Should I Take My Old Landlord To Small Claims Court?
May 27, 2009 6:31 AM   Subscribe

Should I take my former landlord to small claims court?

YANAL and YANML, I understand. We recently moved out of an apartment that is about 600 sq ft. In our living room, there was a small quarter-sized patch where there'd been a burn in the carpet and we'd cut some of the fibers to get rid of the burned part. Besides that, the apartment was left in good shape. I'd assumed that if we ran into any problems that would be the one and we would deal accordingly.

Fast forward and we receive a notice for $1100. $800 for the carpet replacing and $300 for a burn mark to the counter. We'd previously reported on our move-in sheet that one of the counters had a small bubble in the vinyl. Mysteriously, they say this is not on their move-in sheet (which is fine, I have my own copy). After receiving the notice we went back to the apartment and saw that someone had scrapped the bubble off with a blue ink pen down to the core of the counter - I took pictures of this, but I think besides my move-in report this might be moot because I don't have any before pictures.

We called yesterday to speak to the property manager who said that they have pictures but from what he was describing, it didn't seem like they really did or that he was telling the truth. I was smart enough to take video of the carpets after cleaning them on my cell phone, but have no pictures. I asked him what the lifespan of the carpet was and was told it was 10 years. So I asked that given that, how could they charge us the full amount for the carpet when we lived their two years and there is normal wear and tear. Naturally, he did not answer this. He also noted some other things that we were "lucky" to not have been charged for. Not cleaning out the microwave (a lie, I did that myself), and a burn stain inside of a draw - how I could accomplish that, I do not even know.

They don't seem to be willing to negotiate at all. And even IF they do replace the carpet in the living room - it's value is certainly not $800. My question is, would it be worthwhile to file a claim in small claims court or should we just cut our losses and go?

I think we're being slightly railed here because we were told by the property manager that either we can make payment arrangements or after 30 days they submit to a collection agency. They don't even attempt to sue me for the monies, which I found to be quite odd. thanks for any guidance/suggestions!
posted by heartquake to Law & Government (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Yeah take 'em to court. You don't want collections on your credit report.
posted by delmoi at 6:38 AM on May 27, 2009

You can't take them to court as you haven't actually been damaged. Are they holding your deposit? Where are you? Lots and lots of people will threaten you with a collection agency.
posted by Ponderance at 6:43 AM on May 27, 2009

Sorry hit post prematurely ...

Just because they say "send you to a collection agency" doesn't mean they will. See if your area has a housing legal clinic, or tenants union.
posted by Ponderance at 6:44 AM on May 27, 2009

You can't take them to court as you haven't actually been damaged. Are they holding your deposit?

Oh, I assumed they'd withheld deposit.
posted by delmoi at 6:45 AM on May 27, 2009

Response by poster: The deposit was $300 and they did take that, I find it utterly convenient that the cost to replace 2 feet of vinyl countertop was the exact amount of my deposit, but I'm definitely in conspiracy mode at this point. I'm sorry I failed to mention that and realized it as soon as I posted. I'm in VA.
posted by heartquake at 6:47 AM on May 27, 2009

Too late now, but if you ever find yourself in a similar situation... always do a final walk-through with the property management folks so there is no disagreement about what damage has occurred. This contrived damage you are being hit with is the total suck.
posted by netbros at 6:48 AM on May 27, 2009

Response by poster: @netbros You are absolutely correct. When my husband called to ask about this, the girl was flip and said he could just drop off the keys as if it were no big deal and I didn't push the issue like my gut said that I should.

The letter they sent us was dated for the 12th although my lease did not end until the 20th. The property manager said he was unsure how that happened. I checked over my lease and don't see anything about the cost of the carpet but I might have missed something. Funny enough, when my husband went in to send the lease termination form - the manager mentioned that he needed to make sure to clean the carpets or we would get charged for them, but they had someone they "worked with" who could do it for $80. This is what makes me uncomfortable.
posted by heartquake at 6:55 AM on May 27, 2009

I find it utterly convenient that the cost to replace 2 feet of vinyl countertop was the exact amount of my deposit,

My gut tells me that this is exactly how this landlord does business, and that if you talked to other previous tenants you'd find similar stories to your own.

