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Is your landlord lawsuit-happy? Find out

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In the last few months, there’s been a lot of talk about the so-called tenant blacklist, a collection of databases that landlords can access to get information on which renters have turned up in housing court.

It’s easy to see why they’d want this info—no one wants a tenant who’s repeatedly been sued for failing to pay the rent. If you’re a renter, however, the mere act of appearing in court—even if you’re the one who files the case and you win—is enough to get you on a blacklist and mess up your future chances of getting an apartment.

So we decided to turn the tables and give you the tools to determine whether your landlord frequents the courthouse, either as a plaintiff or a defendant. While the fact that a landlord's been in court before doesn't necessarily predict whether they'll sue you, a scan of housing court records can reveal clues to your landlord's past dealings with tenants. 

Here are a few basic tricks:

First, find out who really owns your building

Most of the city’s biggest property owners (and even smaller landlords) set up different limited liability companies for each building they own, often incorporating the address into the name of the LLC. Typically, that’s the legal entity that will show up in court records, so if you’re looking up your landlord, you’ll want to search for that name as well.

To find out exactly which corporate entity owns your building (or a building you’re looking at), you can use the city’s comprehensive and free public property records system, known as ACRIS.

1. Head over here and type in the address of your building. 

2. Next, click “Find BBL,” which will give you a borough, block and lot number for the property. Here, you're basically translating the street address into these three numbers, which are what the city uses to keep records of every tax lot in New York.

3. Then hit “Document Search by BBL” and, on the next screen, “Search” to bring up property records, from past sale prices to mortgage papers. 

4. To find the current owner of your building, you’ll want to hone in on the first entry that says “Deed,” which will show you who wound up with the building in its most recent transfer. “Party 2” is the buyer, and that’s usually the entity that currently owns your building. 

5. If this whole ACRIS thing sounds too complicated, you can look up the address in real estate database PropertyShark (some of which is behind a paywall) or listings portal StreetEasy (which pulls records from ACRIS). Both have much more user-friendly interfaces, but I always prefer to go right to the source to get the most complete information. For example, sometimes the most recent owner of a property isn't actually the one listed in StreetEasy. ACRIS can also show you a full history of a property's ownership in case it's been transferred to a different LLC recently. 

Next, look up housing court records

If your landlord has sued a tenant for failing to pay the rent or to get them out of an apartment, the case will likely appear in the housing court section of New York State’s online court records system.

1. Click here and enter your landlord’s name, trying different search terms—last name, first name, parts of a company name, the LLC you found in ACRIS—to make sure you're turning up all possible results. You’ll want to search for them as both a petitioner (plaintiff) and as a respondent (defendant).

2. Next, you'll get a list of all the court cases that the name has been involved in. The last four digits of the case number denote the year it was filed (so you can see if these are fresh cases or disputes that are years in the past). The first name is the plaintiff—​the party that filed the case—​while the second name is the defendant. 

3. Clicking on the Index Number will bring you to the record of the case. 

4. If you click on "Show All Appearances," you'll see the actions that took place over the course of the case. 

The two most common types of cases you'll see are for "non-payment"—a tenant is allegedly not paying the rent—or "holdover," which is an eviction proceeding. Most housing court disputes end in a settlement; words like "consent," "stipulation" or "settled" indicate that that's what happened.

The number of cases you see associated with a landlord's name can vary widely depending on how many buildings (and therefore tenants) they have. But generally, litigation is the kind of thing that both renters and building owners want to avoid; it's expensive, it's time-consuming, and it only breeds discord. If you're seeing multiple cases from the last year or two, you know this is a tactic they won't shy away from. 

Related

The dreaded tenant blacklist: what you need to know

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Sabotaging a landlord during a showing: could you get sued?

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