How to dispute a move-out bill?
August 18, 2012 10:36 AM   Subscribe

How do I go about disputing this apartment move-out bill?

A few months ago my wife and I moved out of our last apartment (New Jersey, for jurisdiction) and into our house. We had to pay a 2-month lease breaking penalty, which we paid in full. The apartment complex sent us a bill for replacing the carpet, which we contested repeatedly via email. We claimed that there was no major damage - rips / tears / indelible stains - to the carpet, which was 3 years old. They supposedly based the charge on a 6 year lifespan, which we claimed was inaccurate, and the pro-rated math did not add up for the 6 year lifespan. We attempted to discuss this as a 5 year lifespan would have given a more realistic amount, a little more than half the bill they sent us, but this was ignored.

Now, we've got a letter from a collection agency saying we have 30 days to dispute this bill or pay it. We want to continue to dispute both the fact of the bill and its amount. What is our next step? How can we continue to dispute this bill? Also, how can I make sure the collection agency doesn't start harassing either of us by phone? FWIW, the bill is well under $1K.
posted by graymouser to Work & Money (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Is it for normal wear and tear? They can't charge you for carpet that has to be replaced someday.

Contact your local tenant board for help here.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 10:58 AM on August 18, 2012

Did you take pictures of the place before you left?
posted by brujita at 10:58 AM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

They are replacing the carpet and attempting to charge us the pro-rated life of the carpet, which they claim is about 3 years. They claim that the carpet was damaged. We did not take pictures, but they did - most of which showed things like furniture indents, no indelible stains or rips in the carpet.
posted by graymouser at 11:00 AM on August 18, 2012

I've written checks $20 short before in a similar situation. It makes you feel better, and it's doubtful that business is going to turn $20 over to a collection agency.
posted by itheearl at 11:07 AM on August 18, 2012

To be clear: the amount is around $500 and it has been turned over to a collection agency already.
posted by graymouser at 11:10 AM on August 18, 2012

What is our next step? How can we continue to dispute this bill?

Read your rights. If you tell a debt collector to stop calling you, in writing, they are legally obligated to do so. If you send them such a request in compliance with the requirements described at the FTC site, and they contact you anyway, you can sue 'em in small claims court. That's likely to get nasty, but there's up to $1,000 in it if you can win. Where debt collectors violate this law, consumers who bring these lawsuits routinely win, even without a lawyer.

Assuming they do play by the book though, they're going to have to file a lawsuit. This too will likely be in small claims court. At this point, you need to think about your legal options. Read up. You may just want to fight the thing. Your prior landlord doesn't get money just because he says so. He needs to prove his damages. That means going to court with whatever evidence he's got v. whatever evidence you've got. Doesn't sound like you've got much, which is problematic.

If you win, that's the end of it. If you lose, the court will order you to pay, and it'd be in your best interest to do so as quickly as possible. If you don't, the landlord/collection agency can institute "proceedings supplemental" to garnish your wages until the debt is paid, or just seek a contempt order if they think you've got the cash.

Under normal circumstances I'd recommend hiring a lawyer, but we're talking about $500. It'll cost you almost that just to get him to show up. So you may be better off just taking your chances. Instead, I'll recommend setting up an appointment for a free consultation. Most lawyers in this line of work will talk to you for half an hour or so to figure out whether they can help you. That may be all you need.
posted by valkyryn at 11:43 AM on August 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

Take a look at these two pages.

Basically, the whole situation sounds VERY questionable - Short-term rentals (less than 5-10 years) virtually never charge you for "normal wear and tear" (defined in that second link), unless your lease explicitly spells it out. And even if you did destroy the carpet, any carpet installed in good faith just doesn't have a three-year lifetime - They usually come with a longer warranty than that, and a lifetime estimated at a few times the warranty - So looking at 10-25 years, not three.

IANAL, but you may want to consider proactively taking the landlord to small claims court to settle this (instead of waiting for them to sue you). If nothing else, it will demonstrate to the court that you want to resolve this rather than hide from it (which forcing a collection agency to sue you would tend to look like).
posted by pla at 2:48 PM on August 18, 2012

Find a local tenant's rights organization.
posted by twblalock at 3:00 PM on August 18, 2012

I recently had a similar situation come up. Here's what I have done, although in my case this was with the original landlord and not collections, IANAL, etc.:

1) Looked up the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (VRLTA), noted specific sections to quote.

New Jersey has similar regulations; look specifically for the "Security Deposit" section.

2) Drafted a dispute letter, sent it certified mail with return receipt.

For this, I googled sample dispute letters. I quoted sections of the VRLTA and IRS publications. Carpet is included in the 5-year property class per the depreciation schedules in IRS Publication 946. Feel free to memail me if you'd like an example.

You say you disputed this with your landlord; was there any resolution, or did they just turn it over to collections?

Is it a small management company, direct from the owner, or an apartment complex? Many of the landlord laws (like the VRLTA) apply to landlords who have over X number of units.

At this point, dispute the validity of the debt with the collections agency (via certified mail, return receipt) and include that you had disputed it with the original claimant and had been negotiating a settlement. If you need credit for anything, dispute it on your credit report to the three bureaus if it has been reported.
posted by bookdragoness at 9:38 AM on August 19, 2012

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