What does "normal wear and tear mean" at the end of a lease?
September 19, 2005 7:58 PM   Subscribe

Please help us figure out if our previous landlord is bending the law.

In July, we gave her ample notice that we were moving out. At that time, we asked her for the name of the paint that she used so that we could touch up some areas that were marked by fabric. She agreed to this solution, but in the remaing 45 days of the lease never returned our phone calls.

Please keep in mind that we never had visitors stay for more than a couple of hours, never had anything that would resemble a party and were nothing more than model tenants during our lease.

In an effort to help her turn over the unit, we also steam cleaned the 100 or so square feet of cream colored Berber carpet, patched the ten or so nail holes we made and cleaned the entire unit very thoroughly. (The whole unit has approximately 500 sqare feet of space. It took us three full days to clean it to our satisfaction after we emptied the unit.)

When the unit was emptied, we noticed there were small scratches in the soft maple floor. Distressed by this development, we went over the list of precautions we had taken to prevent such scratches: rubber feet under all furniture, carpets under much of the furniture, regular and thorough cleaning to prevent build up and care when on the wood floor. Of the several hundred square feet of wood flooring, there were just a few square feet that had any marks and just a fraction of that was noticeable without getting down on your hands and knees.

After 19 days of not hearing from her since we moved out, we took it upon ourselves to call her. From the get go, she was on the offensive. She claimed the rugs was filthy beyong her imagination and it cost her $100 to have it cleaned. The walls were so badly damaged in her estimation that she had to repaint the entire unit. Lastly, she is having the entire floor refinished. In her own words, "When you rent an apartment, it is your obligation to leave the apartment in the exact condition it was in when you rent it."

To be clear, the unit was finished the day before we moved in. There were no previous tenants. She cut many corners in the unit, which I believe predetermined where the damage was found. The paint, for example, is cheap, matte paint that scuffs if you brush up against it with a black t-shirt on. The cream Berber carpet, while not cheap, is just begging for trouble. Lastly, the soft maple is not floor grade, from what I gather. Furthermore, it was not urethaned or covered in any protective coat. It was simply sanded and polished.

I'm not asking for your legal opinion. We have a lawyer for that. Instead, I hope to gauge her reaction through the lense of your experience. Is my landlord just trying to protect her investment or does she fundamentally misunderstand the notion of "normal wear and tear".
posted by sequential to Home & Garden (28 answers total)
Your landlord is nuts, and is trying to take advantage of you. You have done more cleaning than I ever did in 15 years of renting countless apartments, and I always got my security deposit back.

I hope you saved receipts from and took digital photos of your cleaning job.
posted by googly at 8:10 PM on September 19, 2005

What state?
posted by SweetJesus at 8:13 PM on September 19, 2005

I've had this sort of thing happen before. She's just trying to squeeze money out of you. If you've moved out and have no security deposit to worry about, just ignore her - what's she going to do? Take you to small claims for $100 bucks? If you feel you've done no wrong, walk away head held high and enjoy your new apartment.
posted by loquax at 8:14 PM on September 19, 2005

Response by poster: SweetJesus, I'm in MA. It's a very tenant friendly state, to put it quite mildly.
posted by sequential at 8:19 PM on September 19, 2005

In Ontario, which also has very tenant friendly laws (security deposits are not allowed, for instance), if you're out of the apartment, there is no recourse for the landlord but to take you to small claims court, in which case the onus would be on them that you caused damage to the unit over the amount of $500 (I think). Even if you were in the apartment, they'd have to take you to the housing tribunal and prove that you caused damage. From a legal perspective, I would say you have nothing to worry about, from a moral perspective, you've gone above and beyond the call of duty for a tenant, and done more than I ever would.
posted by loquax at 8:26 PM on September 19, 2005

Here are your tenants' rights in MA, assuming your profile and past residence are in the same state.

