Lawyer now or lawyer later?
July 16, 2012 10:37 AM   Subscribe

Virginia-tenant-filter: I moved out, they sent me a big bill with a short deadline. Dispute damages first, lawyer later? Or lawyer now for the dispute?

I recently bought a house, yay! However, on moving out I received a bill from the apartment complex (of a national management company) where I lived for two years for about a thousand dollars, due only two weeks from the date of their letter (three days before I received it).

They are threatening collections if they have not received payment in under two weeks.

They charged to paint normal wear-and-tear (as well as added to the walk-through inspection report after giving me my copy), as well as full carpet replacement due to "severe pet stain and odor" (nobody has ever commented on a pet odor even when asked, including their maintenance guys). From other reviews online, it sounds like this is their common practice with anyone who has a pet. The carpets were not new when we moved in, and in my dispute letter I am requesting the installation date of the previous carpet to prorate it against the useful lifetime.

I have emailed the lawyers who handled my house closing, who have sent me the contact information for another lawyer referral. I unfortunately do not have pictures (an oversight I feel badly about), although I have 2+ people willing to be witnesses to the apartment condition.

1. Do I send my polite, factual dispute letter (certified mail with return receipt) now and try to work it out before involving a lawyer? Or would I expect better results from a letter from a lawyer?

2. At the time of signing a pet addendum, they had said the pet deposit was for damages etc, but I can't find the paperwork due to the move and internet searches seem to say that a "pet fee" is not applicable to damages. I'm not sure whether the language was "nonrefundable fee" or "nonrefundable deposit".

Would leaving out the pet deposit section from my dispute letter strengthen my other arguments or would it remove my room to negotiate?

I understand this is not legal advice; my question is more the order-of-operations of disputing and lawyering, as well as general strategies.
posted by bookdragoness to Work & Money (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: First send your polite, factual dispute letter, requesting the following information:

1. Date and cost of carpet in your unit, ask for the receipt. They will have to prove damages. Even if they paid $1000 for the carpet, they wouldn't be able to recover the full amount since it had 2 years of wear on it. If this goes to court (and small claims is where it should go) they'll have to produce that as evidence.

2. Find out if painting is something a tenant is responsible for. Unless you painted the walls something other than "Navajo White" or you colored on them, you typically wouldn't be. Ask your mgt company to tell you where in the lease that painting is not the responsibility of the rental company.

3. Ask the rental company to provide you with the exact verbiage of the "Pet Deposit".

Basically, you are performing "discovery" they should be forthcoming with all of the information.

Here is a link to the Virginia Landlord Tenant Act.

Basically getting a lawyer involved will cost more than the $1000. Not sounding like a pushover, and being willing to go to small claims court over the issue should get them to back down.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:50 AM on July 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

If they provided you an itemized list of deductions withing 45 days of the end of your tenancy, then you will have a hard time getting any of your security deposit back. You will have to take it to small claims.

If they are asking for money above and beyond your security deposit, they will have a hard time getting any money from you if you disagree. They will have to take you to court and win a judgement. If they put the debt into collections, you can force the collections agency to go to court and win a judgement or give up the debt.
posted by doomtop at 10:56 AM on July 16, 2012

Best answer: I believe your best angle is to approach the "added more things after the walk-through", as presumably odor would have been something which could have been detected on the walkthrough, as would "pet stain."

Find your original rental agreement, and read through all the fine print. Sometimes, the agreement states that if you damage an item through intent or negligence, you are responsible for full replacement value, regardless of the actual worth of the item. (I had this happen to me on a countertop)

Another thing that I found when moving out is that if there are a number of black marks (scuffs) on the walls, they will ding you for repainting.

Also! You may not want to dispute this by not paying them, because it may well affect your rental history, which some places require before you move in.
posted by corb at 10:58 AM on July 16, 2012

You may find that simply by pushing back at them with a polite letter will cause them to back down. A lot of unscrupulous landlords try this shit just because a lot of people will pay, thinking they have no other choice.

Otherwise, go straight to small claims. I did this with a friend a few years back, and when we showed up in court the landlord gave his side of the story, we gave ours (with very little proof - no photos, for example) and the judge ruled for us.
posted by BlahLaLa at 11:05 AM on July 16, 2012

Best answer: If you also happen to be in Fairfax county, these guys are really helpful. My landlord backed down after I started asking for specific types of documentation to support the late fees that he was demanding, based on their advice (and the askme that I put up a couple of days ago). If you aren't from around that area, I'd recommend looking for a similar agency in the county government, as they are often knowledgable about the local conventions about the conditions under which landlords can charge particular fees. For instance, your lease may have a clause about pet damage, but these types of agencies may be able to provide you with some information about what it means to have pet damage and what sort of proof needs to be provided about it.
posted by _cave at 11:05 AM on July 16, 2012

Best answer: If they provided you an itemized list of deductions withing 45 days of the end of your tenancy, then you will have a hard time getting any of your security deposit back.

Bullcrap. An itemized list of things they're not supposed to charge for does not make the list bulletproof. Pushback is key here, and asking for receipts for stuff up front is a good start, like asking a lot of questions. Frankly I'd just file the small-claims case today and see what they say after they're served. I wouldn't be surprised if they give you the runaround for answers to these questions if you call on the phone, so just save time, spend the $50 or whatever, and get the questions answered in court.

That two-weeks business is a hustle as well, i.e. a red flag. They want to play hardball? They can tell their reasons to the judge.
posted by rhizome at 11:12 AM on July 16, 2012 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: I rented in Virginia Beach and had contracted through the landlord for their pocket carpet cleaners to do the cleaning, which unfortunately in hindsight seems to have proven a poor choice. So, the carpets were marked "pending" on my walk-through, but no odors were mentioned or noted. They've been replacing carpets in our entire section in the last couple of months.

I have mailed my polite dispute letter addressing the scuffs/paint and carpet, as well as Ruthless Bunny's suggestion to ask for the pet policy. The envelope was fabulously encrusted with official looking documents, between the certified mail barcodes and the return receipt portion.

Thanks everyone for your input; this has been a stressful process, but again Mefi helps save the day! Or, at least my sanity. :)
posted by bookdragoness at 8:50 PM on July 16, 2012

One way to think about this is that a lawyer will do this better than you can and will remove the stress from you entirely. Notice how you are stressing now: about lost language, about appropriate timelines for payment, etc. With a lawyer, you won't have that stress. (All you'll stress about is the lawyer.) If it is worth around $300-$400 to you to not have the stress, you may want to find a lawyer now. Their letter will be more effective in getting the company to go away than yours will be. But if you don't mind the stress, or if you just don't want to spend that money, then you can probably do this yourself.
posted by slidell at 9:47 PM on July 16, 2012

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