Worried your landlord is taking advantage of you? Here’s how to make them take you seriously

Getting talked over in the workplace, being patronized at an auto shop, having concerns dismissed by doctors: These are common grievances for many women, so it’s no surprise that the same types of scenarios often carry over to renting an apartment from a landlord.

A quick poll of our all-women team found a theme in our experiences as renters: We’ve all felt like our landlords weren’t taking us seriously. Whether that involved issues with getting repairs, a disregard for pest problems, or deferral to a male partner or roommate, we’ve found that something as important as quality of living often isn’t treated as such. This definitely isn’t an issue unique to women; no one in history has rented without a complaint (or hundreds of complaints) to management. But as a woman renter dealing with (often) male management, it’s hard to trust that your rights will be fully respected, especially when the most repeated narrative around renting tells us that landlords take advantage of tenants all the time.

But this isn’t a reality we have to accept. There are ways to go into renting with more confidence and less fear of getting screwed over by something in the fine print. We talked to women experts in the real estate industry to get some of their advice for standing up for your rights and being a more empowered renter.

How to talk to your landlord

1Know your rights.

This is an obvious one and something you’ve likely heard a million times, but that doesn’t make it any less important. Knowledge is power—and, oftentimes, tenants don’t realize how much power they actually have.

Michelle Maratto Itkowitz, owner and founder of Itkowitz PLLC (which also happens to be one of the largest women-owned law firms, by revenue, in the state of New York), has been practicing landlord and tenant litigation in N.Y.C. for over 20 years. One of the biggest issues she’s seen for renters is that they simply don’t know their rights, especially if they’ve never run into any issues in the past.

“There’s a whole cycle here where people have rights, but they don’t know it,” Itkowitz tells HelloGiggles. And that cycle continues if a landlord takes advantage. “Not all landlords are bad people, but they can benefit from the information gap.”

The best way to protect yourself from a landlord attempting to cheat you out of your rights is by being aware of those rights before you pay a penny or sign a single thing. Often, Itkowitz explains, people don’t learn the full extent of their rights as a tenant until they run into an issue. But if you do your research along with your apartment search, you’ll be in a much more empowered position, every step of the way.

Itkowitz developed the Tenant Learning Platform so that N.Y.C. tenants can take classes and get informed on certain legal topics regarding renting in the city, all without a lawyer.

Unfortunately, there’s no one universal set of rights for renters everywhere, and some states favor renters more than others, so it’s important to look up your state-specific laws. Lindsay Proud, a licensed real estate salesperson and member of the all-women group The Danielle Lurie Team, gives straightforward advice for doing your research. “Google ‘tenant-landlord laws’ with your state name,” she says.

From the limits on a security deposit (in N.Y.C. it’s illegal for a landlord to charge more than one month’s rent) to a tenant’s right to withhold rent when serious issues aren’t addressed (California law gives landlords 30 days or less to fix habitability problems, depending on the timeliness of the problem), understanding the laws will help you identify what you owe, what you’re owed, and what you can fight for throughout the entire process.

2Understand your power.

When you start learning your basic rights as a tenant, you’ll see that the power dynamic isn’t as imbalanced as you might have thought. “People somehow think landlords have so much more power than they do. Remember: They need customers,” Itkowitz says.

Landlords are dependent on tenants in order to pay their own bills, and that alone gives a tenant some power. This can especially come into play if you’ve been living somewhere for a while and you’re considering whether you want to stay or go. “Don’t feel like you’re always backed into a corner,” Proud says.

“Know that, if you leave, the landlord has a vacancy,” she explains. “Usually, they lose a minimum of one month’s rent every time somebody moves out before somebody else moves in, because they have to do the cleaning, they have to do the painting, they end up paying the listing agent’s fee (which is usually one month’s rent), and then they lose that month’s rent that it’s been vacant. So landlords really don’t want that. If you can stay and you’re a good tenant, they want you to stay. It actually gives them more money.”

So, don’t be afraid to negotiate, Proud says. And that brings us to our next, very important tip.

3Ask for what you want.

Danielle Lurie, a licensed real estate salesperson and founder of The Danielle Lurie Team and of the Women in Real Estate Collective in New York, says that being a female tenant is like being a female in business.

“When you’re renting an apartment, it is a business transaction every day with your landlord,” Lurie explains. “And in this relationship, you, as a woman, sometimes forget that you’re the client and that your landlord is getting money from you in exchange for giving you something and, therefore, you have the right to be asking for what you’re wanting.”

Lurie wants women to lean into the discomfort of asking for what they want, not only in real estate, but in life in general. For starters, Lurie suggests asking the agent or the landlord how many other people are interested in the same unit.

“Assuming they’re going to be straightforward with you, you can then deduce how risky you want to be when it comes down to asking for what you’re really wanting,” Lurie says.

