How to deal with Evil Property Management companies

Guest post by Bird
By: Bart Everson - CC BY 2.0
By: Bart EversonCC BY 2.0

In the fall of 2009, two roommates, my then-boyfriend now-fiance, and I rented a house. It was old, with single pane windows, no air conditioning and those janky radiant wall heaters that I always think will set the house on fire. But we were young and it was within our price range, and pet-friendly, with a yard and, best of all, a fireplace. This house will be forever known to us as The Death House.

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. was particularly helpful to us.

Document everything.

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.


Comments on How to deal with Evil Property Management companies

  1. This is awesome advice. It’s even more important when you are moving to a new state/province/country. I found out that the laws are totally different in another province I moved to. I lucked out and the company I rented from actually ensured I had time to read things, gave me copies, did try to help me understand. I also knew people who were more familiar so I could find out what to do as I had a 1 year lease and was moving away partway through. I found out that if I could find an alternate tenant, they could transfer the lease to that other person. Obviously not something you’d be thrilled to do if the situation sucks, but it’s yet another thing to know about.

  2. I wish I’d known this when I was living in my very own Death House, sophomore year of college.

    Now I’m on the other side of the equation, looking for a property management company to rent out my condo, and I’m terrified. My experience with Evil Property Management companies does not make me feel optimistic about handing my property over to one.

  3. Advice to people looking to rent in the future: if your lease doesn’t have handling procedures for bedbugs, black mold and major repairs… ASK. INSIST that it be added as an addendum to your lease. These procedures should detail whose job it is to handle fixing the problem and whether you can break your lease free and clear if it goes ignored. If your lease doesn’t include it and they’re not willing to add it… DANGER DANGER WALK AWAY.

  4. In my state (Minnesota, which has very pro-tenant laws) there is a procedure called rent escrow. Basically, if you can prove that your landlord has refused to fix hazardous conditions, you can pay your rent to a court escrow account rather than your landlord. That way you can’t get in trouble for nonpayment, but your landlord has financial incentive to fix the problems. Other states might have similar protections.

    It’s usually not a good idea to just stop paying rent, no matter the conditions. Sometimes it’ll get you the repairs you want, but it could also get you evicted. That eviction will stay on your rental history and make it harder to rent decent places in the future. I know it’s tempting to just stop paying, but I encourage everyone to try to use their legal rights instead.

    • In California, where I live, withholding your rent is actually a legal option. You have to follow certain procedures, but it is illegal for the landlord to retaliate if you are withholding rent for a reason that affects the livability of a place (like your roof fell down, or your heater broke and it’s snowing). More info:

      Tenant rights to vary immensely from state to state though.

      • yea, definitely check these laws before you withhold rent!

        where i live in illinois it is very, very illegal in any instance or for any reason to withhold rent. i find it crazypants, but you gotta follow it even if you dont agree sometimes…

  5. Great advice, especially about remembering that you are an adult and that you have rights, and not being scared of their authority.

    My first rental was when I was 18 and moved away from my family farm to live in a big city for University. I was clueless. The council had been hassling the landlord about a leak from his property that was going onto the footpath. One day the landlord dug a huge pit that took up our entire entrance way at the front door looking for the sewerage leak. Then he left it and didn’t fix it! We had a cess-pit as an entrance! I had to scale along the fence to get into our house. If I could go back now I would tell my 18 year old self to know her rights and act on them.

  6. “Of course, not all property management or apartment management companies are Evil. ” Yes they are, yes they are! I have never met a single letting agent that wasn’t a horrible, horrible, horrible individual…. Or maybe just the ones in the UK are!!!

    Great advice though!!!

    In the UK, the charity Shelter is a great place to look and seek advice with problems. I should know, having called them far too many times :-/

    • I had one once who was OK. She stiffed me for about $50 at the end of our lease (I’d reported a cabinet door that fell off due to wear and tear – it was ancient and the particleboard around the hinges just gave out), but other than that one thing, she did an OK job of managing our condo lease for a few years.

  7. I fully endorse this. As someone who has worked in property management, even the decent companies are going to try to take advantage of the tenants in some way. Always, always look up the laws and procedures for the area you live in. In Ontario it’s very pro-tenant, but you still need to know your rights to make use of the system. On that note I think everyone at some point, no matter if they know their rights or not is going to have a crappy rental experience, but I think that as the author of the post said it can(and in my opinion should) be a learning experience and there are lots of good things you can take away from a crappy situation, even if it’s just knowing what your legal rights are and getting the F***outta there.

