right away, but as soon as they can they’ll remove you from the leased premises.
How to Sue Your Landlord
If you decide to move forward with suing your landlord, take these steps to boost your odds of success.
Know Your State and Local Landlord-Tenant Laws
Every state — and many cities — impose their own landlord-tenant laws. And if you plan to make a case that your landlord violated those laws, you need to know what they actually are.
Take the time to look up your state or city’s landlord-tenant laws online. As legal code, it must be made publicly available. You can also find plenty of summaries online as well, but verify what you read online by referencing the actual laws whenever possible.
Send a Demand Letter
Before suing someone, you need to make your position clear and give them a chance to correct the problem or contact you to discuss it further.
Prepare a letter explaining your complaint in detail, and exactly how it violates state or local laws. State exactly what you want from the landlord, and the best way to contact you.
Wrap up by explaining that you would prefer to resolve the matter in a friendly way but are prepared to escalate the matter to small claims court if you don’t hear back from the landlord.
Finally, send the letter by certified mail so you can prove that you sent it. Keep a copy of the letter to present in small claims court if necessary.
Prepare Your Case
Civil cases don’t look like 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 their 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 by following a few simple steps:
- Gather Evidence. Collect any evidence that supports your case, such as photographs of unrepaired damages or the move-in condition of the apartment showing the damage was preexisting. Review all letters or other written correspondence with 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.
In order to file your suit, look up your county’s small claims court and the filing paperwork required. You can usually find the complaint form to initiate a suit online, for you to print and file with the court clerk. Some jurisdictions have even joined the 21st century and allow you to file online directly.
Should You Hire an Attorney?
Not all states allow parties to hire a lawyer for small claims court cases. However, even if your state allows it, it may not be worth it.
For example, if you plan to sue 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 if 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, gather all your evidence and witness letters, and go over your story once more. Wear professional business clothing for your court appearance.
Arrive early so you can find the courtroom, which often takes longer than you’d expect in sprawling courthouses. 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 with the proceedings could cause the judge to side against you. Don’t risk it.
What to Do If You Still Live in the Rental Unit
Tenants often sue their former landlords after they’ve moved out, usually over security deposits or another financial matter.
However, some renters file a civil suit to get the attention of their current landlord. For example, if your landlord refuses to make necessary repairs, suing them can force their hand.
If you intend to sue your current landlord, follow these steps to maximize your odds of winning:
- Continue Paying the Rent on Time. Late payments could cause the judge to side against you. In a literal sense, two wrongs don’t make a right here; your landlord’s violation doesn’t entitle you to violate your lease agreement.
- Observe the Other Lease Rules. Whatever you do, don’t move in a pet, throw loud parties, or do anything else that would violate your lease contract 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.
Beware, if you sue your landlord, they won’t forget it. Expect them to look for every opportunity to remove you from the leased premises, regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit.
If your situation has come down to you having to sue the landlord, it’s probably time to start looking for another place to live anyway.
If you simply don’t like your landlord and don’t feel they maintain the property as well as you’d like, you’re probably best off simply moving to a new home. Once you sue your landlord, you poison the well, and your relationship with them will never recover.
Astute landlords ask applicants if they’ve ever sued their landlord in the past. They also call up current and former landlords to ask about you. As a real estate investor and landlord myself, I would not rent to a tenant who has sued their landlord.
In other words, proceed with caution.