Berkeley Dryer Dispute
March 30, 2011 10:49 AM   Subscribe

My Berkeley landlady advertised my (otherwise awesome) apartment as having a washer dryer. The dryer doesn't work, and she expects me to pay for it. Help?

In the beginning of March, I moved into a a 2 BR apartment in Berkeley. Our landlady advertised it as having a washer and dryer, but on the day we went to sign the lease, she mentioned it was broken. She also told us that the washer and dryer weren't officially hers, that they had been abandoned by a previous tenant, so if we wanted it to work, we would have to pay for the repair.

I mentioned that if we ended up needing to replace the dryer, we would want to be able to take it with us or sell it when we moved out, but she objected to that, saying that since she had advertised it to us as having a washer dryer, she would have to do that for the next tenants. (I know, the logic there boggles me, too.) I managed, after much insistence, to put a clause in the lease saying that if we purchased a new dryer, we would own it. Any time we bring it up, she keeps insisting that she has a washer dryer now and she would have to have them when we moved out, too.

Now, I really want to do laundry at my house. I think since she seems to think these are currently her appliances, it is her responsibility to pay for the repair, which, according to my research will cost about $150. I understand that landlords are not required to provide a washer or dryer, and I looked through Berkeley tenant law a bit and didn't see anything that looked applicable.

I am not opposed to just paying to have it fixed, since it would be cheaper than paying quarters at a laundromat in the long run, but I really don't want to create a precedent for our landlady to foist repair bills on us. She is already charging us a lot for the apartment and a $175/ month utilities fee that she can never quite explain clearly. How can I best approach this situation and get a dryer that works? I had to wear frumpy undies on date night!

Thanks for any advice you may have!
posted by chatongriffes to Home & Garden (38 answers total)
Lawyer. Preferably one that does landlord/tenant law. Check your local housing authority for a place to start.
posted by valkyryn at 10:53 AM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do you have a superintendant? If your landlady is insisting the washer and dryer are hers, then treat it like it's something that's hers -- call the super and have him take care of it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:54 AM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oh, a couple more details: This is the only building she owns, and we are the only unit it in it. We have a 2BR flat on the bottom floor, and the two top floors are her art studio, so she's around very frequently. There is no super or building manager other than her.

She's very hovery about the apartment and she checks in on us all the time (except about this, oddly). Since we see her so much, we'd prefer the most amiable solution possible.
posted by chatongriffes at 11:01 AM on March 30, 2011

Seconding lawyer. Some of them are cheap these days, what with the recession and all. Straighten her out now, or she'll foist other things on you. Frankly, the utilities fee + the dryer makes her sound industrial-strength crazy to me.

Do you have anything in writing that shows that she advertised the place with a washer and dryer? Maybe an email from her, or an online listing that says it has a washer and dryer? Save it off / print it off now. If you have to prove that she extracted a higher rent from you by advertising the unit with washer/dryer, it would suck to realize that the listing has suddenly disappeared or you accidentally deleted the email.
posted by Tehhund at 11:03 AM on March 30, 2011

Best answer: "If it's your washer, it's your responsibility to maintain it. If you expect us to maintain it, then it is not your washer. Please decide."
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 11:05 AM on March 30, 2011 [35 favorites]

If she has the space above the apartment, tell her you are going to buy your own, and that she can store hers in the upper floors, so that when you move out and take your appliances, she can put hers back in place where they are.
posted by markblasco at 11:07 AM on March 30, 2011 [9 favorites]

Keep in mind that hiring a lawyer may be more expensive than just giving your landlady a new dryer (or repairing her old dryer, which she says is not hers, but which will be hers once you repair it...). Alternatively, you could buy the dryer and defer the fight until you move out (taking your dryer with you), which will probably put you in a fight over the security deposit. There's work than can be done, but probably not worth $150 minus the amount you save by not going to the laundromat.

I'd be more worried by the fact that she's untrustworthy than anything else. She is clearly trying to trick you into paying for her repairs--funny how she remembered it was broken only on the day you signed the lease--and is charging you utilities without providing an accounting. (I'll bet she doesn't have a separate meter and is just charging you a portion of her total utilities).

This lady is not a good landlady, in that she doesn't have realistic expectations about the costs of doing business, and is trying, perhaps illegally, to pass those costs onto you. A lawyer might put the fear of the law into her and make her shape up, or turn her into a passive-aggressive nightmare. In either case, make sure you are taking steps now to protect yourself against illegitimate deductions from your security deposit when you move out, and look for a place to move when the lease is up.
posted by Marty Marx at 11:10 AM on March 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

Berkeley has a number of tenant resources. I've never had to use any, but maybe start here? I agree with the poster that said actually hiring a lawyer might cost more than repairing, so I'd at least try the free resources first.
posted by JenMarie at 11:19 AM on March 30, 2011

Patient repetition is a good idea here.

