How to Protect Yourself as a Tenant By the Book Under Ohio Law

At some point in your life, you may end up getting into a dispute with your landlord and want to know what your rights are as a tenant.  In Ohio, your rights as a tenant are covered by both the Landlord-Tenant Act and by contract law (if you have a written lease).  If you do not have a written lease, then under Ohio law you automatically have a month-to-month lease that is covered under the Landlord-Tenant Act.

The attorneys at the Columbus, Ohio based law firm of Harris & Engler get a lot of phone calls from tenants with various different problems.  Written below are answers to some of the most common questions asked by tenants.  You may also be wondering whether or not you need an attorney for your landlord-tenant issue.  First, if you can resolve the situation yourself, then you should first try to resolve the situation yourself.  Hopefully some of the FAQs and answers provided below guide you on your way to being able to help yourself.  Second, if you cannot afford an attorney and you live in the Columbus, Ohio area, then you may qualify for free legal assistance with the Legal Aid Society of Columbus (LASC).  You can reach the LASC by calling (614) 224-8374.  Lastly, if you've first tried to resolve the situation yourself unsuccessfully, and your income is too high to qualify for free legal aid with the LASC, then you can call attorney Evan T. Engler at (614) 610-9988.  Evan T. Engler is a partner at Harris & Engler who helps tenants with landlord-lord tenant issues in Columbus, Delaware, Ohio, and the greater Central Ohio area.

General Tips to Protect Yourself Before You Move in and Before You Move Out of an Apartment

Pictures!  Take lots of pictures of the apartment before you move in and when you are moving out (after you've moved your stuff out and cleaned up but before you turn in your keys).  If your landlord gives you a "move-in inspection" form or something similar when you are signing your lease, then take that form seriously and fill it out correctly.  You want to note and take pictures of all the problem areas - all the stains on the carpet, holes in the walls and ceilings, wear and tear on the appliances, and generally anything that doesn't look new.  Save these pictures to a place where you'll remember where they are in a few years when you move out.  

Also, take lots of pictures once you've cleaned the place up and you're ready to move out.  Your landlord is going to take deductions from your security deposit.  Your pictures help with that and protect you from your landlord claiming excessive damages.  You also want to make sure you clean well and take pictures of the stove (and inside the oven), fridge, and bathroom.

My Landlord Filed an Eviction Against Me - What Do I Do?

The most common reason for an eviction being filed is for non-payment of rent.  The most common defense people have when an eviction has been filed against them is that there were all sorts of problems with the apartment that the landlord did not fix and that is the reason the rent was not paid.  The defense of there being problems with the apartment is not going to work against non-payment of rent unless the tenant properly set themselves up with a 30-Day Notice to Remedy Conditions, which is further explained below.  That is, unless you properly set yourself up with a 30-Day Notice to Remedy Conditions (and set up an escrow account with the Municipal Court (explained below)), then if you are behind on rent, and the landlord filed an eviction because you are behind on rent, then you are not going to be able to prevent the eviction and the landlord will win in eviction court.  With that said, there are still a few things that can be done to try to remedy the situation.  First, you can try to reach out to the landlord to reach an agreement that if you get caught up on rent by a certain date, then they'll dismiss the eviction lawsuit.  Second, if that doesn't work, then you may be able to negotiate with the landlord about a date that you will move out by.  

Getting an eviction filed against you is a scary thing.  You don't know where you're going to live next and you need some help.  Well, there may be some help for you.  In the Franklin County Municipal Eviction Court, there is usually a table set up with a number of attorneys who are volunteering their time to help tenants who are getting evicted.  These attorneys are either there to volunteer their time to help, so please be nice to them, or they are with the Legal Aid Society of Columbus (and you should still be nice to them, because they are there to help you).  The Legal Aid Society of Columbus helps tenants who are below a certain income threshhold and they are some of the best eviction defense attorneys in Columbus because they do this all the time and they have seen it all.  Talk to them and see if you qualify for some help, or you can call before your hearing by calling (614) 224-8374.  

If you do not meet the income requirements to get free legal help from the Legal Aid Society of Columbus, and there is not a volunteer attorney that can help you, then you are either going to be on your own or you are going to have to hire your own attorney to help you with your case.  If you need a bit more time to find an attorney or get the funds together to hire your own attorney then you may be able to ask the Judge in eviction court for a continuance so that you can find an attorney.  If you ask for a continuance, then this should be the first words out of your mouth to the Judge.  You don't want to talk about the case, you don't want to explain your defenses, you just want to tell the Judge that you need a continuance so that you can get an attorney.  If you talk about your case before you ask for a continuance then the Judge might not give you a continuance.  If the Judge grants you a continuance then you will be given exactly one week from the hearing date to find an attorney.  

