Dealing with Apartment Damage
By Stephen Borkowski
June 04, 2008
Broken furniture. Outdated appliances. Student rental properties aren’t always in the most pristine condition. But that doesn’t give you a free pass to walk away if you knock a three-foot hole in the wall.
All tenants have certain obligations to their landlord. The lease you signed does more than state your move-in date and rent. It also contains a slew of legal protections. “Assume that the leasing arrangement is more complicated than you think it is,” says Ed Sacks, author of The Savvy Renter’s Kit and the “Apartment Watch” column for the Chicago Sun-Times.
If the landlord discovers damage you’ve failed to report while you’re living in the unit, you could find yourself homeless in a heartbeat. Depending on the severity of the damage, and nature of your lease, the landlord may be able to evict you.
You might be able to move out before the landlord notices, but you’re not off the hook. “Your security deposit will be tapped, and chances are it will be tapped at a fairly substantial level,” Sacks says. If the cost of repairs exceeds the amount of your security deposit the landlord can sue for the difference.
Damage affects every tenant, not just the perpetrator. Even though you were out of town during your roommates’ ill-advised game of dining-room dodgeball, that doesn’t absolve you of your obligation. Every tenant is accountable. And, if your credit necessitated a guarantor or cosigner on your lease (a parent or guardian), they could face consequences too. They’ve guaranteed that damages will be paid and “may find that they have been sued knowing nothing whatsoever about what has happened,” Sacks says.
A damaged apartment could also hurt your chances of getting a loan, insurance or even a job. “A management company or landlord can place derogatory information on a credit report,” Sacks says. That credit report can be seen by banks, insurance companies, future landlords and employers.
So how do you avoid such a mess in the first place? Obviously, avoiding damage will prevent a lot of headaches. Your rental may be your home, but there are still limits on things like noise levels and occupancy. Simply respecting your home and neighbors will go a long way.
However, accidents do happen. In the event there is damage be proactive. “Offer to be as useful as you can in seeing that it gets taken care of,” Sacks says. “Notify the landlord of what happened, and be very forthcoming. Say ’I will pay for the repairs, do you want me to take care of this, or would you prefer to do it?”
Dealing with damage when it happens is critical. At that point, as a tenant, you have an active relationship with the landlord. This makes resolving the problem easier. Things can get contentious if the problem isn’t confronted and the tenant moves. Now, the landloard may be more likely to pursue a less amicable resolution.
If you’ve ever pleaded, “But it was like that when we moved in,” to your landlord as he told you he wouldn’t return your security deposit, you know sometimes claims of damage can be suspect.
Damage is different from normal wear and tear. “Reasonable wear and tear are conditions that are expected to happen because of normal use, or because of the continuation of time,” Sacks says.
The best way to protect yourself is with a walkthrough when you move in. With your landlord present, check the floors, walls, outlets and plumbing. Take photographs. Then sign a document with your landlord that describes the unit’s condition on the day you moved in.
If you’re still having trouble with a landlord, seek out a tenants’ rights organization in your community.