No matter how sure you are that the law, the facts, and morality are on your side, it’s rarely a good idea to go storming off to the nearest lawyer’s office when relations between landlord and tenant become strained. Negotiation is cheaper, less stressful, and often gets you a better result than lawyer-driven litigation. Not every spat can be worked out over a cup of coffee and ended with a handshake—and some situations are too extreme to qualify for informal resolution—but by far the majority of disagreements can be addressed with discussion, mediation, and if necessary, small claims court.
Dealing face to face, if the relationship hasn’t deteriorated too far, is where you should start first. Each side should come to the discussion prepared, having thought of:
If the two of you can’t reach a resolution by yourselves (or relations are too awkward to try), consider getting help from a neutral third party, a mediator. Many cities and counties offer mediation services for landlord-tenant disputes.
Lots of people confuse mediation with arbitration. Mediators simply help the parties reach a mutually-agreeable conclusion. They do not hand down a decision. If the parties can’t agree, there’s simply no resolution.
Mediation works surprisingly well. Often, people really want the opportunity to be heard, in a setting that is respectful and somewhat formal. Mediation supplies this. And knowing that the mediator can’t solve the problem, landlords and tenants may feel less dug-in themselves and willing to compromise.
If all informal methods fail, you might consider using small claims court. The setting is much more informal than regular trial court, and in many states, the parties must represent themselves (they can consult with lawyers when preparing, but must present their case in court themselves). Small claims court is quick and the filing fees are modest.
Don’t rush off to small claims court, however. Many states will require you to try mediation before your case will be heard. So you might as well take that step yourself—and who knows, it might work.
In certain situations, tenants can complain to administrative bodies about code infractions or legal violations. For example, a tenant might file a complaint with a local health department concerning sanitary conditions at the rental. The inspectors will normally investigate and, if necessary, cite the landlord. If the landlord doesn’t take care of the problem, the consequences can be fines or even jail time.
Tenants who claim that they are being discriminated against can also file complaints with their local fair housing enforcement agency, usually an office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Investigators will respond and, if they find that the landlord may have violated the law, will order a conciliation hearing, where the landlord, tenant, and an HUD officer will discuss what happened and how it can be resolved. You won’t have to hire a lawyer. If the landlord won't reform or participate, HUD can take the case to court.
Finally, if you believe that you’ve been injured and that the landlord is responsible, you may want to consult with a personal injury lawyer to learn how strong your case may be. An attorney will typically take up to one-third of whatever you collect, by way of settlement or verdict.