Our former landlord is trying to rip us off for nearly $4,000 (Prince George Co, Maryland)
November 8, 2012 6:59 PM   Subscribe

Our former landlord is trying to withhold our security deposit and charge us $3,000+ for damages we did not cause. We just received her letter itemizing the "charges" and I just want to make sure we are covering our bases, as it's my first time in this situation. We are in Prince George County, Maryland.

I apologize for the long background:

My fiancee and I moved to the DC area from Michigan at the beginning of August. We were having a very difficult time finding someone to sublet a temporary one bedroom to us, so when a lady offered to rent us her furnished condo in New Carrollton month to month for only $850, we jumped on it. We had some early signs that she was strange--she acted aggressively and insisted on being paid in cash. She did not offer a walkthrough and we did not take photos in the beginning (I wish we had).
The morning after we moved in, we noticed roaches in the bathroom, as well as some traps that she had placed behind the sink. We assessed the situation for a few days and concluded that it was minor--we would see a few in the morning when we turned the light on and then none for the rest of the day. While we probably should have informed her immediately, it didn't seem like a big deal and we weren't planning on staying long. Three weeks after moving in, we spoke on the phone and I brought up the cockroaches. She denied that the condo ever had cockroaches and claimed that she had put down traps just for "defense".

A few weeks later, my fiancee, in a moment of carelessness, locked our keys in the apartment and we were forced to call the landlord to let us in. She was annoyed, as she had every right to be, but we paid her a $50 fee plus her transportation costs. Still, she acted rudely and aggressively, demanding that we remove the small bag of (clean) recyclables and move her various kitchen odds and ends back on the counter (we had shifted some things around to make room for our cookware). The experience was bad enough that we decided to give her a one month notice and find a new place to live. We knew we would be looking for an unfurnished 12 month lease, and her behavior catalyzed the decision for us. I sent her an email informing her that we would be moving out in a month and requested a scheduled walkthrough. I then called and left a voicemail. We never received a response. We called and emailed again later in the month and still no response.

I read on the Maryland Attorney General's website that we needed to send a certified letter requesting the walkthrough, however, we did not have a new address until a few days before we moved out. As soon as we did, I sent the certified letter. Stupidly, I did not take dated photos.

Yesterday, we receive a certified letter from her claiming $3,000+ in charges, including blaming us for the existing cockroaches and claiming that the apartment was filthy. She accompanied it with photos of places in the apartment where there was wear and tear that existed as well as receipts for apparent purchases and cleaning services. FWIW, we cleaned the apartment regularly and it was much cleaner when we left than when we took possession. Her photos don't make the case for any mess.

I have contacted the Attorney General's office and they told me my only option is to file a complaint and they will try to mediate. However, I am learning that renters' rights can vary even at the county level. It appears that I may need to respond to her asserting a dispute of the charges. We plan to take advantage of pro bono legal services nearby. I've been reading this site and it appears that we may be protected by the fact that she did not disclose any of our rights to the security deposit in our lease.

Does anyone have any experience in this? Are there other steps that we should be taking in case we end up in district court? I realize that I should have sent the certified letter earlier and just listed a friend's address and that we should have taken several photos. But will her attempts to have us pay for her condo's improvements work in court?

Are there other things we can use for leverage, like giving her a bad review on Angie's list? It just makes me angry that landlords can get away with us so easily. I feel like this was her plan all along.

Thanks so much.
posted by SpicyMustard to Law & Government (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Is there any documentation of any of this, like e-mails or letters? It sounds like you are in a tough position here.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:28 PM on November 8, 2012

I went to California small claims court with a similar case and no documentation. It was we said vs. landlord said. We prevailed and it was super easy.
posted by BlahLaLa at 7:40 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: treehorn+bunny, I printed out the emails that I sent showing that she had not replied. I printed my phone records showing the times that I called but unfortunately, they don't show incoming numbers so it does not show that she never returned a call. And then the certified letter, though I sent that the day before we moved out.
posted by SpicyMustard at 7:56 PM on November 8, 2012

Almost always, a lease contract will have deposit information and rules in it, did you sign one?

