Many issues tenants face are minor and can be easily resolved by common sense or reading a good self-help book like Renters' Rights, by Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart (Nolo). Some issues, however, can seriously threaten your enjoyment of your rental -- or worse, your ability to stay in the rental at all. In these situations, getting a lawyer's help may be the most effective, albeit costly, way to protect your rights.
Below is a guide to determining whether you need a tenant lawyer or not. If you find yourself in one of the following situations, consider hiring a lawyer.
If your landlord serves you with a termination notice that you intend to fight, hiring a lawyer can increase your chance of success. Choose a lawyer that is knowledgeable about landlord-tenant law and has significant experience fighting evictions. Such a lawyer can come up with effective strategies or creative solutions that you might not be aware of -- for example, the lawyer could argue that your landlord's eviction was retaliatory (and therefore illegal) if the circumstances support such a defense. (To learn more about eviction, see Nolo's Renters' & Tenants' Rights area.)
Landlords must follow eviction procedures set forth by state and local law. If your landlord tries to evict you by taking matters into his own hands -- for example, by locking you out, canceling your utilities, or even removing your doors, windows, or possessions -- consider hiring a lawyer. These types of "self-help" remedies are illegal. No matter how strong a landlord's case may be for ending a tenancy, a landlord doesn't have the right to take, or even threaten, any self-help actions against you.
If you believe your landlord is discriminating against you, you may need a lawyer to stop the illegal actions and help you recover damages for any harm you suffered. One option is to hire a lawyer to sue the landlord in court.
Another option is to file a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), or a state or local agency in HUD's Fair Housing Assistance Program (FHAP). (To file a complaint with HUD, call 1-800-669-9777, or visit HUD's Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity website at www.hud.gov/offices/fheo and click "Housing Discrimination Complaint Form.")
HUD and state and local agencies in FHAP receive over 10,000 discrimination complaints a year. If HUD investigates your complaint and determines there's reasonable cause to believe your landlord has been discriminating, you'll get the benefit of having a HUD lawyer representing you in front of an administrative law judge at no cost. The judge can award you compensation and attorneys' fees, impose penalties against your landlord, and order other relief. (To learn more, read the Fighting Rental Housing Discrimination FAQ.)
If your landlord isn't fulfilling important obligations under your lease and the law, it can lead to major problems. For example, think of the landlord who keeps putting off needed heating system repairs until winter is well under way, or the landlord who ignores a ground-floor tenant's requests to replace a broken window until a burglary occurs.
In these cases, you may decide to implement one of your state's tenant remedies on your own (such as rent withholding or "repair and deduct"), but you may need some coaching on how to do it right. Consulting a lawyer may be your best move. In addition, a lawyer can attempt to communicate with the landlord for you, explore the possibility of a quick settlement, and take the landlord to court, if needed. (To learn more about your landlord's obligation to repair your rental unit, see Nolo's Renters' & Tenants' Rights area).
Sometimes, landlords make promises to encourage hesitant applicants to rent from them. For example, if an applicant is concerned about the neighborhood crime rate, a landlord might promise to install a more effective intercom system or an electronic, gated parking lot. If the landlord later refuses to honor the promise, you may need to hire a lawyer to write a stern letter to your landlord, threatening a lawsuit unless the landlord follows through.
Accidents can happen, even at a well-run rental property. However, if an accident is the result of the landlord's carelessness, you may have a legal case against your landlord. For example, you might break your leg after slipping on an icy patch on the front steps of your building. (Perhaps the landlord should have arranged for regular de-icing, which would have removed the danger.) Or, you may discover an outbreak of mold in your rental -- only after it has made you and your family very ill.
Even if your landlord didn't personally or intentionally create the problem, there are many legal theories available to convince a court or insurance adjustor that the landlord should be held responsible. Lawyers are skilled at identifying which theories may apply and crafting arguments using them.
Sometimes, a landlord's failure to maintain the rental property causes damage to your personal property. For example, a landlord's faulty wiring repair job could spark an electrical fire in your living room, damaging your furniture and other belongings.
If you have renter's insurance, your insurance company will cover the loss and its lawyers will then seek reimbursement from your landlord. If you don't have insurance or have inadequate coverage and the damage to your property is substantial, consider hiring a lawyer to help you obtain reimbursement from your landlord. In the alternative, you could consult with a lawyer for an hour or two to get advice on how to proceed and what arguments to make to get reimbursed.
If you are in need of a lawyer, choose one with expertise in landlord-tenant matters. For help in getting a lawyer, read the article How to Find an Excellent Lawyer or go straight to Nolo's Lawyer Directory.
Hiring a lawyer as "coach." Hiring a lawyer doesn't have to break the bank. Depending on your needs, your budget, and your confidence in your ability to handle a matter on your own, you might find a lawyer who will agree to meet with you for an hour here and there as a coach. Even limited legal help can make the difference and prove to be all you need to steer your way toward a favorable outcome.
Check for an attorney's fees clause in your rental agreement. Many landlords include an "attorney's fees" clause in their lease or rental agreement to prevent frivolous lawsuits. If your lease or rental agreement includes this clause, you may be entitled to get reimbursed for your reasonable attorney's fees and court costs if you win a lawsuit against your landlord. (Even if your clause appears to provide recovery only to a victorious landlord, courts in many states will rule the clause works both ways.)
As a practical matter, if you have an attorney's fees clause in your lease or rental agreement, you will have an easier time finding a lawyer to represent you. Since the landlord pays the lawyer's bill if you win, a lawyer needn't worry as much about getting paid by you. Be aware that the clause applies only to disputes arising out of the lease or rental agreement (such as evictions, rents, and security deposit issues) -- not to disputes involving personal injury, discrimination, or other such matters.
To learn more about finding a good tenant lawyer, including an explanation of various fee arrangements, read Every Tenant's Legal Guide, by Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart (Nolo).