In real estate, things often don't turn out the way you'd expect. In this new series, we're going to take a look at how people's real-life experiences differed from their expectations. First up, a tale from the world of renting.
Confession: When I was younger, I got kicked out of my apartment by possibly the worst landlord ever. Four months after moving in, I found myself standing on the front lawn at 9 a.m., neighbors staring, fighting with my landlord at top-decibel levels.
Spoiler: The landlord won. I promised to be out by the end of the week.
It sounds like an episode of some trashy (and not particularly fun) reality TV show, but this was real real life, folks. I fled in three days, leaving behind my security deposit, prepaid cleaning fee, pet deposit, and a full month's rent.
Looking back, I often wonder what I did wrong and how I could have avoided getting fired from my lease (or at least gotten some money back). So I asked an expert to break down my case.
Most lease terminations don't happen in a day. To understand what happened (and where I started messing up), we have to start at the beginning, the day I signed the lease.
The scenario: When I moved in, I had a puppy, which was destined to rapidly grow into a big, slobbering adult dog. I told the landlord about the pooch, but when it came time to sign the lease, there was no mention of the pet. When I questioned this, the landlord said it was a standard lease form and not to worry. I did worry, but I also chickened out and signed. As you'll see below, this small thing became a not-so-small flashpoint.
Experts say: I never should have moved in without a pet agreement.
"First of all, you should have requested [the pet] be memorialized into the lease," says Casey Schwab, co-founder of ResolutionTable.com, an online mediation service for tenant and landlord disputes. "Absent that, an email or text to your landlord about the pet would have supported the theory that your landlord consented."
The scenario: About a month after moving in, my landlord started snooping. Neighbors would tell me they'd seen him looking in the windows. Creepy! I wrote down the dates and times in some vague attempt to cover myself. Then one night I heard barking while I was in the shower. Wrapped in a towel, I came out to see my landlord standing inside my apartment! I knew his presence was illegal, so I asked him to leave and then dropped the issue, fearing he would make my life miserable in the apartment if I pushed.
Experts say: I should have manned up. "After the first whiff that your landlord was entering your apartment or spying on you, you should have notified him in writing of the violation," Schwab says.
The scenario: Not long after asking my landlord to leave, things started to go south fast. My landlord started showing up a lot, saying the neighbors were suddenly complaining about the dog. When I didn't take the bait and fight back, the landlord said I'd have to keep the dog outside, chained up.
Experts say: As a tenant, you should document everything, Schwab says. Even if the pet wasn't on the lease, the landlord was acknowledging that he knew I had a pet, and I could have used that in my defense later.
The scenario: Things really hit the fan one morning after my landlord arrived to find that my dog was not chained outside (like I was really going to do that). He banged on the door, shouting like a crazy person. He said things. My mother, who happened to be in town, said things. The neighbor who came out to see what the fuss was said things. I mostly stared in horror until I found myself agreeing to move in three days.
Experts say: "The front lawn brawl is really never a good move," Schwab says. I would have been better off to nod, pretend to agree, and get inside as soon as possible. "But the moment he left, you should have written down everything you could remember -- from start to finish -- that your landlord could have possibly done wrong," he says.
The scenario: I planned to move as agreed. I spent two straight days looking for an apartment while the devil -- sorry, the landlord -- texted me hateful comments and childish threats. I ignored them, found another place, and moved out.
Experts say: "Those texts were IOUs that you never cashed. The potential of a judge or mediator seeing these texts would have scared any rational landlord into returning your rent and security deposit," Schwab says.
The scenario: After paying for movers and taking time off work, I was financially strapped and just brave enough to ask for my deposit back. I even cleaned the apartment I was getting kicked out of! But the landlord said no, and I never tried to follow up. I was afraid that I didn't have the grounds to file suit or seek professional help, since I'd been asked to leave early.
Expert say: Leaving a lease early doesn't always mean you're not entitled to your security deposit. According to Schwab, I had the right to sue my landlord for all kinds of things, including invasion of privacy and harassment. And even though I didn't get my money back, the landlord should have provided a detailed invoice of what was deducted from the security deposit and why. When I didn't get my deposit -- or a deduction notice -- back, I should have written a stern letter stating the reasons the landlord was at fault and demanded that my deposit be returned, Schwab says.
From there, I could have filed a suit against my landlord or reached out to a lawyer for mitigation. Instead I folded like a house of cards. Live and learn, right?
If you find yourself straining to deal with your landlord, don't do the same. Take notes, take pictures, take control. And when the time comes, get your money (and peace of mind) back!