My last landlord was a dream at first. Very friendly. We seemed to have a great relationship.
And then the dishwasher broke.
The first time I told him, he said he'd get on it. And then a week went by. And then two. No repairmen, no landlord.
I tried calling, emailing. I even dropped off a letter in his mailbox. He got back to me a few times to say he was working on it, but once a full month had gone by, he stopped making promises altogether. I tried many more times after that -- oh, how I tried -- but since it wasn't a life or death repair, there didn't seem to be anything more I could do. So I didn't. And my landlord continued to avoid me until I finally moved out eight months later, with a pile of dirty dishes.
Of course, in typical fashion, I didn't learn how to handle that until it was too late. But it isn't too late for you. If your landlord vanishes into thin air, here are steps you can take that are more likely to yield a response -- and if not, we'll tell you the right time to escalate.
Step 1: Try dialing it back (yes, really)
The garbage disposal has been dead for days (or weeks!), and you have a sinking feeling your landlord is screening your calls. The next move you make should be a small one.
"First you should try sending a text message," says Jonathan G. Stein, consumer attorney in Elk Grove, CA.
A lot of people might suggest escalating straight to DEFCON 2 with a certified letter when you can't get your landlord on the phone. While there is a time for that, this isn't it.
"A certified letter should really be a last resort," Stein says. Besides, "most landlords know they can just write 'return to sender' or 'refused' on the letter and make the problem go away." So, go easy. At first.
Step 2: Use social media
"Reach out to your landlord on Facebook if you don't get a reply via text," Stein says.
While your landlord could say there was a problem with his cellphone, it's hard to deny an online message and a text. And when you do reach out, keep the message pleasant and brief.
"Try gentle, simple language first," he says. Try curbing your comments with "I've tried contacting you a few times. I hadn't heard back yet, so I was wondering if everything was OK." Jumping on them immediately could go badly if they really did have a problem with their phone.
Step 3: Collect witnesses and evidence
If your landlord is still MIA, you're probably going to start worrying whether you have a true slumlord on your hands. Said slumlords are notorious masters of the "he said, she said" game. That means you might need reinforcements to back you up if a problem arises.
"If you drop your rent off at a location, like a post office box, bring a friend with you to watch you do it," Stein says. "Then you have a witness if anything does go wrong."
For maintenance issues and repairs, document everything. Take photos and videos, show your friends and roommates the issue, and keep notes on the progress (or lack thereof).
Step 4: Back away from the toolbox, and talk to an attorney
You have a serious maintenance issue, and it's become clear your landlord isn't going to jump on the problem any time soon. What do you do? In some states you can make the repair yourself and deduct it from your rent -- but don't assume your landlord is going to take that with grace.
"People try to do it themselves, and the landlord flips out and sends them an eviction notice," Stein says.
Even scarier? The landlord might win. While you might have the legal right to fix the problem, there are lots of rules involved. Only certain repairs might count -- such as a busted heater in the dead of winter -- and even then, you might have to meet many requirements to do it right.
"Your best bet is to talk to a consumer law attorney before you make any moves," Stein says.
Step 5: Use the certified letter wisely
For the most part, certified letters seem to be a waste of time -- at least when it comes to getting the landlord to talk to you. But there is a point where these letters are still useful: When you need proof.
One prime example is when you need to move out. Your landlord could, in theory, say he didn't receive your notice to move if you sent it via text or email. You might be able to fight that out in court, but it's better to play it safe and get proof. Just send a letter "signature required" through USPS stating your intentions. The same goes for repair work you're about to do yourself, as well as lease renewals.
At some point -- whether through Facebook or attorney -- your landlord is probably going to talk to you again. But unless it's a pressing issue, he really doesn't have to.
"If it isn't a repair issue or a safety issue," Stein says, "they really don't legally have to answer."