Renters can protect themselves by understanding their rights

Asheville Citizen-Times
by Robin Merrell
published March 27, 2008

Questions: What do I do if my landlord won’t fix the leaking roof in my apartment? Can I be evicted because I complained about the noise in the apartment above me? What do I do if my landlord won’t return my security deposit? How can renters protect themselves in these and other common situations?

Answer: Here are several factors to keep in mind.


Basic protection:

A written lease Insist on a written lease. A written lease can specify the length of time you can live in your rental unit, the amount of rent, when it is due, late charges, guest policy, pet policy, who is responsible for utilities and yard maintenance, etc. If you don’t have a written lease and you pay your rent on a monthly basis, then at the end of each month, your landlord can raise your rent or decide to stop renting to you.

Security deposits:

Your landlord is allowed to charge a security deposit. But unless you damage the rental unit or owe the landlord rent, your security deposit should be returned after you move out. How can you make sure that happens?

When you move into your rental and then again when you move out, take pictures or get a friend to look at the condition of the property. This person can be a witness if necessary to get your deposit back. Also, if you pay in cash, make sure you get a receipt when you pay your security deposit and each time you pay rent. Keep the receipts, or copies of your rent checks, in a safe place. If your landlord doesn’t return your entire security deposit within 30 days after you move out, he or she must send you an itemized list of repairs, expenses and back rent taken from the deposit.

If you feel your landlord is wrong, give the landlord a written letter asking for the deposit. If you don’t receive it or get less than you are due, you can file a complaint in Small Claims Court and present your case to the magistrate. Bring receipts, pictures and witnesses with you to court. Your landlord will have to prove the damages or the amount of unpaid rent owed.

If your rent is late:

Under North Carolina law, after the rent is five or more days late, your landlord can charge a late fee of $15 or 5 percent of the rent, whichever is greater, for a monthly rental. For weekly rentals, the late fee can be $4 or 5 percent, whichever is greater. A late fee can be charged only once per rental period — once per month if you pay rent monthly. If your rent is subsidized through Section 8 or another subsidy program, the late fee must be calculated using the tenant portion of the rent only.

When you need repairs:

When something needs to be repaired, notify your landlord in writing. Put the date on your letter, sign it and keep a copy. It is also a good idea to discuss the repairs with the landlord or property manager. If the landlord is slow to respond, try again, in writing and with a phone call. 

If you get no results, and your city or county has a housing code, you should call or write the inspections department to ask for an inspection. In the city of Asheville, contact the Building Safety Department at 259-5764. In Buncombe County, contact the fire marshal at 255-5087. Do not stop paying your rent even if the landlord has failed to make repairs, or you risk being evicted. Do contact a lawyer for assistance.

What about eviction?

Your landlord cannot evict you for asking for repairs, making a complaint, contacting a lawyer or government agency or joining a tenants association. “Retaliatory evictions” are against the law in North Carolina. If this happens to you, contact a lawyer. 

This is the opinion of Robin Merrell. She is the senior housing attorney at Pisgah Legal Services, a nonprofit law firm that provides low-income people with free legal help, including help with housing issues such as eviction, foreclosure, housing subsidies and substandard housing conditions. Call 800-489-6144. This column is not a substitute for legal advice. See a lawyer if you have questions about these issues.

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