- Evaluate from the inside - It is best to get some inside perspective on a rental building or landlord even before you contact the building or property manager. This can be done either by referral or by striking up a conversation with tenants coming in or out. If the building has open or terrace access, you might even "accidently" knock on a tenant door asking for the building manager's unit location, then inquire as to how things are in the building. If a vacancy is of serious interest and you have the time, you can check with your local civil court or small claims court to see if the landlord has an excess history of evicting people or of being sued (Most tanants don't bother to sue). Such a record check would require knowing the business name of the property owner or any prior tenant who was party to such a civil action.
- Document before & after conditions - Always photograph the entire rental unit after signing any rental aggreement and before you move the first item into the unit or use the unit for sleeping. Do wide views of all walls, ceilings, floors, windows and doorways, all built in appliances, the interior of the oven and refrigerator and any lighting fixtures. Then do a very careful examination and do close-ups of anything odd or just little breakables like window handles, door locks and jams, mirrors, carpet grime or wear spots, etc. If nothing seems out of place take some wide views and close-ups anyway just to help document the condition you got the unit. If you have a tripod or perch for the camera, set the timer and get a few pictures of yourself in the rental unit. If you have a good friend real close by, invite them over to witness your documentation. You should use one or two rolls of 36 exposure film. You will not need to develop the film unless there is a problem that will involve legal action or mediation or the film almost reaches expiration date (You should mark it on the canister). When you do develop the film, be sure to take it to a lab that will afford you the option of returning all negatives uncut. This tends to add to the credibility of the film by helping to verify sequence, although it may be trivial. Do NOT use a digital camera. Digital pictures are usually not admissable in small claims or civil courts because opposing parties tend to challenge their validity since they are not hard for an ill-willed person to tamper with. Never tell your landlord or manager you have done photography. Later, when it comes time to move you must do photography again to document the "after" condition. It is best to be thorough and expect the landlord to either make mistakes or in some cases lie about conditions. You should notofy the landlord in writing of any pre-existing damage as soon as you find it.
- Document everything - Maintain a folder containing copies of payments, receipts, notices, your lease, and any other communications. You should keep this folder well hidden since your landlord will have an advantage over you if you if he happens to snoop around your place and find it. Be sure to document the date and time when a ceiling leaks, an adjacent unit was noisy, the hot water failed or the heat was not adequate. (Use a thermometer). These things are of no value against your landlord unles you can show that you brought the problems to your landlord's attention promptly in each case.
- payments - It is best to pay by check or money order whenever possible in order to strengthen your documentation as a good tenant. Be sure to print very clearly and make a memo on the check stating what the payment is for so that there is less chance of misunderstanding or deliberate misappropriation. Timely payment is an absolute must. You should photocopy the check and the stamped addressed envelope if any, to further strengthen your records.
- Communicate in writing - It is best to communicate each and every problem in writing, even if it is just the smallest matter. Yet you should try to appear informal. If you do not own a computer or have access to a copier, use a sheetof carbon paper. Type or write out a note describing briefly to your manager or landlord whatever concern or problem you may have, even if it is just a request for info. Do not try to speak in "legalese" or try to make anyone feel you are getting ready to sue someone. Just be very friendly. By saving a copy of each communication, you build up a record helping to establish your compliance as tenant as well as any problems that your landlord will fail to resolve. Without such documentation, your word might not prevail if it comes down to an eviction of monetary dispute that ends up in civil court. Keep in mind that any landlord might decide to keep your security deposit unjustly upon vacating, and you may need every scrap of evidence to counter any lies that he can and will tell. It may seem suspicious to a landlord or building manager that you always happen to write instead of communicating verbally. Therefore you should become adept at informally delivering your notes. For instance you can slip a note into the mail slot of you manager when you KNOW they are gone. Or you can hand them a note and say "Could you please give this to the landlord?...It's a note about the ceiling plaster falling." Never seal a note unless you mail it. Just let the manager have it and read it. At times you will want to just you communicate problems verbally for sake of convenience. In those cases be sure to note date and time of any such communication. It may seem trivial but can come back to haunt you if you are unable to document that you did the proper thing.
- Communicate with kindness - If any problem should ever happen to make you or your landlord show signs of frustration, it is important that you the tenant never reveal anger or impatience. Make an effort to be very polite and friendly even if you hate your landlord and think he is the worst landlord in the world. By maintaining civility, you will have a shot at conquering the upper edge when it comes time for him to try and steal your security deposit. On the other hand, getting angry or puffing up your ego, will just motivate your landlord to find some excuse to thow you out or expect a confrontation when you leave. You want to avoid all of that and especially avoid a Forcible Eviction Detainer (FED), which can damage your future tanant qualifications even if the FED fails. Besies, kindness is the most powerful trojan horse in dealing with potential adversaries.
More advice to come!