How to react to troublesome owner?
June 25, 2011 6:13 AM   Subscribe

The townhome that my SO and I paid a deposit on was rented out from under us by the owner, who did so not only behind our back, but behind the back of the property management company that they contracted with. What is the best way to proceed here?

A couple months ago, my SO and I started looking for a new home/apartment to move into together. We found a place that we absolutely loved and started the application process with the management agency. Our applications were accepted, but during the final walkthrough we heard from the realtor that a third party was looking to buy the house. Hearing that, we put down our deposit the next day and thought all was well.

Today, about a month later, my SO and I are at our lease signing appointment. We sign the lease, get the keys, and go to pay the last bit of the fees we owe to the agency when they suddenly discover that (in the meantime) the owner had allowed someone else to move into the house.

For the record, the property mgmt. agency (which doesn't seem to be shady or anything like that) was just as pissed as we were and immediately indicated that they'd be refunding our entire deposit and taking the owner to court. They will probably win since the owner apparently violated the contract they had with the company, at which point (I would assume) we will have the legal right to live there if we still want to.

So I really have several questions here:

A) Should I, or my SO and I, lawyer up? If so, how should be proceed?

B) Should I cash the deposit refund check that the agency gave me? My gut says yes, but I'm worried that if I do the court may interpret that as an indication that we no longer wish to live in the property we paid the deposit on.

C) Should we just walk away from all this and find another place to live? (We've both already found temporary housing with family/friends until this gets sorted out.) Again, my gut says yes, but I would like some sort of input from the hivemind.

Thanks in advance everyone. Anonymous email if needed:
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (14 answers total)
The owner is already bad news. You do not want to live in this place, because things may only get worse from here.

They've rented the house on their own for a few reasons. First, the agency charges them a fee. Finding renters without the agency means no fee. Second, well, actually, I don't know for sure why else they might. Maybe the renters are personal friends of the owners.

Anyway, the behavior is shady enough that you have to wonder what other shenanigans they'd get up to.

Cash the check and consider yourselves lucky to be out of that deal before the owners had a chance to really screw you over.

Really good advice I got once about possibly suing someone: "The best fight is the one you don't have." Meaning, it's probably not worth it to lawyer up over (relatively) small things, because the fighting is painful, time consuming, and expensive.
posted by bilabial at 6:24 AM on June 25, 2011 [23 favorites]

at which point (I would assume) we will have the legal right to live there if we still want to.

This does not seem to be a solid assumption. The current tenants would possibly have to be evicted for this to happen. The property management returned your money which is a pretty good indication that they don't think you're getting the place.

Either way, move on. This is not worth the hassle.
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:36 AM on June 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

1) Totally agree with bilabial re not moving into the place at this point. Flaky landlords are bad news. The only exception would be if getting another rental in the area will be so troublesome to make the risk worth it. Costs and benefits.

2) The rules about what you're entitled to depend on where you live, but it's possibly significantly more than your deposit, to the tune of a few months rent instead of notice. It's also possible the rental agency has more of a responsibility to you than they are letting on - if nothing else I would push to have them find you a new place without charge ASAP. Keep track of any expenses incurred as a result of the inconvenience.

Google your state or province plus housing, rentalsman, tennant etc. You are looking for a government funded housing arbitrator. Usually you can call a number and they will tell you where you stand or where to read the rules, for free, and if you want to register a complaint in hopes of getting more compensation (because, lets face it, it's a pain to have to find a new place) it will likely be for a nominal fee. They are not in every jurisdiction but if they are in yours it might be worth your while.

Would skip the lawyer as in my personal experience (which was self represented and successful) these kinds of agencies and tribunals tend to be informal and favor the tennant.
posted by skermunkil at 6:54 AM on June 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Yep, the fight is primarily between the agency and the owner, and it's unlikely the tenants would get evicted over this. And seconding - you do NOT want to live there. Relationships between landlord and tenant get pissy often enough - you'd forever be getting sideways with this guy.

