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Talk To Your Landlord Now So You Can Be Safe Later

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Be the smartest tenant you can be!

When planning to talk to your landlord about apartment safety, there are common things you can ask as a tenant to best prepare yourself for the discussion.

It's important to understand what your state has specified as the current law when it comes to landlord liabilities. This will minimize the out of pocket expenses you have to pay, but it is also important to know so that you can plan on arranging for the added security precautions yourself for anything your landlord is not required to provide himself.

good questions to ask a new landlord:

  • Have there been major crimes in the neighborhood over the past few years?

  • What security measures are in place for the building and its residents?

  • Do you have doormen or surveillance cameras?

  • Do the units have security system installed?

  • Do you change the lock whenever a new tenant moves in?

  • What is the emergency evacuation plan?

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1. Put it in writing.

Rule number one of dealing with landlords is that you should always put your requests and complaints in writing. (Ideally, by certified mail so no one can claim they lost your letter or that your email got caught in the spam folder.) This serves to create a paper trail in the event you end up taking them to court, and also has a way of getting their attention, fast.

“If there is a complaint book in the building, that’s a good start, but writing a letter to the super or to the managing agent and copying the other makes it official and will get a better response,” says Manhattan real estate attorney Steven Wagner of Wagner Berkow (a Brick sponsor).

Some leases also have provisions for how the landlord prefers to be contacted, so check yours before you reach out, and act accordingly. If you have multiple clearly documented attempts to get in touch with the landlord to solve a problem, this will work in your favor in any kind of legal dispute down the road.

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2. Tip the super.

Sure, it might seem unfair to have to tip someone simply to do their job, but the fact remains that there's no better way to get a super's attention than to slip them a little cash, even if it just means getting moved to the head of the line above the 20 other tenants clamoring for attention. Ever notice how supers and landlords become more responsive during the final months of the year? That's because they dream of larger Christmas tips dancing in their heads. A tip can also actually get your repair done better—inducing, for example, your super to replace your broken fridge with a new one instead of the cast-off in the basement.

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3. Call 311.

If you've exhausted your options and are dealing with something arguably dangerous to health, life and safety (e.g. vermin, dangerous electrical wires, unreasonable noise, mold etc), call 311. "One of the things that people do to avoid going to housing court is to keep calling 311 to get more and more violations logged for the building," says Wagner.

Here's what happens when you do: The city will send out an inspector from either the Housing Preservation and Development or the Department of Buildings, or even the Department of Health, depending on the problem, he explains. “Issuance of a violation against the landlord will confirm the existence of the condition and require the landlord to pay a fine or to show up in court to contest the violation. In either case, your landlord will have to certify that the violation has been corrected.”

The downside: Your repair may be taken care of, but this will not endear you to your landlord when it’s time to renegotiate that lease. Of course, maybe you don’t want to live there anymore, anyway.

A slight variation on this theme: If you're in a rent-stabilized or rent-controlled apartment, you can file a reduction of services complaint with the Division of Housing and Community Renewal, says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer (and Brick Underground sponsor) who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations. "You can use this for services like discontinued amenities, but also problems like heat, hot water, or repairs," he says. "And if the conditions are really bad—like there's no heat—the rent can be rolled back to $1. But usually, it will be rolled back to whatever it was before the most recent increase until the landlord restores all services."

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4. Work with your neighbors as a team.

If the problem you're facing is building-wide (as opposed to something wrong in your individual apartment), remember there's strength in numbers, so try to get your neighbors to work as a group to get the issue resolved.

"It's always better to deal with repair issues as a group, I cannot emphasize that enough," says Himmelstein. "You're so much stronger, it's easier to afford legal representation, and it allows you to document things because you have eyes and ears all over the building."

Your best bet is to form a tenants association—tips on that there—and approach your landlord as a group. If the entire building is making a demand (and threatening legal action or withheld rent payments), the landlord is much more likely to sit up and pay attention.

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What Tenants Can Do:

Even though it's primarily the landlord's duty to make sure the apartment building is safe, there are some common-sense things tenants can do to protect themselves.

  • When researching potential apartments, learn about the crime statistics of the area. That way, you can evaluate whether the safety precautions the landlord has taken are adequate.
  • When viewing potential apartments, ask questions about when the apartment was built and the material used. Take note of the condition of the smoke detectors, electrical sockets, appliances, and ventilation systems.
  • Purchase renters' insurance. These plans are usually inexpensive and will compensate tenants in the event their possessions are stolen.
  • Make your apartment safe. Be sure to keep all doors and windows locked and valuables out of sight. Any precautions a landlord may take are useless if the tenants do not take advantage of them.

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