Mefi, am I getting screwed over in this landlord/roommate situation?
January 17, 2012 7:03 PM   Subscribe

Mefi, am I getting screwed over in this landlord situation?

I'm based in Los Angeles, if there are any local Mefites who can help me out with this. I moved out of a shared house about a month ago, and am trying to claim my security deposit. I emailed my former roommate "X" today, asking for an update. (This landlord seems to prefer communicating only with her; phone calls and emails to him by me have gone mostly unanswered, except once).

She replied, saying that the landlord mentioned that he will be charging for:

1) the damage & acid wash repair of a concrete walkway in the backyard where I had spray painted a desk

2) the damage & estimated repair cost for a nail/screw hole in the wall over a vent shaft that he assumes damaged the shaft. I am unsure how he assumes there was damage, because my friend used a studfinder before drilling the holes. (Expert Mefi DIYers, can you shed some light?) He says this repair requires a multi day process of cutting into the wall, removing the dry wall, repairing/replacing the metal vent shaft, recovering and repainting the wall.

3) the dishwasher that he replaced shortly after you moved in. My roommate says that "He has shown that it was bumped into / pushed hard enough to break the dishwasher away from the mounting leaving a screw and debris in the machine. He claims this broke the locking mechanism and required the appliance to be replaced. He attributes this to damage upon your move in."

I'm not sure why he thinks I bumped into the machine hard enough to dismount it, as I haven't, another issue is that the appliance already was having difficulties turning on, but I'm worried that he'll argue the damage to the mounting & lock ultimately required the appliance to be replaced vs. repaired. Again, though, I never bumped or damaged the machine.

In his email to my roommate, he estimates "these charges to be expensive" and he "hoped [my roommate] had a substantial enough deposit from [me] to cover the repairs." My roommate says the "damages may exhaust and possibly exceed [my] deposit, however we can cross the bridge when we come to it."

I'm taken aback by all this; I had cleaned my room to the best of my ability, and spackled over holes, and then walked through the space with my third roommate, Y, who was going to be moving into my room. Afterwards, X emailed me to say they both found the bathroom to not be suitable, and would have the bathroom professionally cleaned. They sent me before and after pictures, so I'm perfectly fine with paying the cleaning fees. X is also charging me an additional $20 for a dish towel I used to clean my bathroom. This seems high to me, as I also washed the towel after I used it. (I moved into the shared house with a suitcase, and X had already outfitted the common areas of the house).

I'm worried that both X and the landlord are screwing me over. Or am I acting entitled about this? Admittedly I could have gone out and purchased another dish towel to scrub the bathroom. I'm also resentful because the landlord has repeatedly refused to respond to my emails or phone calls from the very beginning (I've saved all email interactions) to the point of emailing "X" about my rent payment. (It was late because I was out of town and had forgotten to write the check in advance. This landlord refused automated checks or credit card payments. I asked X to write the check for me, as I had done the same for her the month before, but for some reason she refused, saying I had to grant her power of attorney, and that I had forgotten, while she was unable to board a plane to return as planned).

It's been 17 days since my lease ended, and I just emailed a reminder about my deposit today; it's for 700USD. Should I expect to never see it again, and possibly pay more for the dishwasher and possible other damages? I asked for a walkthrough several times, but the landlord couldn't schedule one before I moved out, and then I was on holiday for a week (Xmas and New Years), so there could be additional damages that the landlord will add. I moved out on Dec. 20th, and really would like to get this wrapped up as soon as possible, but I feel like I'm getting screwed. Mefi, please let me know what I can do? I don't care about the money so much as my self-respect.
posted by blue rare to Law & Government (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If my friend told me this story, I would think that it was actually X trying to keep the deposit.
posted by Jairus at 7:24 PM on January 17, 2012 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Whose name is on the lease? Is it in yours, singularly?

IANAL, but the following advice applies to you if you are the name on the lease and you are in Los Angeles:

If your name was on the lease, and your lease ended, your landlord has 21 days from the day you move out to return your security deposit and/or give you a written explanation for any deductions made. If the landlord has not given you - you - a written summation of deductions, and has not returned your security deposit to you, you are owed your money back. Now.

