The occasional landlord-tenant dispute is to be expected in a town like Lawrence, where more than half of all housing units are occupied by renters.
Landlords must trust relative strangers to take care of their property, and renters can feel helpless if a problem arises in their homes. While the city’s proposed rental-unit inspection program aims to mediate some of the landlord-tenant tension, complicated leases still can lead to confusion about who is responsible for what. The best advice for everyone: Know the law and your rights.
‘As a tenant, I have rights.’
Recent Kansas University graduate Jenna Jakowatz spent part of her last months in Lawrence researching state rental laws. Since last August, she had experienced escalating issues with the company managing her apartment.
After trying and failing to resolve several issues, including a last-minute increase in rent, unexpected renovation noise and a broken air conditioner, Jakowatz and her roommate sought advice from a staff attorney with Legal Services for Students.
In June, as the temperature became warm enough to make the apartment uncomfortable, Jakowatz used advice from her lawyer and mentioned a 14-day/30-day notice to her property management company. That allows a tenant to terminate a lease in 30 days if the landlord fails to repair a problem within two weeks.
After she mentioned the notice, Jakowatz received a new air conditioner, an accomplishment after almost a year of frustration.
“The most important thing I am taking away from this situation is that I now know how to deal with a landlord who won’t resolve issues,” Jakowatz said. “As a tenant, I have rights.”
More inspections coming
Currently, only properties in neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes are inspected routinely by the city. The city’s new rental registration and licensing program, tentatively set to begin in early 2014, will send city inspectors to rental properties once every three years to check for housing code violations such as mold, fungus, clogged drains or roof leaks.
Bill Larzalere, chief litigation attorney with Legal Services for Students, said the increased inspections will benefit renters. “Inspectors can really go out and act quickly,” Larzalere said.
But just because all rental properties aren’t inspected regularly now doesn’t mean they're all neglected. Director of Morning Star Management Paul Horvath said most landlords do check their properties frequently and the new inspection program won’t necessarily be a huge change.
“The city is always coming up with new regulations,” Horvath said. “We check to make sure we’re up to code pretty regularly. I mean, they’re your properties; you take care of them.”
The landlord’s gamble
Renters are not always the victims in landlord-tenant disputes. Horvath said property owners are often the ones with the most to lose.
“Most of our properties are worth $100,000,” Horvath said. “It’s like you lend your $10,000 car to someone and who’s more at risk: the person who borrows your vehicle or the owner?”
To better ensure that their properties will be handled with care, Horvath said, Morning Star Management screens rental applicants. Still, unforeseen problems can arise.
“Every landlord has a tenant horror story,” Horvath said. “I know of one property where the tenant’s cats had so sprayed the kitchen that the landlord had to totally pull out all of the cabinets and replace them.”
Repairing damage can be costly. While landlords can keep the security deposit, some fixes can be more expensive than the law allows them to charge in deposit - 1 1/2 month’s rent.
Horvath said that in cases where a rental unit is left in extreme distress, landlords often have their hands tied.
“Landlords are really limited by how much they can do, especially if a tenant skips town after move-out,” Horvath said. “You can try to track them down to make them pay or to take them to court, but that could take months.”
To avoid problems, tenants and landords can familiarize themselves with the law.
For tenants who have just begun their annual leases, here are some things to keep in mind:
Read - and get a copy of - your lease.
Though hasty renters may not want to bother with the fine print, leasing agreements are legally binding. If you sign something, be prepared to follow through.
It is easy to forget all the lease requirements, so having a copy on hand could save some trouble.
“It’s a good way to protect yourself," Larzalere said.
Know your legal responsibilities.
Tenants are responsible for any destruction, defacement or removal of any part of your rented residence, even if caused by a guest or a pet.
Landlords may charge for damages that exceed normal “wear and tear.”
"There will always be some carpet dirt or marks on the wall, but we only charge for damage that is beyond 'lived-in.''" said Candy Gunderson, property manager of Garber Property Management.
Know your landlord’s legal responsibilities.
Landlords must comply with building and housing codes. They must also maintain all electrical, plumbing, sanitary, heating, ventilating and air-conditioning appliances that come with the apartment or house.
If there is a problem with the condition of the apartment or if something is not working, contact your landlord. If the landlord does not fix the problem in a reasonable amount of time, Larzalere advises contacting the city code inspector.
Know your rights
If a security deposit or a list of charges isn’t sent within 30 days of the lease's end, or if a tenant believes charges are wrong, Larzalere said to contact the landlord or management company first. If that doesn’t work, seeking legal aid would be the next step.
When dealing with security deposits, tenants may file a lawsuit in small claims court for the amount of the deposit plus an additional one and a half times the deposit amount.
“Know your rights by looking at the Kansas Residential Tenant Landlord Act,” Larzalere said. “Know your rights, and always talk to the landlord first.”