Ultimately, it's one of those "choose-your-fights" situations. If you do choose it, start with what Ponderance says, - See if your area has a housing legal clinic, or tenants union.
posted by philip-random at 7:24 AM on May 27, 2009

IANAL or YL, but I'd contact the relevant government agency to get a clear view of what your rights are concerning documentation of damage and costs of repairs. In some cases, you should be able to demand copies of estimates for repairs, and in some cases the right to get an estimate from someone of your choice as well. These things vary wildly by state and municipality, however. In my modest experience, landlords will often shoot for the moon when assessing damages at the end of a lease, then start to back down as you start to assert your rights.
posted by kid_dynamite at 7:28 AM on May 27, 2009

I've been through this scenario and some similar ones (thank the gods I finally own a house) and what to do depends a great deal on your circumstances. Do you need to get a reference from this landlord to get a new place or do you think you will need one in a year or so? If so, plan on eating the deposit. However, do not pay above and beyond the deposit. Get a lawyer (a tenants' group can hook you up with a lawyer) to write you up a firm letter saying that you will not pay any more and if they proceed you will sue for damages. 99% of the time, this will make them back off and drop everything. A year from now they won't remember (because this is exactly their SOP; they're trying to get more money out of you just because it has often worked in the past) and they will give you a good recommendation.

If, however, you don't care about a reference, proceed to small claims court. A letter from a lawyer is still a good idea - telling them that you're going to go to court - and this one should say things about getting your deposit back. That may be enough to make them cave right there.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:34 AM on May 27, 2009

You have rights. First have him show you the repair bills. All of them. Secondly do a little searching of your own to see the actual cost of the repairs. Have your own guy come in and give an estimate. Do not believe everything a landlord says.

Lastly don't let the collection agency threat scare you. What is he going to turn in? A bill that he paid himself? If that is the case them I'm going to turn in a bunch of people I don't like because I need new carpeting. If you feel you need to know your rights from a professional, I would contact a lawyer to see what's up. They give free advice/consults for this sort of thing.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 7:38 AM on May 27, 2009

Don't know what state you are in but ...
Went to a landlord seminar in Colorado and learned that I, as a landlord, need to send a reason for keeping some deposit (damages, back rent, etc) and the remaining deposit within 30 days. If the notice is not within 30 days the entire deposit must be returned. If the tenant disputes the notice then ... as a practical matter ... the entire deposit is returned.

Then the tenant is sued for the damage.

WHY? In Colorado, if the tenant sues and disputes a deposit return AND any part of it is found to be an improper charge, the tenant gets 3x the amount back, court costs and attorney's fees.

So, if 1100 is kept, and 20 is found to be invalid, the tenant gets 60 (no big deal), court costs (usually no big deal) and attorney's fees (A VERY BIG DEAL).

That's why they return it, then sue. Its a different animal court costs and attorney's fees.
posted by CodeMonkey at 7:47 AM on May 27, 2009

Definitely consult your local tenant's rights group. Some states/localities have price limits on what things can cost to get them replaced, which even if you are still dinged for these minor things, might lower your liability significantly or even get part of your deposit returned.

Don't ignore gut feelings about things that could cost you money down the road. Take before and after pictures, not video, of every rental you take from now on and always do a walkthrough with the landlord or property manager when moving in and moving out. Document damages like that countertop bubble when you move in, and make sure they know you're aware of it.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 8:03 AM on May 27, 2009

the tenant gets 3x the amount back, court costs and attorney's fees

This is actually SOP in many (most?) states, though you should check your particular state's laws first. Some states also require that the landlord deposit the security into an interest-bearing account and give you a copy of the bank info (though in practice, hardly anyone does this).

30 days or triple damages. If more people knew about this (and pursued it) landlords wouldn't pull this kind of shit, but it happens all the time. They're hoping you can't be bothered. Bother.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:25 AM on May 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Check out this page, with your rights, etc.

Then call the Housing Services Division at 703-228-3765 to find out what procedure you need to go through to show these jokers who's boss. I am not sure whether your area has Landlord Tenant Court, but it very well might. Maryland side does.
posted by letahl at 12:08 PM on May 27, 2009

Small claims court. I used to be a landlord, and I hate this kind of cheesy ripoff. Don't let them get away with it.
posted by theora55 at 3:57 PM on May 27, 2009

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