Per the site, "If your landlord does not return the deposit, or if you disagree with the amounts deducted, you can sue in Small Claims Court. For more information, contact our Small Claims Advisors at (213) 974-9759."
posted by juniperesque at 7:26 PM on January 17, 2012 [6 favorites]

from reading this, yes you are being screwed. the concrete cleaning sounds a bit sketchy but is the most reasonable of all three requests. regarding the wall damage--what you describe is not a multi-day repair. how did he know this pipe or vent was damaged if you spackled? this sounds the most odd as if there was a problem you would have noticed right away. on the dishwasher--who is to say your roommate damaged it?

overall based on your description you are losing your security deposit. you shouldn't--maybe 1 or 2 hundred for the concrete. you might be able to fight for it via the courts. don't pay any more.
posted by lester at 7:29 PM on January 17, 2012

You should be able to get an itemized receipt for the repair of each of the damages claimed. The drywall thing sounds like a 1-day DIY to me, and I'm not particularly skilled with drywall.
posted by kamikazegopher at 7:37 PM on January 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Who has your security deposit- your ex-roommate, or your ex-landlord? Did you each have separate leases, or are you a sub-tenant of someone?

It looks like small claims court might be your friend, but I'm a little unclear where the money is.
posted by ambrosia at 7:43 PM on January 17, 2012

In the future, video and photograph before and after move-in.
Get landlord to sign off on state of place before moving in.
posted by k8t at 7:44 PM on January 17, 2012

Response by poster: Hi all, thanks for the advice so far!

I initially was a subtenant of X, but after six months had my name added to a new six month lease that I signed in March; it ended in September. I caught on a bit late and asked if I needed to sign a new lease, but was told that I and "Y" were now month-to-month.

The money lies with the ex-landlord, not the former roommate.
posted by blue rare at 7:52 PM on January 17, 2012

Best answer: They are not allowed to hold back for estimates in LA - only actual repairs.

They must give you all receipts.

You need to write a demand letter to the LANDLORD for your money. Cite laws, dispute repairs, etc.

Your roommate should not be involved in this since you are on the lease. Period. You need to demand in your letter that you are to be dealt with directly.

Yes, you became legally month-to-month in September. No need to sign a new lease.

I think you're roommate is screwing you a bit, or the landlord is her family or friend and they're in on it together. This sounds about par for the course for LA. (yes - live here.)
posted by jbenben at 8:51 PM on January 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Yeah definitely deal with the ex-landlord, not the former roommate, and tell the landlord you expect him to email you directly instead of emailing the roommate. The money's yours, not the roommate's, and you may have to explain to the landlord in a letter that you're aware of the law specified in juniperesque's link and expect it to be followed.

It's amazing sometimes what the phrase, "I spoke with a laywer and they said..." will do to make a landlord sit up and start taking you seriously. In your case, "I spoke with a lawyer and s/he said you should be talking to me directly and should provide a written explanation and receipts [or whatever the LA County Consumer Affairs Department tells you is the requirement] for anything you deduct from my deposit" will probably go a long way toward moving this to a solution.

Also in your case, make sure your landlord knows that your ex-roommate definitely is not allowed to deduct anything from your deposit without your permission - certainly not $20 for a damn dish towel.
posted by mediareport at 9:00 PM on January 17, 2012 [7 favorites]

Do you have, like, any friends of friends of friends who are lawyers in California? This strikes me as the perfect situation for the $20 knock-it-off letter. Some lawyers won't take tiny cases like this, but for $20 they will write a letter that says, "Dear Annoying Person, I am a lawyer representing Nice Person. Please return Nice Person's security deposit of $700 paid on DATE as required by California law BLAH BLAH or we will be forced to take legal action. Sincerely, Lawyer."

I'm told the $20 knock-it-off letter is amazingly effective.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 10:02 PM on January 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

IANAL but I was just flat out lazy about getting my deposit back from my last apartment and let a lot of time lapse and figured I was screwed. Too busy closing on a house, painting, moving in, etc. I didn't get around to sending a written letter until I'd hit the 60-day mark and then some, and I found that in my state I was obligated to get the entire deposit back period since I'd never received an itemized list of any damages and 60 days had passed.

