How to Take Your Landlord to Court 

In life, you win some, and you lose some. And if you're a regular apartment dweller, sometimes you end up with a great landlord, one who quickly returns your calls and addresses all of your problems. They become almost like family. (OK, OK, we jest, but you get our point.) And then sometimes, you get a bad landlord, someone who won't fix the leak in the roof or the broken dishwasher. What can you do about that guy? We're here to help.

First of all, that lease you signed is a contract, and if the landlord isn't holding up his end of the deal, you can take his slummy behind to magistrates' court.

Brian Rawl, the magistrate judge for James Island, says one of the most important things you can do to build your case is to get everything in writing. If the landlord is taking too long to fix the gaping hole in your living room floor, send him a written, dated request, and keep a copy for yourself. "The better you have it documented, the higher the level of proof you've got," Rawl says.

Once you get down to the nitty gritty, you'll want to read Title 27, Chapter 40 of the S.C. Code of Laws, which sets the ground rules for landlords and tenants in this state.

A few other pointers:

• Find the magistrates' court nearest to where you live. It's not a requirement, but it's convenient, and the courts are designed to work that way.

• Ask for a copy of the landlord/tenant dispute forms, which have a $40 filing fee.

• It's OK to refuse to pay your rent if the landlord hasn't attempted to fix something he's contractually required to fix. However, you first have to give the landlord 14 days notice; otherwise, you're jeopardizing your tenant rights. Even if your landlord hasn't made the repair in 14 days, he's off the hook if he can prove that he's made an earnest effort to do something about it.

• If your landlord wants to raise the rent or otherwise change the terms of your lease, he has to give you 30 days prior notice. If he doesn't give you notice, you've got grounds for a complaint.

• If your landlord cuts off your vital utilities for failure to pay rent, you can make a case for unlawful ouster. If you're successful, the landlord has to pay you either an amount equal to three months rent or twice the damages caused, whichever is greater. Cha-ching.

• The magistrate judge and staff won't give you any legal advice. If you think you're going to need some courtroom firepower, try the S.C. Lawyers Referral Service at (800) 868-2284.

• If you're living in a college dorm, you can't take the RA or school officials to magistrates' court for a landlord/tenant dispute. Same goes for monasteries, hospitals, and prisons.

• To find answers to more FAQs and locate a nearby magistrates' office, visit www3.charlestoncounty.org/docs/magistrates/index.html.


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