How to Handle your American Landlord

An apartment complex in San Jose, CA. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

In the interest of full disclosure I should probably tell you that my current landlord is one of the good ones. A+++. I’d recommend him to a friend. Our guy took a chance on two bumbling Brits with no credit history who, nearly a year later, are yet to master how to put the recycling out properly. To be fair, he could have done better.

We were lucky; not everyone will be. After all, “dream landlord” is unlikely to register high up on your apartment search checklist. When newbie expats arrive in the U.S., the pressure is on to find somewhere liveable fast. You’ll no doubt prioritize questions like, “Will the body in the freezer be gone by the time we move in?” and “Is the Hell’s Angel next door considerate noise-wise?” over, “Is the landlord a giant pain in the butt?” It’s not like your realtor will give you an honest answer anyway.

Plus, an eccentric landlord – like moldy grouting or jazzy carpet – is easily dealt with, right? In fact, dealing with a problematic property owner, especially when you’re in a foreign country and don’t know your rights, may not be so simple.

If problems occur, get acquainted with your rights. They vary from state to state, but you can find most of what you need to know at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s website.

And if you have the time, energy and a steady nerve (competition for good apartments is fierce, so you might be reluctant to hang about), investigate the person you’ll be handing money to every month before you sign anything. Meet with them, at the very least. And arrange a viewing when the current tenants will be home: if there’s dirt, they’ll let you know.

If your American landlord does turn out to be unbearably persnickety, confront any issues early on but try to be diplomatic. Most just want you treat their property well and would rather you didn’t hassle them with complaints every five minutes. But they’d also rather help you out than have you mess up important chores, like reading meters and fixing leaky toilets.

If your landlord is persistently negligent – refusing to do repairs, for instance, or turn the heating on when it’s snowing – you can always consider withholding rent. But thoroughly check your rights before taking any extreme measures.

The American landlords I’ve encountered (we looked at 70 apartments, so we met at least 10) have been a mixed bunch. One guy answered the door with an owl on his shoulder. Another stood in the corner counting his money and muttering to himself while we gave ourselves the tour. But most were friendly and, on the surface at least, normal. Try to return the favor by being a considerate tenant. Pay your rent on time and refrain from daubing satanic symbols on the walls. Leaving a bottle of fizz with your Christmas rent check is never a bad idea.

Any other tips for dealing with your landlord? Tell us below:

Ruth Margolis

Ruth Margolis

Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.

See more posts by Ruth Margolis
  • BB

    A great way to find an apartment is It’s the equivalent of in the UK!!

  • AL

    A confused Brit writes: You have to tip your landlord? The person who gets the larget portion of your income for the least effort? That is completely the wrong way round. They should give you something in gratitude for having a clean, reliable payer – someone who gives them lots of money and causes them no unnecessary trouble. You are all of those things, right? :-)

    • Butch Knouse

      You don’t have to tip your landlord Al. I’m a 56 year old American who has been both a renter and a landlord. I’ve never even heard that idea until just now, in this blog.

  • DawnUSA

    Dear Al (Confused Brit);
    I’m a live-in landlady – I own a multi-family, live in one unit and rent out the others.

    I’ve NEVER EVER expected any kind of gratuity from my tenants!
    I think that would be HORRIBLE of a landlord!

    If anything, I do try to go the extra mile for them, not only in maintaining the dwellings and property, but from my second (or is that third…) job at a grocery – I treat them to special things when I can – if there is something on sale I know they’d like, or if there is an overage of something that we get to bring home, I share it them.

    I *have* had my tenants reciprocate courtesies – but that’s just what it is – neighbors exchanging courtesies – I’ve received meals from one tenant who is an EXCELLENT cook, and another tenant used to watch my animals for me when I went on vacation (and I’ve taken care of my tenants’ animals as well).

    “..Largest portion…for least effort” – Well Al, that may be true for some places, but a really worth-while place to live is a LOT of work! And for me as a private owner, I’m carrying the Mortgage – most of my rent money goes to the mortgage; the rest goes to maintenance – preventative maintenance on a structure requires regular painting, caulking and repairs – routine wear-and-tear-and-age repairs, repairs due to weather impacts or insects – we have a terrible time with termites and carpenter ants… etc.

    There is also equipment maintenance – I have to make sure multiple sets of hot water heaters and furnaces are maintained, and the yard maintenance equipment is kept in good repair – mower, trimmers, snow blower, shovels, etc….

    It’s all the responsibility of owning a home, times the number of units that are owned.

    But, then, that’s if you’ve got a good landlord….

  • scott

    I’m a landlord, and I would never expect anything “extra”, champagne for Christmas?? A nice card with your rent inside is sufficient. Keep your end of the bargain up and I always have to keep mine up.