I cited the law including the magic words "treble damages" which may not be the case in your situation, and twenty minutes of letter-writing got me the check within a week. I didn't say "I will sue you," I was not aggressive by any means. I just diplomatically expressed that I looked up the law and pasted in the key bits.
posted by aydeejones at 10:04 PM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

It depends how far you are willing to go to a) get your money back and b) prove a point to this idiot.

Ok I am going to tell you what I would do but I do not live in LA and am not sure how much of this is applicable to your location......

You should start by calling up your local small claims tribunal, discuss your options and maybe begin a claim and get a case number.

If you do begin a claim, make sure that all correspondence from there on is in writing with your ex-landlord and for your part, include the case number in all correspondence.

There should be a Rental Authority Board which has very clear outlines on all of this stuff, I'd call them and ask them to send you a booklet which outlines your (tenant) and your landlords obligations and responsibilities. Also, is there a bond Authority? Did you sign a bond form? You need copies of that form and also the bond authority rules.

Because you were actually on the lease you should have more rights in regard to getting your bond back than if you simply paid your old flatmate the dosh.

If I was you, Id deal with the landlord / situation as follows;

1) Call or Text Landlord and request for written advice on the damages including photos and the estimated cost of repair for each as well as your total bond value the landlord is holding. Ensure that you tell the landlord that you are sending either written email or letter with the same request. I think they have 7 or 14 days to respond in writing to that. (at least here they do). If they dont respond in that time you usually have a case with the small claims. If he has already fixed any damages make sure you get receipts of all the labor and or the products if he did it himself.

2) Once you get landlords list, you need to start calling up contractors to gain written estimates on repair costs. You should get two or three quotes for each damage in the landlords written list to make sure your pricing is competitive.

3) Make sure you list your date of entry and exit to the property, list your (and other) flatmates as well. You may feel that certain damages were "shared" or due to other "houemates" liabilities which you could probably argue, in that case you could "offer" to pay partial costs of damage calculated on your time in the property against theirs.

4) Do you have a condition report and terms and conditions of lease i.e. your responsibilities on exit of property? Better check this.

5) You dont need to pay for the dishtowel and DO NOT pay ANY ADDITIONAL MONEY AT ALL - not until you have resolved the current damages. That is madness. Also the dish towel is not part of the property and any settlement they want is outside of your discussion with the landlord and property itself. By the way remember to charge your flatmate $35 for that glass of OJ they drank eight weeks ago.

If you go through the correct authority channels and explain you are doing this with your landlord, I am sure you will find that things will resolve more easily. I once had a "dodgy" landlord and when i called the small claims and got the correct info I needed, it seemed to me that his dodginess was more ignorance of his responsibilities and abilities to charge for certain damages.

Is this all worth $700? To me it would be. People like this operate repeatedly in the same way and should be aware of the guidelines.
posted by Under the Sea at 10:13 PM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

My "twenty minutes" time estimate is not meant to dig at the $20 knock-it-off letter mentioned above my comment, it was just a coincidence and I didn't see the need to preview before posting :)

$20 is a sweet bargain for some actual "teeth" beyond "I looked something up on the internet and I might talk to a lawyer at some point if you don't respect my authoritah!"
posted by aydeejones at 10:14 PM on January 17, 2012

Oh yeah , I think definitely the best option is to get a lawyer to send a letter on letterhead. Do you know a lawyer?

If you don't have that option or you think it wont have the right strike on you landlord, then i recommend the first procedure which is to find out the correct procedures from the rental authority.

Even if a cheap lawyer visit & letter costs you $200 or so, you still get $500 back right?
posted by Under the Sea at 10:20 PM on January 17, 2012

If you used your roomates dish towel to clean the bathroom and they aren't happy about it (they're obviously not) then I'm guessing you've done similar in the past? They regard you as irresponsible? If so they are not going to help you out. So stop dealing with them as suggested above.