Once you’ve assessed the supply and demand, you can decide to negotiate.

Things you can negotiate:

The listing fee

N.Y.C. has recently been looking into banning broker’s fees, which are usually at the tenant’s expense. But this can be negotiable, depending on demand. Lurie says that, in the past, she’s negotiated to have the landlord pay the broker’s fee when there wasn’t enough demand for the apartment she wanted.

The rent

“When it comes to renting, a lot of people just take the price as ‘it is what it is,’ like if your apartment is listed for $3,000, then it is $3,000,” Proud says. “Don’t be afraid to make an offer, even though you’re renting versus buying.”

If the landlord doesn’t have a lot of action on the apartment you’re interested in, they might be willing to take an offer like $2,900 instead, she explains. “Even $50 less a month, that’s a savings. You know, that adds up.”

Lurie also emphasizes the importance of comparing prices to similar rentals and being able to bring those comps to the agent or landlord. “You can bring that to the landlord and say, ‘I really love the space and I want to make it my home, but can you explain to me why it’s priced this much higher?’” she says. You can also present it by asking to meet in the middle. “Or you can just simply say, ‘I’ll take it for this number,’” she says. As with any negotiation, it may not work, but being able to back yourself up with research can help your cause.

The length of the lease

Like the rent price, the length of the lease isn’t always set in stone. Proud advises renters to know the rental season of the area where they’re looking to rent. In N.Y.C., and many other places, rentals are most expensive during the summer months. So if you’re looking during the off-season (typically December, January, and February), not only will you likely be able to get lower rent due to lower demand, but you might also have some room to negotiate how many months are on the lease.

“Instead of signing a 12-month lease, you can look at potentially signing something that is 16, 18, maybe 20 months at that initial price,” Proud says. “Then, if you’ve negotiated the rent for your first month, instead of just having that for 12 months, you could potentially have it for 18 months, and most landlords will take that because then that puts them back into the summer cycle.”

The number of months free

Sometimes, when you first sign a lease, you might get a month free. Then, when you go to renew, you can ask for that deal again. Proud explains why landlords will actually agree to it more often than you may think:

“I would ask for additional months free instead of necessarily lowering the rent. And the reason why the landlords do that is that when they’re going to their investors and they look at the rent rolls and at the books, their investors are just looking at the higher rent. They don’t see that it’s 12 months [and one month is free],” she says.

4Come prepared.

Once your know your rights and your options, start acting like it. The way you present yourself to a landlord can also have an effect on how you’re treated as a tenant. That starts from the very first interaction. Before showing up to a viewing, make sure you have all your paperwork in place (things like pay stubs, tax statements, reference letters, etc.) so that you’re ready to make a move if you want—and you can prove that you mean business. “The more prepared you are, the more serious they’re going to take you from the get-go,” Proud says.

5Establish a strong, professional relationship with your landlord.

Sometimes, it helps to bring the humanity back into the landlord-tenant relationship. If you’ve never met your landlord or people from the management company in person, Proud says it can be beneficial to do so.

“Try to make a connection with them and put a face to your name,” she says. “Then, when you email them about an issue or you’re asking them a question or you’re talking to them about your lease renewal and trying to negotiate, they’re talking to a real person, they’re not just responding to an email.”

That said, make sure to keep things professional and communicate clearly, effectively, and confidently in your interactions. When working with tenants, Itkowitz has seen her clients use passive language when asking for things that they were owed. “That attitude undercuts the idea that you have rights,” she explains. Because, in the end, “what rules the day is not how nice you are, it’s what your rights are.”

That’s not to say that you need to be rude, but your rights are far more important than being cordial.

“Yes, [you attract] more flies with honey than vinegar. But there’s a time when you need to enforce your rights,” Itkowitz says.

When your rights are being violated, it’s no time to worry about being friendly. Because, as Itkowitz says, “The same landlord that doesn’t give you hot water, guess what? In December, he’s not giving you heat.”

6Keep the receipts.

Best-case scenario, you never have to go to war with your landlord, but in case things get to that point, you want to make sure you’re equipped with everything you need so that it won’t simply be your word against theirs. That means documenting everything and keeping the receipts. Take photos of the apartment before you move in and of everything that comes up while you’re there, keep all of your paperwork (leases, bills, anything else) and make copies to be extra safe, and save all of your email correspondence with your management company or the landlord—ideally in one thread.

7Don’t compromise on your standards.

The way you fight for your renters’ rights establishes the standards you have for your quality of living. To sum up, you deserve to live safely and comfortably, and you’re not “high-maintenance” for wanting that. “You should just constantly be thinking about your dream life and constantly be asking for it,” Lurie says.

Because of the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many people are out of a job or steady income and are worrying about paying rent along with other bills. Click here for a guide breaking down what to do if you recently lost your job due to the current crisis.