I have lived through this same scenario several times, albeit in a different locale. Landlords count on you buckling under their threats. I always leave my apartments sparkling clean, but some landlords try to make a cash grab anyway. As a result, I learned to keep photographs (mailed to myself to prove the date) and receipts. I even went to arbitration (tenancy board) with one landlord. They actually convinced the arbitrator that I had left yellow and red stains on the carpet, even though the "statement of condition" I signed said that there were yellow and red spots on the carpet. (I lost this part of the battle because I spent too much time trying to explain the condition of the building -- I should have just stuck to pointing out that the statement clearly showed that the carpet had yellow and red stains!)

Ask her for photographs of the suite from when you moved out. If she doesn't have them, you have more protection.
If you have any receipts or pictures of the work you did, this might help. Did the landlord give you a statement of the apartment's condition when you moved in? Did you sign it?

Were you in a bona fide apartment or was it a suite in a house or anything like that? If it was part of her home or a house she rents (or whatever), you could check to see if she has a business license for rentals and is in compliance with local bylaws for rented suites, fire alarms, anything you can find. (I've used this before to pressure a landlord who was trying to pull this on me.)

Also, if you go to the tenancy board, you can always make a counter claim. For example, in the "yellow and red stain" scenario, I counter-claimed for loss of use of my apartment during replumbing. If you can think of anything like that, you can ask for a full or partial refund for those days. (The arbitrator awarded me $150 or so.)

I'm not encouraging you to play dirty -- just to be creative, if need be.

How much is your security/damage deposit? Check with the tenancy board to see what rights you have. In BC, you can go to arbitration for $50 -- and loser pays.
posted by acoutu at 8:30 PM on September 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

I answered this before.

Your proper course of action was: leave without steamcleaning the carpet or otherwise attempting to clean it beyond "normal clean", and make sure you didn't leave any sort of security deposit behind, using it as your last month's rent if applicable.

Your landlord is not trying to protect her investment, nor does she misunderstand normal wear and tear. She is stealing from you. It is completely intentional. Completely. There's no misunderstanding. She has your money (I assume, though you don't say it), and she has no intention of giving it back, because she thinks it's free money.

You can attempt to get back your money, though the odds are not great.
posted by jellicle at 8:30 PM on September 19, 2005

It's quite important to know how long you'd been there, seeing as the place was new when you moved in. 6 months is a lot different to 5 years, say, in the wear and tear stakes. It does seem like she's overreacting, though. You've gone to every reasonable length to ensure the place is in a decent state (and then some). But then, all my landlords have fucked me over in some way, and I'm an awesome tenant. It's the way of the world.
posted by nylon at 8:31 PM on September 19, 2005

Sounds like she's trying to gouge you. Did you have what we call a "move-in condition report"? Did you do an incoming inspection with her? An outgoing inspection? Do you have something on paper that shows the condition when you took possession and the condition when you turned over possession? Basically did you do a walk-through of the unit with the landlord present and both agree on the condition?

Anyway, in my experience, you sound like ideal tenants who were doing exactly what every landlord hopes their tenants do upon vacating.

I've always done all the cleaning and had the carpets professionally done, because I always wanted my damage deposit back, so I know what it's like to leave a place *clean*.

Do you have some sort of landlord-tenant dispute resolution mechanism that you can use?

I hope you win. I wish our tenants did all that you say you did.
posted by Savannah at 8:32 PM on September 19, 2005

You're definitely in the right here. Unless it's explictly stated otherwise in your lease, it's absolutely not your obligation to leave the unit exactly the same as you found it. There is an allowance for normal wear and tear, as you mention, and you are really only required to leave it "broom clean" in Massachusetts (I lived and rented for 10 years in MA, and endured many battles with landlords, so I know whereof I speak)...unless, again, your lease specifically states otherwise.