Just like a credit report, landlords have their own reporting system to figure out who is a potentially good or bad new tenant.  It hurts your ability to find a new place to live if you have an eviction on your record because new landlords will be hesitant to lease their premises to you if they think you wont pay them.  So first, it is best to not have any evictions on your record (because there is no way to make them go away - you can't expunge an eviction).  But, if you have already had an eviction filed against you, then that is already a bad scenario, but the only way to make the best of that bad scenario is to enter into an agreement with the landlord for when you will vacate the premises (this is called an Agreed Judgment Entry).  An eviction on your record is bad, but having the case dismissed is the best of a bad scenario and will hurt you less when it comes to finding a new apartment than if you have a judgment against you.  So once the eviction is filed, the goal should be reaching an agreement because that will show up on your record with future landlords better than having a judgment against you.  You may be able to reach an agreement on your own, if you qualify, then you may be able to get representation from the Legal Aid Society of Columbus, or if you don't qualify for the Legal Aid Society of Columbus then you may want to get your own attorney to try to work out an arrangement to get your case dismissed.  

I Got a 3-Day Notice on My Door - What Does This Mean?

The most common reason to get a 3-day notice of eviction is for non-payment of rent.  However, technically a landlord can provide you with a 3-day notice of eviction for a violation of any provision of your lease.  Once you get a 3-day notice, does that mean that you have 3 days to move out?  Not quite.  A 3-day notice means that you have 3 days before the landlord files an eviction against you.  That means you get those full 3 days, then on the 4th day then the landlord can file an eviction complaint against you.  In the Franklin County Municipal Court, once an eviction is filed then the eviction hearing is scheduled 2 or 3 weeks after that.  

Ideally, if you get a 3 day notice, and you have the money to get caught up on rent, then you should call your landlord and try to work out arrangements to get caught up on your rent so that an eviction is not filed against you.  If you cannot work out an agreement, or you cannot come up with the money to get caught up, then please refer to the question above about what to do about an eviction.  

I Got a 30-Day Notice on My Door - What Does This Mean?

A 30 day notice is different from the 3-day notice because it is not necessarily a violation of the lease and it is not necessarily for non-payment of rent.  A 30-day notice is either a Notice to Remedy Conditions or a notice that your lease is not being renewed.  If you are on a month-to-month lease, then the landlord has to give you a full month's notice to let you know that they will not be renewing that month-to-month lease.  That means that you either have to work something out with your landlord so that you can stay or you need to find a new place to live.  If you got a 30-Day Notice to Remedy Conditions, then that means that landlord is giving you 30 days to fix the situation that is described in the notice.  This means that you have a chance to fix it.  Whatever the complained of condition is in the 30-day notice, you will want to pay special care to remedy that problem (and document it through pictures or however else makes sense).  You should also reach out to your landlord after this type of notice to try to work out what needs to be done for you to stay there if you want to stay.  If you want to move, then you should also provide (written) notice to your landlord that you intend to vacate the premises at the end of the 30 day period.  

Does My Landlord Have to Pay for Pest Control or an Exterminator or Do I?

This all depends on your lease.  If your lease says that you have to pay for an exterminator - then you pay for it.  If the lease doesn't say anything about who pays for pest control, then your landlord has to pay for it.  Under Ohio law, your landlord has a legal obligation to provide you with a fit and habitable place to live.  This means a pest and rodent free home.

What Do I Do If My Landlord Wont Get Rid of the Pests / Rodents in My Home?

If you are in the situation where pest control has been unsuccessful, or if your landlord wont provide adequate pest control, then what do you do?  The proper thing to do is to provide your landlord with written "Notice to Remedy Conditions."  The "Notice to Remedy Conditions" should be in a letter sent  to your landlord through certified mail service return receipt requested.  If you're preparing and sending a letter, then you need to make and keep a copy for yourself so that you can later prove and provide a copy of the letter that you sent.  If you don't have an address for your landlord, then sending it by email could also fulfull the "writing" requirement, but a letter is preferred.

What does the "Notice to Remedy Conditions" need to say?  First, it needs to say "Notice to Remedy Conditions."  Second, it needs to say the things in your apartment that need fixed (bugs need exterminated, hole in ceiling needs fixed, refridgerator needs fixed, etc.)  Next, you need to give your landlord at least 30 days to fix the issue/s that you say need fixing.  

