I can't bring myself to label it a mistake, because we all learned valuable life lessons, I gained an excellent friend in one of the roommates and frankly, if my relationship survived that, I think it can survive any other housing stress. To make a very very long story short, the house turned out to have toxic mold in addition to various rodent problems, and some really exciting leaks (some of the walls were literally full of water — you could poke your finger through the soggy drywall and sometimes water would dribble out), and the management company was extremely uncooperative.
Housing in our home town is notoriously shitty (truly affordable housing is actually non-existent) because it's a college town and the property management companies think that college kids are young, don't know their rights, and are too busy and too poor to do anything about the way they're treated anyway. Mostly the management companies are right. But through hellish personal experience, I have learned tips and tricks in dealing with Evil Property Management companies (EPMs), especially as a young person. All of my experience comes from renting in California, so things might be different where you are.
You, as a tenant, have legal rights.
Know them. Use them. EPMs use intimidation and false authority to keep tenants under control. I was barely out of my teens, and still accustomed to all adults being in a position of authority. But the EPM people do not have authority over you, you are in a legal contract with them. You're an adult too. So read up on your rights, make sure you actually read and understand the terms of your lease, and don't let them intimidate you. Our EPM, when they finally agreed to let us leave (actually they kicked us out, but it's what we wanted anyway), tried to make us sign an agreement we wouldn't hold them responsible for the damage and loss of our property and any health problems we had or developed later. We refused. Don't let them scare you. NOLO.com was particularly helpful to us.
And I mean EVERYTHING. This sounds crazy and extreme, I know, but it was very necessary and ultimately saved our butts. Because we kept records of everything, we had legal leverage over the EPM and ultimately we became too much of a risk and pain in the butt for them to deal with.
- We had a copy of our lease.
- Every time we sent a maintenance request or a letter to them, we made a copy of it. A lot of the time we sent stuff to the EPM by certified mail so there would be a record.
- Before we moved in, we took pictures of every room and every single little thing we found wrong. With film camera with a date stamp, not a digital camera, because film stands up better in court. Get doubles of the pictures, a CD of them and keep the negatives.
- Take pictures before you move out too, after you've cleaned, to prove you left the place in good condition.
- We did a lot of communicating with the EPM over email so there would be a record.
- If they won't do email, try to record the phone conversations (make sure you tell them you're recording it though, otherwise the legality is questionable).
Don't be afraid do things yourself if the EPM is uncooperative.
When we thought the house had toxic mold, we told the EPM and they promptly did nothing. We ended up contacting a testing company ourselves and paying for the test out-of-pocket ($300 ack!), but it was so, so worth it. We sent them a copy of the report and they let us end our lease. Also, in California, if your landlord doesn't or outright refuses to fix something like a window or a plumbing issue after you've formally requested maintenance, you can get another contractor to fix it and deduct it from your rent (providing you supply all the documentation to your landlord) or withhold rent altogether until its fixed. Again: Know your rights. Use them.
Have some money for out-of-pocket expenses.
You need an "oh shit!" fund. You just do. It's hard to save one up, I know, but if we hadn't had the money for the mold test, we wouldn't have been able to get out. Have money for moving expenses (U-Haul and storage unit) and some nights at a hotel. Try to have money for renting another place (first month's rent, sometimes last month's rent and security deposit). It cost us a totally unexpected couple thousand dollars up front to get out. Technically speaking, the EPM should have covered our moving expenses, and new furniture, but well… they're Evil. So they didn't. We did eventually get most of our security deposit back, which brings me to my next tip…
Don't be a bad renter.
It's so tempting to totally trash the place (I was seriously debating lighting Death House on fire, I really was), but don't. Don't give the EPM any legal leverage or reason for action. When we left Death House, we left it cleaner and nicer than when we got it (except for the mold. And the water-filled walls. Which weren't our fault). Because of this, we ended up with most of our security deposit back, and the EPM paid us back for the mold test.
Go to court if you have to.
This is where the document everything rule comes into play. If you have proof, like photographs and records of all communication, it's a lot easier to win your case. This is also why you should know your rights and don't sign anything saying you won't hold the EPM responsible. Usually for disputes like this you would go to small claims court (think: Judge Judy). We didn't end up going to court because we were exhausted and wanted to put it all behind us, but we had the option if it became necessary, like if they'd refused to give us back our security deposit (which is totally illegal) or if we had developed some serious health problems from the toxic mold exposure.
Of course, not all property management or apartment management companies are Evil. At the place we moved to after Death House, the management was generally helpful and lovely. But where I'm from, the property management companies answer to the owners of the houses, not the renters, so the renters are basically nuisances from which they can extract money. It is much, much better to look out for yourself from the beginning than to let an Evil Property Manager take advantage of you.