Its very simple: she needs to either repair the washer/dryer which are part of the apartment, or remove her broken appliances from your living space.

I don't know about the law where you reside. Does a landlord have the right to store their own personal property within the living space of a rental unit against the will of the renters? Because if she refuses to repair appliances she claims to own, that is what she's doing.
posted by General Tonic at 11:19 AM on March 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Unless Berkeley is a legal arena in which abandoned property remains in limbo, your landlady's argument is rather odd. There are, in fact, regulations for landlords about this sort of thing.
posted by thomas j wise at 11:23 AM on March 30, 2011

Personally, I would not want to purchase a dryer in your situation: if you purchase a cheap one it might crap out on you, if you purchase a high-quality one you're out more cash; if you own it, you're on the hook for repairs; if you move, you need to sell it or schlep it to your new place which may already have one, or may not have room for it.

I'd also not rely on this particular landlady to make the necessary repairs, so I'd be looking into other options. One option would be for you to rent a dryer. The maintenance would be handled through the rental company, you wouldn't need to worry about selecting a dryer to own long-term, and your landlady couldn't try to claim it belonged to her. I don't know how much it would cost, though initial googling suggests $20-30/month. After a year, you'd have spent about the cost of a cheaper dryer, but you wouldn't be dealing with the hassles of your landlady or reselling/moving a dryer.
posted by Meg_Murry at 11:24 AM on March 30, 2011

A written explanation for the utility fee. Don't take no for ad answer.

And smooch = mooch. This lady is a hustler, don't get hustled.
posted by fshgrl at 11:39 AM on March 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Mod note: very seriously don't start the Berkeley-bashing here, thank you
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 12:10 PM on March 30, 2011

I've had good luck essentially borrowing a dryer from Craigslist before - I bought it for $100 used it for a year and a half, and then sold it for $100 when I moved out. There's the risk that it will die and you'll be out $100, but a couple-year-old dryer is very likely to have a few years left on it, and there's plenty of people selling dryers because they're moving to a place that has one already or does or doesn't have gas hookups or whatever.

That frees you to frame your request regarding the current dryer as "This is still your property, but you need to find somewhere else to store it for the duration of my tenancy".
posted by aubilenon at 12:20 PM on March 30, 2011

Mod note: OP is not anonymous, please direct off topic replies to them directly.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 12:32 PM on March 30, 2011

WTF is she "checking in" about? She has to give 24hrs notice because she's your landlord, regardless that she's your neighbor. If it has to do with the inside of your apartment: 24H. And yeah, she should fix the dryer or get her garbage out of there.

I would recommend you be extra-vigilant in documenting every interaction with this woman. California law specifies that you can get receipts for rent paid, and I recommend getting them, not the least to put her on notice that her behavior is suspect and that you know what the f you're doing.

I have a feeling The Law is going to be the only line of compromise possible with this person, so I would get a book on Berkeley renting or joining a/the Tenants Union. In your case I think it will turn out to be a good $50/yr (or whatever) spent, since it sounds like you will probably have more questions about all of this in the future.
posted by rhizome at 12:37 PM on March 30, 2011

thomas j wise: "Unless Berkeley is a legal arena in which abandoned property remains in limbo, your landlady's argument is rather odd. There are, in fact, regulations for landlords about this sort of thing"


You can also call them; I've found them to very helpful.
posted by Room 641-A at 1:01 PM on March 30, 2011

Is there room to store the broken dryer? If so, buy a new dryer, but save the old one. When you leave, sell the dryer or take it with you and leave the old (broken) dryer in place. Thereby you have not taken anything that is hers, and you get a dryer.

And get the utilities in writing and with receipts to verify them. Say you need it for taxes if you want to give her an excuse beyond the fact that she legally has to, if that will make you feel better. My guess is you are paying part of her studio utilities costs.

Also, what is so awesome about this place that makes you put up with a) a scammy landlady and b) a nosy, intrusive landlady? I'd think about that hard. Sometimes what seemed great can go downhill quickly and you can continue to think it's great long past the time you should.
posted by katers890 at 1:09 PM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Purchase the new dryer. Keep the old one. Take the new one with you when you leave. Leave the old one right where you found it when you moved out. You have now left the place in exactly the condition in which it was rented to you.
posted by cgg at 1:38 PM on March 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: On the one hand, there is the law. On the other hand, there is the amount of money it's worth it to you to have a dryer and keep your "otherwise awesome" apartment with a minimum of friction and bother.
posted by yarly at 2:16 PM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Ugh. We wrote:

The dryer is a bit of a gray area that we would like to get clarified before we move forward with repairs. I realize that with your former tenants you only planned to offer the hookups and have become an unintentional owner of a washer and a non-functioning dryer along the way but since you advertised this place to us as having a washer and a dryer, this has lead to our confusion about their status. Hopefully once repaired it will last but for both its initial problems and for the future some clarification seems in order as to whose property they are and who will be responsible for repairs.

