For many landlord problems, you’re almost always better off first trying to resolve disputes directly with your landlord, rather than go marching off to a lawyer’s office or small claims court. But if relations are so strained that no meeting seems possible, or you're unsuccessful negotiating a settlement with your landlord, consider mediation by a neutral, third-party mediator. Both negotiation and mediation will be cheaper than a lawsuit, usually less stressful, and often result in solutions that last.
That said, there are situations when negotiation or mediation are not appropriate. For example, if your landlord has discriminated against you based on your race, your sex, or some other illegal reason, you should probably file a fair housing complaint or a lawsuit.
Here are some helpful pointers for negotiating with your landlord:
If negotiation seems like a waste of time, or you've tried talking with your landlord and just can't resolve a problem, consider enlisting the help of a neutral third-party mediator. Even if your landlord won’t speak to you on the phone, a skilled and experienced mediator may get him to the table.
Many people confuse mediation with arbitration, a different legal tool that’s seldom, if ever, used in residential landlord-tenant disputes. While both are nonjudicial ways to resolve disputes, there’s a huge difference between them: Arbitration, like a lawsuit, results in a binding decision handed down by the arbitrator, who’s like a judge. Mediators, by contrast, have no power to impose a decision. Their job is simply to help the parties work out a mutually acceptable solution to their dispute. Put another way, if you and your landlord don’t agree on a solution, there is no solution. However, if both sides desire to craft a resolution that both want to be binding, they can do so.
Mediation can make especially good sense if:
Many skeptics are surprised to learn that mediation really does work. One big reason is the cooperative spirit that emerges. By agreeing to mediate a dispute in the first place, you and the landlord implicitly agree to solve your own problems. Also, the fact that no judge or arbitrator has the power to impose what may be an unacceptable solution reduces fear and defensiveness on both sides. This, in turn, often means both landlord and tenant take less extreme—and more conciliatory—positions.
Many cities offer free or low-cost community mediation programs that handle landlord-tenant disputes. For information, call your mayor’s or city manager’s office and ask for the staff member who handles landlord-tenant mediation matters or housing disputes. That person should refer you to the public office or community group that attempts to resolve landlord-tenant disputes informally—and at little or no cost—before they reach the court stage. You can also get referrals for mediators from the American Arbitration Association or a neighborhood dispute resolution center. Colleges and universities often offer mediation services through their housing offices, especially when there is a large student population living in a relatively small town and the school has taken steps to address the quality of town-gown relations.
Mediation in landlord-tenant disputes is fairly informal. More likely than not, the mediator will have you and your landlord sit down together. Each side is usually asked to discuss all issues they consider important—even emotional ones. This process of airing the entire dispute often cools people off considerably and can lay the foundation for a fairly quick compromise.
If the dispute is not resolved easily, the mediator may suggest ways to resolve the problem, or may even keep everyone talking long enough to realize that the real problem goes deeper than the one being mediated. Typically this is helped along through a process called caucusing, in which each side occupies a separate, private room, with the mediator shuttling back and forth with offers and counteroffers. When settlement appears near, everyone gets back together and the mediator helps guide the parties to an agreement everyone approves.
For example, assume you and your landlord are in a tussle because you have threatened to withhold rent due to a serious defect in the premises, such as a broken heater. In a regular court hearing, this issue would be the only issue considered. In contrast, in the looser mediation process it may come to light that a major part of your grievance is that the manager has been slow to make all types of repairs, and the heat problem is simply the final straw.
You’re not the only one who will have a chance to discuss peripheral issues. You may discover that your landlord is angry at you for letting your kids run wild and ruin the garden, or is sick and tired of getting calls from the police responding to noise complaints filed by your neighbors. Once all of this is on the table, a compromise solution may fall easily into place: You may agree to provide better supervision of your kids and cut out overly loud parties in exchange for the manager getting the heat fixed and doing other repairs quickly.
For more information on the mediation process, see Mediate, Don’t Litigate, by Peter Lovenheim and Lisa Guerin (Nolo), which explains mediation from start to finish, including how to get the other side to the mediation table (even if they oppose the idea), prepare for mediation, and draft a legally enforceable agreement.
Some communities have city-wide tenant associations that can furnish technical and legal advice if you have a dispute with your landlord. A good place to start is the website of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Search “[name of your state] tenant rights” for a list of state and local tenants’ rights groups.