Slaying Dragons, Discarding Rings, Confronting Landlords

"I requested service six hours ago! Why don't I have hot water yet?" - Text message from tenant, 10pm, Feb 2 2011 - Snowpocalypse Chicago.


"Why should I have to pay for it? My lease says you will maintain the fixtures!" - 375 lb Tenant after breaking his toilet seat for the fourth time.


"I've got my lawyer on speakerphone and we will sue you if you don't fix the mailbox!" - First verbal report of a problem.

Customer service and long term contracts do not go hand in hand. From cell phones and cable providers to apartments and employers, once you're locked in to a long term contract you may cease to be a customer at all in the eyes of the company. In the case of a landlord, the desire for retention becomes even less important. The experienced landlord learns that your decision to stay or leave is more dependent on other factors in your life, like your income and your family status.

In fact, only about a quarter of the Chicago renters surveyed in the 2009 American Housing Survey cited customer service as their main reason for moving. The chart below shows the breakdown.

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Going beyond the statistics of the matter, there's also the semantic issue. Hotels for vacationers may well be in the service industry, but providers of long-term housing generally are closer to the utility company end of the spectrum. Yes, they do provide a service, but most of the time their job is to get out of the way and let you live your life. In fact, I'd hypothesize that most renters only think of their landlord as a business when something goes wrong.

All this is to say that if something breaks in an apartment while you're living there, you may face an uphill battle to get it fixed. You don't really have a lot you can hold over the landlord given everything described above. There's the problem of rearranging your home to allow workers in. There's the landlord's established maintenance practices. There may be an element of fear in calling on your landlord for assistance. Will they accuse you of breaking something? Will they spontaneously evict you? Will they bother to fix the item or just leave it until you move out?

Don't worry. There are techniques you can use and things you should remember when working with your landlord to get things fixed. This is not an impossible quest.  Here are some of my suggestions for making it easier.

  • Handle as much of the request as you can in writing. Email is fine in most cases.
  • Remember that the person you're talking to will probably not be doing the work themselves. They will need to hire contractors. They will need to convey your problem to those contractors. Be specific and be patient. Even if you're talking to the landlord, chances are you do not want them doing the work themselves. Plumbing and electrical work require licensed contractors, and any handyperson should be insured for the work while they're working in your home.
If your problem is more complex than this chart, one should hope your landlord calls for outside help.

If your problem is more complex than this chart, one should hope your landlord calls for outside help.

  • Document the problem with more than just words. Photos help. If your furnace is making a strange noise, record it and send it with your email. As is the case with your health, you may not be able to really tell what's wrong with your apartment from just the visible symptoms. Water, for example, can travel along a horizontal surface for quite a ways before it enters your living space, so an apparent leak may be from a hole all the way across the room.
  • Take an active role in documenting the repair efforts. Your landlord may or may not have a good system for monitoring service calls. If they have a lot of apartments it's easy to lose track of how many times something has broken. You only have one apartment to track - your own - so be able to discuss the fixes that have already been attempted.
  • Give some thought as to how long most homeowners allow broken things to stay broken. Most of the time they let minor inconveniences sit for several weeks or even months before the annoyance factor pushes them to hire someone. Why hold your landlord to a different standard than you'd hold yourself?
  • If it's a holiday, remember that contractors will be paid time and a half or more. Unless it's one of the essential services, expect that your repair will have to wait until the regular work week resumes. If it was your house you'd probably wait too.
Please try to match your level of expressed annoyance with the severity of the problem.

Please try to match your level of expressed annoyance with the severity of the problem.

  • Your landlord may have an established policy for maintenance. One company that I used to work for requires their workers to try and fix a broken item three times before they will purchase a replacement. Find out what the policy is, if there is one.
  • Remember that landlords do have their limits on repairing stuff. If you keep going to the doctor for little things, the doctor may eventually add on a suggestion that you get therapy for hypochondria. If you keep calling the landlord out to fix tiny stuff, or to fix the same thing over and over again, they will start to think the problem may be in how you are using their property rather than the property itself.
  • In the event of major outages, especially in large buildings, remember that the landlord is probably getting the same reaction from many residents.
  • Once a fix is underway, let the workers do their thing. If you're still angry, call a friend or write a letter, but don't block progress. I can recall one instance where a water main burst in the front yard of a large courtyard-style apartment building, cutting off the water service. The tenants spent the afternoon screaming insults and throwing things down at the workmen who were busy with a backhoe trying to remedy the problem. Eventually the abuse got so bad that the first crew of workers quit, adding a full day to the repair process while the landlord had to go hire another repair company.
  • If possible, couch your requests in terms of your concern for the landlord's property. It's always easier to get someone to help you if you explain how the work can benefit both sides.
  • Know the time limits that a landlord has to repair something: 72 hours for the essential services and two weeks for everything else, from the time they receive the written request.
  • If you are physically able to do so, learn to make basic repairs on your own. Just as you would in a retail shop, if you break it by negligence or accident, do what you can to replace it yourself.
Careful, stock photo lady: you're going to burn your hand!

Be careful, stock photo lady! You're going to burn your hand!

  • In the event that the time allowed for repairs in the CRLTO runs out and your problem isn't fixed, make sure that any attempt to withheld rent is realistic, and that you only do so by mutual agreement with the landlord. Withheld rent should either reflect the amount you had to spend to repair the problem yourself, or the new value of your apartment without the broken item.
  • Just as I suggested to the landlords last week, keep the legal language out of it unless absolutely necessary. Remember that your options for ultimate recourse are leaving, suing or both. Unless the problem is bad enough to require either of those solutions, keep things professional, polite and calm.

Hopefully these techniques will help to keep things as positive as possible through an inconvenient or dangerous situation.

2 Responses so far.

  1. Gandalf the White says:

    Thanks for the great hints. As a rookie property manager, I’m already having trouble remembering what attracted me to this field to begin with. I stumbled across your blog, but I think I’ll stay awhile. Happy new year!