She responded:

You would need to get the dryer repaired if you would like to use it. It's only 3 years old and can be repaired. It shouldn't be much. Call Best Buy to get some repair people. I would like to leave it there since it can't get out of the space without taking off and replacing the trellis and repainting it which I would prefer not to happen. Priming and painting the detailed trellis took a long time when these were installed. See what you can do with the repair.

At this point, we are inclined to just pay for the repair and move forward to keep the peace. I'm frustrated, but I think this would escalate into something far less pleasant if we were to force the issue. Thanks for all the advice everyone!
posted by chatongriffes at 4:47 PM on March 30, 2011

You left her wiggle room, and she seems to be quite wriggly. People like that, you have to be blunt and straightforward: "As tenants, it is not our responsibility to repair your property. If you intend to keep the appliances, it is your obligation as owner and landlord to get them in working order or to remove them from the premises if you do not intend to repair them. If you wish for us to arrange the repairs ourselves we would be happy to do so, and will deduct the amount from our next rent check."
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 4:55 PM on March 30, 2011 [5 favorites]

Not sure if this will work for you but maybe ask (or just do it - I tend to ask for forgiveness rather than permission but YMMV) to take the cost of repairs off your next month's rent? My landlord is a semi-slumlord but whenever we need to have something fixed he usually says "No problem, just find someone to do it and take it off your rent." He's kind of a stoner slacker guy and as long as we don't go crazy cost-wise it's usually worth it to him to just have us deal with it.

On another (sorta unrelated) note... $175/month for utilities? That seems really high to me - my place in SF is huge (5BR with 2 people) and we pay nowhere near that (of course we also don't have heat...) In any case, once you start doing laundry at your place your water and electricity costs may rise as well so you might want to get some clarity on that whole issue before then.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 5:17 PM on March 30, 2011

I would not back down on this. I'm pretty sure she's gouging you on utilities, unless that number also includes cable and internet, plus water, gas, electricity, and garbage. If the unit is registered (as it should be in Berkeley, unless maybe it is a single family residence, in which case, she doesn't get to have a private studio upstairs, so that is debatable), there's a rent ceiling that she's not supposed to go over. You can put your address in here to see if your unit has been registered, and what the rent ceiling is if so. Berkeley also allows tenants that are billed for water service to deduct sewer services costs from their bills. I'm pointing these things out to demonstrate that your landlord is very unlikely to be going by the book. If you don't want to be fighting her on all sorts of weird stuff, that's perfectly understandable. But it behooves you to know your rights, so that you can choose what hill to die on, so to speak; and more importantly, so that you can politely point out that you know exactly what she can and cannot get away with, which makes your bargaining position stronger from the get-go. That way if she capriciously decides to up your utility bill or keep the new or repaired dryer, you can immediately and graciously point out the illegality of that move immediately without a bunch of back and forth. It makes it much less likely for her to try and keep your deposit's interest, or the deposit altogether when you move out.

Anyway, she's probably lying about the washer and dryer belonging to former tenants. In any case, she needs to repair them or get rid of them. It is not lawful to have tenants move in on the basis of appliances being provided, and then tell them they must pay for the appliances to work. You're somewhat at a disadvantage since you signed a lease with the knowledge that you really only got a washer, but that doesn't mean you are forced to pay to repair or replace the dryer. You really should have a conversation with the Berkeley Rent Board. Berkeley rent control is probably among the best in the nation for tenants, but not unless they know the law and push back on shady landlords.

At the very least, you should know that in Berkeley, you are entitled to a rent reduction if the washer stops working and she refuses to repair it. Berkeley believes that if you are paying rent on a place with specific amenities, you are entitled to a degree of reimbursement if those amenities go away.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:05 PM on March 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yes, talk to some of the the tenants rights groups/agencies linked above. You don't need to hire a lawyer yourself. Berkeley laws are rather fantastic from a tenants point of view, and you would be well served to take advantage of them. If it just doesn't work out there, memail me and I'll contact my wonderful former landlord and see if she has anything opening up.
posted by rockindata at 8:57 PM on March 30, 2011

Response by poster: You know guys, you've inspired me not to just passively let this happen. I just emailed a bunch of the Berkeley tenant law groups about this situation and hopefully they will have some feedback for me.

This is a business transaction and if anyone tried to pull this over on me at work I'd rip them a new one. No reason why this should be different.