Ask for an itemized bill absolutely but be realistic about costs. Getting a concrete walkway covered in spray paint cleaned up is going to be a major pita if its not a few drips but you just set the desk on it and sprayed away, not covering the concrete at all. That is also the kind of thing thst make landlords crazy so fyi. And if you really did drill into a vent pipe (did you?) that's going to be a couple hundred too. It's big enough they will have to let the drywall patch set, then texture, prime and paint so yeah its multi day if its a big hole. And you're paying someone to go out there 2-3 days and work on it. The dishwasher thing sounds like bullshit but you are dealing with at least one person who is not willing to cut you any slack (tea towel) so keep that in mind.
posted by fshgrl at 12:23 AM on January 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Hi fshgrl, I totally could have been more considerate about the dish towel--I did wash it and hang it to dry, but I suppose it's moot; I've used them before, for appropriate dish-related activities, like wiping dishes or laying them out flat to put wet dishes on, but that was the first time I've used a dish towel for more vigorous cleaning.

As for the spray paint, I did cover the sidewalk, but some light spray did get though the newspaper--but I scrubbed it with a steel brush and after a few weeks I couldn't tell where the spray paint was! This was last fall, and I was unaware/uninformed of any repairs on the part of the landlord until I received my roommate's email.

Also, I'm not sure about this, but my much more knowledgeable friend did use a studfinder when drilling the holes over the vent pipe (next time, I will definitely check for vents), so I assume that the screws went into the studs rather than the vent/vent pipe. Would I be able to know if the vent pipe was damaged? It's been functioning fine for over a year, but I'm obviously not knowledgeable about home improvement. Oh, and it's not a large hole, it's a neat screw sized hole, if that make a difference.

Another concern is that my roommate Y has moved into the room and has been living there since Jan. 1st., but there was no walkthrough by the landlord, just by me and her to ask if she was alright with the condition of the room.

(I never want to discuss roommates and dish towels in this much detail ever again. I don't even know why I'm focusing on it so much, in light of of the other, larger issues).
posted by blue rare at 10:35 AM on January 18, 2012

The cheapest studfinders I have seen are simply magnets, sensing nails in the studs (there are also fancy kinds that deal with density of the underlying wall). So it's possible the studfinder used picked up the metallic vent pipe.
posted by holyrood at 1:58 PM on January 18, 2012

In that case they do sound unreasonable so yeah I'd definitely ask for itemized bills.
posted by fshgrl at 2:56 PM on January 18, 2012

Best answer: I'm a landlord. I think you're being screwed over. This guy is one of those landlords whose business model depends on keeping security deposits every which way he can, the success of which depends on tenants not knowing their rights or unmotivated or unable logistically to fight for them.

* The acid wash seems like overkill unless you were renting a luxury condo. Most paint will wear off concrete in a year or two, or with the application of a stiff hose stream. If not, a small jar of mineral spirits ($5) would also do the trick.
* The screw/vent thing is screwy. As asked, how would he know? Even if so, how is this an actual problem? Most galvanized vents are very leaky as a natural state.
* The dishwasher, as you say, is something you deny ever damaging.
These -- especially the vent -- all sound like angles he's used in the past to bump up the cost of his "repairs". Not just a hole in the wall -- gotta rip out the whole wall and call in an HVAC guy! Not just a quick power wash -- an ACID wash! Not just a dishwasher repair -- a dishwasher REPLACEMENT! (After which he probably installs it in another unit anyway.) Etc. This is someone who habitually looks for ways to pad the invoice.

Start, as noted above, with a demand letter. State the appropriate statute (Calif. or L.A. or whatever) that requires returning the security deposit. State reasons that you believe the charges above are invalid and you dispute them. Demand proof that the damage claimed is as extensive as you've been told. Then close by saying if you don't hear by XX date you will be taking further action. Send the letter certified, so they have to sign for it. This may be enough. The next step after that would be a lawyer letter. Keep in mind here that legal costs, if you go to court and win, may come out of your landlord's pocket, and you may be entitled to double or triple damages in some jurisdictions. (If you can be sure and state that upfront in your letter, all the better.) Essentially, present yourself as someone who knows his rights, and has the backbone to stand up to his bullying and obfuscation if you go to court.

If you do end up in court, you'll want some proof to show regarding the dishwasher and the wall and the sidewalk. Any photographs you already have would be ideal. Any assistance and corroboration from your roommate(s) will help your case.
posted by dhartung at 3:45 PM on January 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

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