What Do I Do If the Things Listed in the Notice to Remedy Conditions Are Not Fixed Within 30 Days?

You have two options: (1) you need to set up a rent escrow account in the Franklin County Municipal Court (or other county municipal court of the county you live in in Ohio); or (2) you can terminate your lease and move out.

Why Do I Need to Set up a Rent Escrow Account and How Do I Do It?

You need to set up a rent escrow account so that you are still paying your rent on time with an account that is set up with the Franklin County Municipal Court (or other appropriate county court).  This way you can't get evicted for non-payment of rent and this is the only proper way to set yourself up so that you demand the things you want to be fixed, you give the landlord 30 days to fix it, and if it's not fixed within that time you are still paying your rent on time but to the court instead of the landlord.  Once the landlord fixes the items listed in your Notice to Remedy Conditions, the landlord is able to get the balance you've been paying into escrow.  

To set up the escrow account, you can call the Franklin County Municipal Clerk of Court at (614) 645-7220 to ask the Clerk what you need to do.  Ultimately, you will have to go down to the municipal court and fill out some forms to get it properly set up.

Also, you could elect to terminate your lease and move out of the things are not fixed within 30 days.  You will also need to send written notice to your landlord if you elect this option (and keep a copy for yourself of anything you send to your landlord).  You will need to be ready to move and have a new place lined up after the 30 day period has elapsed.  This can get a bit tricky for a lot of people, so for this reason a lot of people elect to set up an escrow account instead or to get an attorney to draft the letter to the landlord terminating the lease to make sure that it is done properly.

What If the Appliances in My Home Don't Work?

Then you go through the same process outlined above for what to do if you have pests/rodents and write a Notice to Remedy Conditions to your landlord.

My Landlord is Selling the Property, What Do I Do?

If your landlord is selling the property that you live in, then you do not necessarily have to do anything.  The property gets sold "subject to the lease," so your lease will still be valid and you will still be able to live in the property through the end of the lease.  If you live in a month-to-month lease, then your landlord may decide to terminate the lease before the property sells or the new landlord may decide to terminate the lease once they take over.  When you are living in a month-to-month lease then the landlord is able to terminate the lease with one full month notice and there is nothing you can do to stop it (other than call the landlord and see if anything can be worked out).  But if the landlord wants you out, and you are on a month-to-month lease, then the landlord will be able to get you out.

Is My Landlord Allowed to Raise My Rent?

Another thing that frequently happens when a new owner takes over is that the new owner will try to raise the rent.  They are able to do this only at the end of the lease term.  If you are on a month-to-month lease, then they need to give you a full month's notice.  If you have a written lease, then they need to give you notice before the new lease takes hold.  The landlord is able to raise the rent under these circumstances and the only choice you have are to: (a) pay the increased rent; or (b) move.

My Landlord is Deducting Too Much From My Security Deposit

A landlord is able to deduct for all items above "reasonable wear and tear" from your security deposit.  As a practical matter, every landlord deducts something from the security deposit.  No one ever gets back 100% of their security deposit, and you if were to try to fight that in court then you would have a hard time.  However, if your landlord is making BS deductions for things that the landlord either didn't do or wouldn't have needed to do, then you may have an argument for wrongful withholding of a security deposit.  

Ohio has a security deposit law that protects tenants.  In order to have this law apply to you then you must provide your landlord, in writing (and keep a copy for yourself), with a forwarding address for your landlord to send your security deposit refund.  The landlord has 30 days after your move out to send you an itemized list of deductions from your security deposit and to send you the remaining balance.  If the landlord does not send you the itemized list of deductions, does not send you the remaining balance, or does nothing about your security deposit within 30 days of your moving out then you can sue them under Ohio's security deposit law.  In order to have a good case, you have to be able to prove that you provided a forwarding address to your landlord, if you didn't do this then you will lose.  

Ohio's security deposit law allows tenants to sue their landlords and get twice the amount that was wrongfully withheld from the security deposit plus an award of reasonable attorney fees.  Tenants can only get twice the amount that was wrongfully withheld.  So if there was some amount that was legitimately deducted and allowed to be deducted from the security deposit, then you don't count that.  You only count the remaining balance after all the legitimate deductions, and then multiply that by two to figure out the amount you might be entitled to under Ohio's security deposit law.  For attorney fees involved with a security deposit lawsuit, at least with the law firm of Harris & Engler, you have to pay your attorney fees and court costs up front and then if the Judge grants you your attorney fees back then you will be entitled to that amount that the Judge awards to you.