  8. Oh definitely definitely read up on the laws in your state! Sometimes you can find a handy dandy pamphlet or book of some sort that details what the laws are in a very user-friendly sort of way. I live in Alaska and have experience on the renting and managing side of the equation. Landlords and EPM’s are very very fond of just putting clauses in a lease willy nilly without checking to see whether or not it’s legal. Up here, they LOVE to put clauses in the lease that state that the tenant MUST steam clean the carpets upon move out or it gets deducted from the deposit. Well, the problem here is that in Alaska, they do not allow things like “non refundable cleaning fees” or deposits like that. As far as the State is concerned, it’s all a security deposit and you need to have it be refundable. In addition, things like cleaning the carpets are deep cleaning tasks that must be done regularly, and to withhold a deposit for not doing that is the same as withholding for “normal wear and tear” which they can’t do. I LOVE catching them in that one, and I made it my job to tell all my tenants that we did NOT pull that crap and to watch out for others doing it because it’s illegal up here. 🙂 I’m a one-woman squad of tenant vindication.

  9. I’d also like to make it known that in California “A rental agreement cannot include a pre-determined late fee.”

    Furthermore, always, ALWAYS familiarize yourself with eviction laws for the area you are renting in. If your rent is a week late and your landlord starts calling you up and saying his “eviction guys move fast, and will have your stuff out on the street in a number of hours.” He is very likely full of shit.

    • At least in Michigan, a landlord cannot evict a tenant without a court proceeding AND LEGAL JUDGMENT OF EVICTION – which usually takes at least 2 months, and can be ended when you pay rent or give some other good reason why you’re withholding rent.

  10. definitely, definitely know the laws for where you are! i had a crash course in illinois state renters laws after we found out my landlord filed for bankruptcy and was in the process of foreclosure- its illegal to rent a space without full disclosure of a foreclosure process that is happening… and my landlord was a REALTOR!! seriously. do your homework!

  11. This might be a super no-brainer, but please for the love of god before you sign a lease with anyone, research the PM company on the internet.

    I had a nightmarish renting experience (no heat, unsafe wiring, multiple leaks, rat and spider infestations) with a landlord that refused to fix anything, including the fire hazards. If I had thought to check the google reviews of the PM company and the BBB listing, I would have discovered that they were slumlords who were involved in multiple lawsuits with past tenants over unsafe living conditions. And I would have known better than to rent from them.

    Also, at least in the US, all cities have requirements for what constitutes a safe dwelling, and there are inspectors who will come to your horrifying rental nightmare and, if they find violations, will in many cases make the landlord fix them. Of course, you might end up having to find a new place to live asap if your current place gets condemned, so be prepared for that if you go that route. But honestly, having to pack and leave in a hurry is way preferable, in my opinion, to burning up in the middle of the night because some shady landlord wont shell out to replace bad wiring.

    • I completely agree! Also ask around with your friends to see who they have used and how good/bad they were.

  12. I soooo wish I had read this about 13 years ago. I’ve lived in so many bad places.

    I’d like to add one piece of advice: get other authorities involved. Health board, fire department, postal authority, building code people, landlord and tenant advisory board (though they were kind of useless to me), air quality people, etc.

    Example 1: Our front door lock was always sticking. Landlord did not give a shit. One day, the lock would not open and we were locked in. We had to take the pins out of the hinges to get out. After calling the manager, I called the fire department, because obviously it’s kind of dangerous to have no way to get out of your apartment. They gave the owner a warning and suddenly, that day, our lock was replaced. Hmm, landlords have to provide safe, usable exits. Who knew?

    Example 2: There was no lock on my mail box and some of the mail boxes had no doors. Again, landlord did not give a shit. After my mail was stolen, I called the post office, and tada! They called the owner and suddenly we all had new mailboxes. Apparently there are laws saying that landlords have to provide secure mailboxes.

  13. On a completely opposite note, a good landlord can make a hellish house a great place to live. I rented an apartment in something similar to a halfway house (didn’t know that when I signed the lease.) My apartment had poor insulation, the bathtub leaked from a previous tenant, my roof started to leak, and the house suffered storm damage a couple times while I lived there. My landlord promptly fixed everything. They left cookies at Christmas. They made sure my parking space was MINE. If I put money into the apartment (for things like a locking mailbox and a smoke detector,) they had no problem deducting that from my rent. If you have a good landlord, even a crap apartment/house can be a good place to live.

  14. Here in Leeds, UK there’s an organisation called “Unipol” which helps students find safe property and and gives them advice on contracts, disrepair and deposits.

    On further investigation it appears that they have expanded to Bradford and Nottingham, and might be able to offer advice to those further afield too.

    Certainly worth checking out for any students struggling with a dodgy landlord in England.

  15. I am so glad this got posted here! I rent, and am planning on renting for a long time, and this is totally helpful and useful!

