Problem with a rental agreement, advice please?
March 14, 2012 6:03 AM   Subscribe

Problem renting an apartment.

Hi there!

Hope this is the right area for this. I wasn't entirely sure which forum it should go to.

I'm asking this question since, well, frankly, I'm a bit new to renting a property and this is my first time dealing with this sort of thing. About a month ago I was trying to rent my first apartment. At the time I believed that everything was fine and dandy and that renting wouldn't be a problem. I had given the renter a check for my deposit and my rent and he had given me a key, he had also asked me to sign a somewhat strange contract, strange in the sense that it was literally written down right in front of me with marker and I don't have a copy.

Currently I am living in a school dormitory, and I found out the following day that I wouldn't be able to leave until June without paying a heavy, heavy fine. It was something that I couldn't afford if I was going to be moving into this new place.

I contacted the renter the very next day after I had signed the papers and informed him I wouldn't be able to rent. He told me that it was totally fine and I had nothing to worry about, that he understood this sort of thing happens and I could call him in the future if I was interested in renting again. I thought everything was fine. Since he didn't say anything about returning the key, I kind of took my sweet time with returning it, and I assumed he'd just toss out the checks. (I know this was a really, really stupid assumption, and kind of dangerous, so let's please not go into that.)

I opened my bank account yesterday to find that both the deposit and rent had been extracted. I've tried to contact this guy, but not received a response yet, and I'll continue to call him until hopefully I hear back from him. I contacted the girl I would have been living with and she kind of made it sound like I wouldn't be getting anything back.

I realize I might lose some money, but I really can't afford to lose all of it. Also, is it legal for someone to be taking my money for something I didn't receive? I realize I made some mistakes with this issue, but I'd like to get as much of my money back as I can, if not all. It represents a serious hit to my wallet, especially if I don't get anything in return for it.

Any advice? I'm new to this whole renting thing, so any info would help.
posted by Rosengeist to Work & Money (16 answers total)
The legality bit can't be addressed without us knowing what jurisdiction you're in. Where are you?

That said, assuming talking to the guy doesn't work out...given that you never moved in and the contract was written by this guy in marker (!) you might consider small claims court after researching the relevant laws in your area.
posted by phoenixy at 6:16 AM on March 14, 2012

First, correct the mistakes you can correct. Go by in person, get a copy of the contract, and return his key. When he hands you a copy of the contract, look over it while standing there, and see if it says something about breaking the contract.

If it does and it says he keeps everything, or if it doesn't say anything at all about breaking the contract, then ask him if he'd be willing to return your money considering you changed your mind within 24 hours.

If he's not inclined to return the money, ask if it is being applied to the deposit and first month's rent for your friend who you would have lived with. If yes, you need to talk with her.

If he's not inclined to return the money, do you want to live there after June? If so, work it out with him and your friend that he keeps the deposit check but returns the first-months rent check until June.

For every person you talk with, write yourself a dated note on a piece of paper. You don't have to do this in front of them, but you need to do it while it's all fresh. If you make an agreement with either of them, send a follow-up email or a letter with delivery confirmation with the details of the agreement in it. Don't do this in marker (!).

Most renting problems are very specific to location, so you might want to share where you are.
posted by Houstonian at 6:18 AM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

First thing today, call your bank and talk to them about the fact that you have some unauthorized activity on your account and see what they have to say!! Don't wait, RUN to your bank or to the phone. Who are you banking with? I had a landlord try and cash a cheque that he claimed to have lost, got in touch with my bank and put a stop payment on the cheque and let them deal with the charges since I had a banking guarantee. Cost about $15, but I was able to get the fee waived after a second phone call and got my money back.

Can you get in touch with a local tenancy organization to see if they could offer advise or legal aid on getting your deposit back? If you're a student (I am too) and probably low income from the sounds of it, they might be able to offer free legal counselling. It sounds really sketchy that you didn't receive a proper copy of a lease and that it was written in marker?

This is probably self evident now, but next time you decide to rent an apartment, make sure to read the full lease properly before signing! I must admit I didn't read my first lease properly and was shocked to later find out it had clauses about servants not dumping human waste in the street, something about an elevator repair clauses (we lived in a single family house), and gas lanterns for light, etc. Its hilarious to think about now, but could of ended rather badly if something worse had happened. Another good idea is to consider asking landlords for tenant references. I did this with my current landlord and he was happy to provide, and I have had nothing but good experiences renting from them.

Good luck!
posted by snowysoul at 6:19 AM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

What's legal is going to depend on some combination of what the local laws are and what the contract you signed stipulates. Since you've said neither where you live nor the content of what you signed, nobody can say anything for certain about what is legally required here.