My Landlord is Claiming Damages That Were in the Apartment When I Moved In

This is why you need to take lots of pictures when you move in and when you move out to be able to prove your case if something like this happens.  There are really only two concrete ways the landlord can go after you for damages to the apartment: (1) they can deduct it from your security deposit; (2) they can claim the damages in a lawsuit.  If the landlord deducts for damages that did not happen from your security deposit, then you can file a lawsuit against your landlord under Ohio's Security Deposit law to get your money back.  The other most common way a landlord comes after you for damages is through the second cause of action in an eviction lawsuit.  When an eviction is filed against you, the lawsuit is divided up into two parts.  The first part is only for possession of the premises.  Once that part is over, then the next part of the lawsuit is a separate damages portion.  As a practical matter, landlords do not know whether or not they have damages until the tenant leaves the premises and they can inspect it, so that is why these lawsuit are divided up like this.  After the tenant moves out, then the landlord will file a motion with the court asking for damages (that motion is usually a motion for default judgment because most of the time the tenant never files an "Answer" to the eviction "Complaint").  In order to stop a motion for default judgment from being filed against you, you have to file an "Answer" within 28 days of first being served with the eviction complaint (you will receive an envelope from the court, that you probably had to sign for).  You have to respond to that packet.  You also will have an eviction hearing to go to before the Answer due date.  

In short, the only way to protect yourself here is to file an Answer so that you have to have a hearing about damages later on.  If you don't file an Answer, then the landlord will just file a Motion for Default Judgment and the Judge will grant to the landlord whatever dollar amount they asked for within a hearing.  If you already have a judgment against you, then it may be possible to get the judgment lifted and the case re-opened by filing a Motion for Relief from Judgment.  You will need an attorney to file a Motion for Relief from Judgment, and the law firm of Harris & Engler helps clients with this.  You can contact attorney and partner Evan T. Engler by calling (614) 610-9988 if you have questions about a Motion for Relief from Judgment.  However, because it will cost a certain amount in attorney fees to file a Motion for Relief from Judgment and try to get the judgment lifted and the case re-opened, it only makes economic sense to go through this course of action if the judgment obtained against you is significant (say, a few thousand dollars or more).  

Lastly, if an eviction was never filed against you, then the landlord has the choice to file just a regular lawsuit against you for damages.  Again, you will need an attorney to help you defend against the lawsuit.  The Legal Aid Society of Columbus does not provide free legal aid to defend against regular civil lawsuits (only eviction lawsuits and certain other type of lawsuits), so you will have to retain your own attorney to help to defend you.

I Want Out of My Apartment - How Do I Break My Lease?

This can be a bit complicated, so you may want to talk with an attorney if you are trying to get out of your lease.  If you are in a month-to-month lease, then all you have to do is provide at least one full month period advance notice that you intend not to renew your month to month lease.  Do this in writing and keep a copy for your records.  If you're in a written lease, then technically you've signed a contract agreeing to pay rent until the end of the lease term.  If there are problems with the apartment, then you might be able to get out of the lease if your landlord refuses to fix those problems (through the Notice to Remedy Conditions process described above).  Otherwise, you can try to negotiate a buy-out of the remainder of your lease (for a discount of the full amount you would have to pay under the lease).  The landlord does not have to accept the buy-out.  However, if you just moved out, then the landlord would have a duty to mitigate his damages and try to find a new tenant, so there is a little bit of wiggle room in negotiating these sort of things, but you would probably be better off hiring an attorney to negotiate a buy-out of the remainder of your lease so that you can move out earlier than the end of the lease.  

What If I Can't Make My Rent Payments?

The only thing you can really do here is give your landlord some advance notice and hope that the landlord is willing to work with you on a payment plan. You may also want to check out to see if there are any charities that help with rent assistance in Columbus or greater Ohio.  However, if you are unable to pay your rent, and your landlord is not willing to work with you on payments, then the landlord can evict you and if you remain behind on rent then there is nothing you can do to stop the eviction.  If you can't pay your rent, then if you have friends or family that can help you out, then you will want to reach out to them before it is too late.  

Columbus, Ohio Landlord Tenant Attorney

Attorney Evan T. Engler is an attorney and partner at the Columbus, Ohio based law firm of Harris & Engler.  If you don't see the answer to your question above or you need representation for your landlord-tenant case, then feel free to give Evan T. Engler a call at (614) 610-9988.
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