Thanks. No, really.
posted by chatongriffes at 9:28 PM on March 30, 2011

If I were you, I would suck it up and get it repaired knowing that this is the type of person you are dealing with, and one day before the lease is up, something else will come up whereby you can stand the high ground and insist she do something she does not want to do.

(Also, I really hope you took pictures of the place noting any defects, scratches, stains, etc before you moved in, because when you move out, there WILL be an issue for you getting your security back.)

As for the utilities, it seems like a lot, but look at it this way: What if the rent were $150 higher and it included utilities? That is what is happening. She is just making the mistake of separating them out.

This situation is different from work. This is a situation whereby you will need to have a relationship with this person if she is in the building daily.

Finally, find out what is wrong with the dryer. It could be a really simple repair you could do yourself.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:34 PM on March 30, 2011

Its great that you are looking into the law groups, but I really think you should consider taking the advice of L'Estrange Fruit and just be very brief and direct in your next written communication with her. L'Estrange Fruit was even so kind as to give you the exact wording you should use.

Send that over, and then tell us what happens. I'm getting popcorn.
posted by Elminster24 at 9:41 PM on March 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

Run, don't walk, to the Berkeley rent board. They can help with a wide variety of issues, and you can reach them in person, by phone, or by email.
posted by anirvan at 10:57 PM on March 30, 2011

As for the utilities, it seems like a lot, but look at it this way: What if the rent were $150 higher and it included utilities? That is what is happening. She is just making the mistake of separating them out.

This is a common tactic in cities that have rent control: keep the price of the apartment legal, but charge way too much for utilities. I don't know that this unit is under rent control: there are partial and total exceptions for, among other things, single family homes, and two units where one unit is the owner's primary residence. This situation is not either of those, so there's a chance it should be a rent controlled unit. If that's the case, the landlord can't just lump utilities into the rent without justifying it (in the city of Berkeley).

So possibly a mistake, but also possibly a calculated effort to circumvent rent control. Considering her earlier insistence that any new dryer purchased by chatongriffes would then belong to the landlord(?!), I would not be inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Because you have to have a relationship with a landlord, that doesn't mean you should give up your rights and money if you don't want to. Yes, there's a balance: how much is it worth it to me to stand my ground on this? How much am I willing to compromise in order to find a workable solution? In the end, it's totally up to chatongriffes how to handle this, but a landlord who advertises a washer and dryer in their listing and then expects her tenants to buy and then gift her a new dryer needs a minor course correction.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:04 PM on March 30, 2011

chatongriffes, as a backup plan...I'm no technical genius, and I repaired my dryer myself this year for about 30 bucks thanks to the Internets. Memail me for details/troubleshooting guidance.
posted by desuetude at 11:05 PM on March 30, 2011

Response by poster: Update: my roommate scheduled a repair guy to come over this afternoon. It's still my hope to deduct the costs from our April rent. I'd really like to have some kind of official Berkeley tenant group to back me up when we do that. I foresee a phone campaign this afternoon.
posted by chatongriffes at 9:00 AM on March 31, 2011

Do not unilaterally withold rent in this way. Send your normal rent check and a xerox of the bill for the repair for them to reimburse you.
posted by rhizome at 1:03 PM on March 31, 2011

Response by poster: We certainly won't be doing anything unilateral, but I do have a phone call scheduled with the Berkeley Rent Board this afternoon. We may or may not just swallow the cost, but we want to at least know all the facts before deciding either way.
posted by chatongriffes at 1:28 PM on March 31, 2011

I used to be a Landlady. You say the apt. is awesome. Give her a way to feel okay about it. Landlady, since we were promised a dryer, and it's only 3 years old, and etc., how about if we get it repaired, and we take the repair off the rent for the next 3 months. Or, we pay 100 towards the repair and you pay the rest. Or, we'll split it 50-50. She's being unreasonable, but probably cheaper and nicer than Mega-Corp-Rentals-Inc.
posted by theora55 at 4:31 PM on March 31, 2011

Response by poster: After our last email, our landlady changed her mind and decided to cover the cost. I'm extremely relieved--I want to like living here.

She is going to reimburse us totally for the cost of the repair, not because of any threats of The Law or anything, but just out of the blue. Pheew! Now I can return to thinking my apartment is great.
posted by chatongriffes at 4:41 PM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yay for happy endings! But keep an eye on her.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 5:40 PM on March 31, 2011

"but just out of the blue"

Mmmhmmm...totally out of the blue right after she A. found this post on AskMeFi and/or B. consulted a legal source and realized you had rights as a tenant and could very well exercise them.

Anyway, my popcorn was a bit wasted on the outcome, but I'm glad you got it resolved in the most amicable fashion possible.
posted by Elminster24 at 8:08 PM on March 31, 2011

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