When its all said and done and it settled, turn her ass into the IRS for tax fraud. She most likely isn't paying taxes if she requires cash
posted by couchdive at 7:57 PM on November 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: couchdive, all it says in regards to the security deposit is: "Resident agrees to pay a deposit in the amount of $850 to secure residents pledge of full compliance with the terms of this agreement. Note: The deposit may not be used by tenant to pay rent during the tenancy! The security deposit will be used at the end of the tenancy to compensate the owner for any damages or unpaid rent or charges and will be repaired at resident's expense with funds other than the deposit"

It does not disclose any tenant rights to the deposit, which, according to my layman's reading, seems to suggest that she forfeits the deposit (according to Maryland tenant law).
posted by SpicyMustard at 8:12 PM on November 8, 2012

I'm in Louisiana so our laws are different. My landlord nickel-ed and dime-ed (nicks in paint, I lived there for 3 years!) my $1200 damage deposit and returned $138.00. I filed in small claims court and WON!!!! Like your landlord, she was uncooperative regarding the final walk through. I didn't have pictures before I moved in or after I moved out. It was pretty much my word against hers.

Do you have a small claims court in your area?
posted by JujuB at 8:39 PM on November 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Don't try to figure out your crazy landlord, just file small claims for your entire deposit and let a judge sort it out. Make sure you have all your records and stuff in a manila envelope, maybe write out a timeline so your story's straight, and wait for the day the court gives you to show up. I doubt a judge will believe you did $3000 in damage in 3 months.
posted by rhizome at 8:49 PM on November 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

I agree with your reading of the page linked upthread - the LL cannot hold any part of your deposit for damages if they failed to inform you of your rights to be present at the inspection. In Chicago, informing the tenant of their rights means attaching a copy of the LL/tenant ordinance to the lease. I'd hope there would be something similar in your jurisdiction, because it would be rather silly for it to come down to 'LL says' vs 'tenant says'.

As far as leverage, go over your lease and the tenant's rights information with a fine toothed comb. Without seeing your lease, and just using the page linked above, these two items stick out to me:

* Was your deposit held in a separate, interest bearing account? It cannot be commingled with the assets of your LL (so she can't just hold it in her checking account where she puts all of your other rent payments).
* Did you receive a receipt for your deposit payment and any cash payments you made?

And about the letter she sent you listing the damages: Is everything included in the $3,000 figure itemized and backed up with a receipt and/or paid invoice? Or did she just send a quote from the cleaning company for a 'hoarders-scale' mess and one line item for $200 of miscellaneous supplies?

The agencies listed at the bottom of the page you linked should be able to give you a clearer picture of what it means for the LL to inform you of your rights, help you determine if you're due any compensation for possible deposit violations, and what is required from your LL before they can deduct items from your deposit. You should also try to obtain a copy of the current rules from your local government - instead of just the page from the law library. Although that page is maintained by the state's law library, it also contains a disclaimer at the bottom.

Once you have all of your documents in order, I don't know if the next step would be to send the LL a letter stating your dispute and demanding the return of the deposit, or to just go to small claims court. Hopefully you can find an attorney to help you with this. I honestly do feel like you're in pretty good standing to dispute this with your LL.
posted by youngergirl44 at 9:29 PM on November 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Go to small claims court, she'll have to make a case for keeping your deposit. The burden of proof is on her.

You don't need to hire an attorney or anything like that. Take what you have and go.

In the future, if one is not provided to you, download a punch list and do a walkthrough before you move in, noting the condition of EVERYTHING. Don't be afraid to pick-nits. The landlord sure will.

Take digital pictures. Send the list and a certified letter to the Landlord the following day.

Do the same on the walkthrough when you leave.

Correspond with email as much as you can. Print them out and keep them with your least, photos, punch list, and renter's insurance documents.

Again, file in Small Claims court. Then call People's Court and see if you can settle it there. You get a trip to NY, and an appearance fee. If you win, they cut you the check.

Good Luck!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:58 AM on November 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Small claims court. As further backup you can print out your bank statements where it shows you took out the rent money to pay her in cash (since you have no cashed check as proof).
posted by WeekendJen at 8:53 AM on November 9, 2012

By the way, have you documented the condition and taken photos of your new place yet?
posted by CathyG at 9:10 AM on November 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

The one thing that can make or break a small claims case is having your ducks in a row regarding paper work. Have everything printed up, organized, dated, and verified as much as possible. If you ever had any friends over, have them give a statement concerning the condition of the apartment. Do you have any references from a previous landlord you can include? Go to court well dressed, be polite and articulate, and you'll have a good chance of resolving this favorably.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:36 PM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

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