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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rent an Apartment, Not an Enemy

Aaron Smith was ready to close the deal. The apartment was affordable, convenient, and -- aside from the three couches stacked up in the bedroom -- comfortable. The lease was signed. Everyone was happy.

As the American businessman hashed out details with his new Russian landlord over a bottle of vodka, the prime indicators looked good. The landlord had one last request: Could the kitchen be kept clean, to make things easier during the four nights a week that he planned to prepare and eat his dinner there?

"It was definitely over," Smith recalled, laughing. "I just said 'Goodbye.' He didn't seem insulted."

Of all the encounters between Russians and foreigners in Moscow, landlord-tenant relationships may be the most baffling. As the first generation of legal rentors feel out uncharted ground, and foreign tenants explore an unfamiliar market, cultures and expectations often collide on home territory. Is it reasonable for a landlord to stop by on the weekend, defrost the refrigerator and leave the tenant's food out? Is the family china off limits? What about those three couches?

Many tenants negotiate a peaceful, friendly settlement with their landlords, to the point where the relationship is more like a friendship than a business transaction. Happy tenants in Russia receive services and dinner invitations virtually unheard of in the West. But when the deal sours, it really sours.

The most common problems are sudden rent hikes, eviction and defaulting on a lease, said rental agents who mediate these conflicts.

"Particularly bad would be an understatement," said Jeffrey Donnelly of the Home Sweet Home rental agency, when asked about the Moscow real-estate market. "It's bordering on the absurd."

"It's a misunderstanding between two markets and two cultures. On one side, the customers don't know where they're landing," said Yvonne Bastien, of the agency Ivanitchka International. Foreigners should expect an unregulated and volatile market, she added. "They're landing on the moon, where everyone speaks a moon language. The rules are totally upside-down."

On the Russian side, Bastien added, the decision to let out an apartment is often a painful one brought on by severe financial need, so watching foreigners take over their space can be galling.

As a result, landlords are often unusually picky about who lives on their property and how they live there. "I say to landlords sometimes, 'We're not trying to marry your daughter off to our client, we're just trying to rent your apartment,'" Donnelly said.

Wise tenants should try to see the agreement from the landlord's point of view -- and be firm with basic guidelines, like 48 hours' notice if the landlord wants to come in to the apartment, Bastien said.

"These people were Sovyetskiye cheloveky (Soviet people) eight years ago," she said. "You have to hold them with love and friendship and a firm hand, and they have to feel that. You can't be fake."

Practically all of these conflicts are resolved out of court. Since most landlords do not legally register the rental contract with the city -- avoiding income tax demands of up to 30 percent -- leases are often purely symbolic to one or both parties. After eight years in Moscow, Bastien said she had never seen a foreigner take a case all the way to a Russian court.

In fact, Russian law is very protective of tenants' rights -- but only when the lease itself is considered legally valid, said Natalya Artemyeva, an associate with the law firm White and Case. Whether an unregistered lease would be protected in court "depends on the court," she said. For foreigners who are prepared to cover the extra cost, the safest route is to sign a completely legal, registered lease, and to make sure the landlord has an ownership certificate for the premises, she added.

If tenants have receipts for the rent they have paid, they are in a position to report their landlord to the tax inspector, and Donnelly said his agency regularly uses that strategy.

"We've been very lucky in the last few months with a veiled threat," he said. "We present them with the option of taking it to court and letting everybody know about this rental relationship," he added. "Normally that's enough."

That, however, should be a last resort for most tenants, and Donnelly recommended that foreigners be flexible with their landlords, even if their demands seem unusual. "In general, if you don't mind seeing them from time to time, it is probably worth saving the relationship," he said.

Failing that, some tenants decide they would rather have their lease broken than their legs. When American teacher Carolyn Story's landlady evicted her three months into a 12-month contract, Story attempted to negotiate through two lawyers, an American and a Russian. Story showed up at the meeting with her lawyers, and her landlady showed up with "four goons," Story said. The landlady gave her 30 minutes to move out, and Story complied. "We had no choice but to literally pack up and leave," she said.

Like Story, American reporter Greg White started looking for a new apartment when presented with the alternative of armed force. White signed a two-year rental agreement on an apartment on Frunzenskaya Naberezhnaya last fall. Two months ago, his landlady asked for a 30 percent rent increase, he said.

When he refused, the landlady said her son had just been released from the army and wanted to move back in. "She mentioned that he had gotten rather big while he was in the army and that he was working as a security guard not far from the apartment," he said. White cleared his stuff out.

"Given the fact that the threat of force was at least implicit, I didn't want to deal with it," he explained. "I have a Russian friend who is a lawyer and his response was, 'We'll hire a firm with bigger guys.' That's Russian legal advice."