IANAL, however, the truth is that YOUR legal beef may be with the management agency. While I recognize they probably weren't morally responsible, your contract was apparently with them. So if everyone in this scenario lawyered up, you'd sue the agency and the agency would sue the owner, in both cases for breach of contract. The agency probably has an indemnification clause in the contract with the owner, meaning the owner agrees to defend them if his actions cause them to be sued.

And if you got your deposit back, you may not have much to legally fuss about, unless you want to account for expenses, loss opportunity, etc.

It might be worth it if you got a no-charge evaluation from an attorney and there was a chance for large damages. I agree the guy's conduct was lousy and he deserves to be soaked. However, odds are you'd be dragging the agency through it, and my sense of karma balks at that.

Another idea - ask the agency if they plan to sue the guy, and indicate you'd like a piece of it if they do. Otherwise, let it go, is my gut feel.
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:55 AM on June 25, 2011

On preview, skermunkil's advice is really good if there is such an arbitrator in your area.
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:57 AM on June 25, 2011

Tenancy laws vary greatly by state. Some are more tenant friendly than others.

In my sate, there's no way a tenant would be evicted over the actions of the landlord in favor of someone else. Don't anticipate on moving into that place.

And for the record, it seems the property management company has done everything by the book, and it's the landlord who is accountable for the error. The property management company is taking care of it. You got your money back immediately.

I'd just look for another place to live.
posted by zizzle at 6:59 AM on June 25, 2011

I'd have to agree with everyone above: you do NOT want to have anything to do with this landlord or their properties. Think about it: say you sue the dude for breach of contract & win..... say you then move into his townhouse, after his friends/relatives/whoever are kicked out.... say the heating system breaks down next winter.... do you really think he'd get it fixed in a timely manner? Nope, not gonna happen.

Cash the deposit check, and find another place to rent. (That rental agency might even help you: they might consider it good business to make up to you for the owner's behavior.)
posted by easily confused at 7:07 AM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

You are not going to live there. Talk with a tenant's rights organization in your community - laws vary significantly by jurisdiction.

And make sure to avoid this owner's properties in the future, because, dang.
posted by SMPA at 7:16 AM on June 25, 2011

Yeah, don't even try to hold out for that place. (I used to work for a rental department. )

An owner who would do that would do anything.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:18 AM on June 25, 2011

The landlords are either very flakey or shady. Even if you do end with the legal right to live in the property, it will presumably be against their wishes after a legal battle and they're likely to be pretty pissed off with you. This a recipe for a really terrible situation. Walk away with all possible speed.
posted by *becca* at 8:31 AM on June 25, 2011

I like the notion of asking the agency to compensate you by finding you another place asap at no fee. They'll just add the cost of this to the settlement they'll ask from the owner.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 8:52 AM on June 25, 2011

Your beef is with the agency. You have to prove that their actions caused you financial harm. They should have known that the landlord rented to someone else. Small claims court for damages.
posted by Gungho at 9:23 AM on June 25, 2011

Cash the check and run away quickly.
posted by jeffamaphone at 9:45 AM on June 25, 2011

What bilabial said only I'd replace shady with naive and/or unprofessional. But yeah, if you're renting something owned by this guy expect ham-fisted buffoonery to ensue. Probably involving plumbing, the lease, mystery damages to the apartment when you move out or all of the above.

If you're reasonably sure the agency is not just cutting corners left and right or that this isn't some bait and switch scam, talk them and see if they can find you something else. They've already done all the background work on you and know what you're looking for.

Also, you've already got a story here. At some level it is in their best interest to be the hero of that story so that everyone on the whole internet knows to go to (straight shooting rental agency, city, country) rather than some hack if they ever find them selves needing housing in (city, country). If you go this route, it wouldn't hurt to tell them you were asking people what you should do on an internet forum you frequent and they said you should see if the agency has something else (not with the same landlord). If you're talking to anyone with any imagination at all, the notion that the entire internet might think we suck / we rock based on how they proceed should dawn on them.

In all fairness, if you dangle this carrot and they do decide to go out of their to make everything right for you, even if it means a ding to their profits, you probably ought to post a follow up here declaring their awesomeness.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:09 AM on June 25, 2011

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