  16. Yes to every other comment on here, and I just want to extend the comments on getting a security deposit back. In California at least, a security deposit cannot be used to cover routine maintenance and cleaning… that includes carpet and paint.

    Every SINGLE Property Manager I’ve ever rented from (there have been many) has tried to bill for routine maintenance or take it out of the security deposit. I have never let them — the first time, my mom caught wind of the bill and stopped me from paying — usually letting them know that you know your rights will be enough. As the original author says, these companies operate on the assumption that most tenants don’t know their rights. Once you make it clear you know your rights, their tune changes.

    Also, I wish this weren’t so, but a lot of “professional landlords” are just as evil as property management firms. Check out the THELPA (The Landlord Protection Agency) forums if you don’t believe me. For every person who’s trying to be legal and good, there’s another who’s saying things like: “Tenants who know what’s illegal are a red alert, don’t rent to them.” So watch out for these abuses even if a property management firm isn’t in the picture.

  17. Great advice. Just make sure you check your local laws. In Australia it is illegal to not pay rent regardless of if the house is faling down around you and your real estate refuses to fix it!

  18. Really awesome, thank you for this information. My situation now is great but it’s good to know for the worst (the Death House sounds terrifying.)

  19. So what was their reason for not returning your security deposit in full? It doesn’t seem like they had any reason to.

  20. My first house was an absolute nightmare; near the end of our tenancy we were finally able to get hold of the landlord only to find out the things we’d been complaining about they had paid to be fixed, only for the property manager to pocket the money!
    ALSO CHECK THE BOND/DEPOSIT LAWS OKAY we discovered for that same house the property manager had never lodged the bond payment with the proper authorities – this meant the entire lease was illegal and she had no hold over the money in that deposit. You will usually get a direct notification from the bond authority when your bond has been lodged, if you have not received anything in a suitable amount of time contact them and check whether it’s been lodged at all! (my experience is with NZ btw)

    • Should note that I don’t think bond authorities are a thing in the US – I don’t remember dealing with them when I was renting in Washington State. They are definitely a thing in Australia, though!

  21. I’ve been renting for the last 12 years in two different countries, so I’ve many experiences with Shitty Landlords/Property Managers/Real Estate Agents (depending on country).

    Here are some additional tips that I’ve found throughout the years:
    – Always fill out the condition report. ALWAYS. When we moved to Australia, my father-in-law got our apartment set up for us, and for some reason he ticked everything as “ok” on the condition report even though he had to do considerable work to make it liveable for us. (He’s a professional landlord so he really should have known better, too!) That ended up biting us in the ass in a big, disgusting way.
    – Don’t assume the property manager/etc. you start out with will be the same one you end up with. When our tiny local rental office got bought out by ReMAX at that same apartment, a lot of the verbal agreements that my father-in-law had set up (WHYYYY) vanished. Also they were much bigger jerks, but there’s not much you can do about that other than leave.
    – If you can, get reviews from friends/colleagues/family who live in the area. Research on the Internet, too, but be aware that you might not find anything, especially for smaller, family-run agencies (like the people we’re with now, who are awesome).
    – Pay attention to the way that you’re treated during the search process. We live in a really competitive rental market, which means that most agents will treat prospective tenants like crap. When our agent actually, you know, returned our phone calls and tried to accommodate our schedule when it came to viewings, we knew we were onto a winner. And, of course, the converse is true – if they’re rude and abrasive to you as a prospective tenant that they’re trying to get into one of their properties, how well are they likely to treat you once you’ve signed a lease?!

  22. I’ve also found, that if the Property Manager doesn’t fix things -our thresh hold was rotting and falling in, and I fell through the floor in our laundry room- and continues to put you off, find out who the owner is. Property tax records are free to look up online in the US in every state. Once you find out who the owner is, call them. I promise they have a PM for a reason, they don’t want to hear from pissed off renters about possible lawsuits. On the other side of the coin though, sometimes the PM’s are shitty because the owners are just in it for the money -slumlords basically- and you may need to follow through with your lawsuit threat. In most places you can find a lawyer who will do that work pro-bono, if your case is good enough (see the notes above about taking time date stamped pictures, making notes of everything that is wrong, keeping copies etc) the lawyer will get his money from the Owner. In my experience it costs somewhere between 20$ and 250$ to file with the court.

  23. my last EPM ( also California) refused and sent back any and all certified mail so I would have to stuff the sent back letters into new envelopes and re-mail them. It took me 4 months to get my deposit back, a letter from a lawyer, and a lot of tenacity on my part. But they dont want to go to court so if youre in the right, dont stop bugging them until you get your money.

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