The girl you would've been living with probably doesn't know much of anything about this. She is not the person to ask.

It's been less than 24 hours since you tried to get in touch with the landlord. Breathe deeply, and give it a bit more time.
posted by jon1270 at 6:19 AM on March 14, 2012

Response by poster: I am currently in Savannah Georgia. Also, I was able to contact the renter, he gave me 2 options. He could not refund the deposit, but he could 1.) refund my rent in full, or 2.) consider it as rent for April.
posted by Rosengeist at 6:20 AM on March 14, 2012

Are you trying to get the deposit and the rent check back?

(Small thing -- you are the renter. He's the landlord or owner or something like that.)
posted by Houstonian at 6:22 AM on March 14, 2012

Not refunding the deposit is pretty typical in my experience. Since you won't be living there in April, you don't want to pay rent in April. Please go get a copy of the lease you signed. Always keep copies of anything you put your name on in the future.
posted by Think_Long at 6:23 AM on March 14, 2012

Listen, he CAN refund the deposit, he just doesn't want too. Get a copy of the lease, as everyone has said, and see what it says about the deposit. If it doesn't say anything, you may have grounds to take him to small claims court.

When I was a landlord, I had a girl do this to me. However, she requested substantial changes (like the carpet being taken out) , gave me a deposit, then backed out. She acted quickly enough to put a hold on the check. You know what I thought? Well played. Good for you acting fast.
posted by stormygrey at 6:34 AM on March 14, 2012

You really need a copy of the contract. The landlord can't just keep or return money according to whim. What was written down? Was it even a lease, or was this going to be a month-to-month arrangement?

This Georgia Landlord Tenant Handbook may be helpful. It does say that The landlord can also keep the security deposit for damage caused by the tenant's early termination of the lease, but I'm having a hard time imagining that backing out less than a day after signing an improvised contract constitutes significant damage.
posted by jon1270 at 6:37 AM on March 14, 2012

That deposit is insurance against the landlord having to find a different rentor. It's the "no I won't flake out" deposit (which you did.) You don't really have any right to it any more : / An expensive life lesson to learn, unfortunately
posted by MangyCarface at 6:41 AM on March 14, 2012

DO NOT listen to anyone here about your deposit. I am not a lawyer, but in many jurisdictions if the landlord is able to mitigate the damages caused by you breaking a lease, then they have no right to keep your money, and they are REQUIRED to try to mitigate those damages. Meaning that they have to try to rent the apartment out, they can't just leave it vacant and keep your money.

This depends on the jurisdiction and I have no idea if it's the law in Georgia, but no one who is telling you "the money is gone" knows what they're talking about either.

Good luck.
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:48 AM on March 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Was the deposit a security deposit against damages to the apartment during your tenancy or an application deposit? Its fairly normal for a landlord to keep an application fee/deposit when you back out but I doubt he has the right to keep a security deposit (which you would normally get back at the end of your tenancy)
posted by missmagenta at 6:56 AM on March 14, 2012

You have a tricky situation that might not be solvable with self-help actions unless you were very knowledgeable about the law, which you aren't. You really need an attorney or a tenants' rights group on your side giving you advice or even representing you.

Basically, the day you backed out, you should have called your bank and put a stop payment on the checks. Because they are signed agreements to draft money from your account, this is not unauthorized activity and have a presumption of validity.

I doubt you'll be able to get your money back without going to small claims court, but you can at least try.

1. Read up on Georgia law. Cite it in a letter demandnig return of your money. Give a deadline. Worth a shot, price of a stamp.
2. Have an attorney draft a letter of demand. Threaten to protect your rights in court if necessary.
3. Next, you pretty much have to follow through and sue. You'll be responsible for paying court/service costs, but they might be awarded to you in the ruling.

Be warned that even mitigation is a low bar for landlords to cover (they can use straw applicants, for instance) and one of the things that could happen is a countersuit for the entire value of the rent lost. Just be prepared if the landlord is a real shark. This is another reason real legal advice is probably necessary.
posted by dhartung at 11:15 AM on March 14, 2012

Did he go ahead and rent to someone else for that period? Frankly, if you signed a lease, and you still had the keys for the relevant period, then it kinda seems like you are still the tenant, your conversation notwithstanding. He can't mitigate by finding another tenant if you still have access to the apartment.

It sounds to me like you should get your deposit back for sure but the month's rent may be gone. Not a lawyer etc.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 11:20 AM on March 14, 2012

Get a receipt for the keys when you return them.
posted by paulg at 1:16 PM on March 14, 2012

You should look into whether your school has free or cheap legal advice available for students. I am under the impression that most universities do offer this.
posted by ktkt at 5:39 PM on March 14, 2012

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