So, your landlord is really just trying to take your security deposit, and hoping you'll cave. What you should do about it depends largely on where you intend to live in the future, and whether you will need her reference. If her reference is really important to you (probably not, since you're presumably living somewhere now), this is what you should do, IMNSHO:

If you have a friend who's a lawyer, or a friend of a friend, or a parent of a friend, or whatever, call that person and talk to them about the situation. Then call your landlord and inform them that you have discussed the situation with a lawyer—it'll be the exact truth, but of course you needn't go into more detail than that. (The advantage of calling a friend, of course, is that a friend won't charge you for the consult, presumably.) Tell them that you expect the entire security deposit, plus interest, sent to you immediately, and that if you don't receive it you are prepared to take further action.

Then, of course, follow through if she doesn't come through with the money. But I'll bet she will.
posted by cerebus19 at 8:36 PM on September 19, 2005

I assume you're trying to get your security deposit back. In Massachusetts, the landlord must return it within 30 days of the end of your last month, or provide a summary of damages with written invoices/estimates for repairs (if she does the repairs herself, she must have a written estimate, she can't just make up a number).

In addition, she owes you for the back interest on the security deposit. If she did not keep the security deposit in its own interest bearing account, she owes interest as if it had collected 5%.

Source: http://www.ago.state.ma.us/sp.cfm?pageid=1190
posted by justkevin at 8:39 PM on September 19, 2005

You mention that you have a lawyer, but you don't say why. Have you been sued? Or do you just mean you consulted with someone? It sounds like you've moved out, so the biggest fear (eviction proceedings, which stay on the databases that your future landlords will check, even if you win) is over. Have you been sued in small claims court? In many states, you are not allowed to have a lawyer represent you in small claims court (although sometimes they can consult), and neither would your landlord.

Have your questions been answered by the posts thus far? It seems like the gut reaction consensus is strongly on your side; are you looking for more than just people's gut senses?

And on preview, noting what justkevin says, a lot of landlords screw up on the technical stuff, and if they havent complied with whatever documentation or deadline requirements there are, you may end up winning the battle without having to do much.
posted by mabelstreet at 8:47 PM on September 19, 2005

Can someone point to a link to tenant rights in Philadelphia?
posted by Rothko at 8:48 PM on September 19, 2005

Rothko, try this as a start.
posted by acoutu at 8:58 PM on September 19, 2005

Rothko, it looks like Pennsylvania has digitized its statutes for some reason (as far as I know), but you could give this .pdf a try (though it's more of a guide), or go to your local library, which should have the Pennsylvania Landlord-Tenant Law, which is what you're looking for.
posted by loquax at 9:04 PM on September 19, 2005

Of course, "has" should read "hasn't".
posted by loquax at 9:04 PM on September 19, 2005

Response by poster: My turn to answer some questions.

How much is your security/damage deposit?
She has a $1,000 security deposit.
Did you have what we call a "move-in condition report"?
Yes, she's not charging me for anything noted on it.
Did you do an incoming inspection with her?
Yes, we walked the entire unit and I pointed out every last detail that her general contractor screwed up. The unit was built with money she flipped from another sale. The construction was done in a hurry and they cut some major corners in doing so.
An outgoing inspection?
In the last two months of our tenancy, she disappeared. Everyone, including the property managers had trouble contacting her. When we left the unit, she was unavailable for a move out inspection. (That despite the fact she was across the street from me when I was told she was not going to be available for it.) I left explicit instructions on how to contact me with our mutual real estate agent, but she continued to call a disconnected number. In fact, she claims to have been leaving me voicemail after the "This number has been disconnected" message.
Do you have some sort of landlord-tenant dispute resolution mechanism that you can use?
Yes, there are various organizations in the area that can help for little or no cost. We also have a lawyer who can mediate on our behalf or guide us through the motions for making our case in small claims if it should come to that.
It's quite important to know how long you'd been there.
We had been there exactly 12 months at the end of our tenancy.
Tell them that you expect the entire security deposit
I've already called her bluff. Our lawyer is a friend. He, in fact, helped us move and saw the apartment in exactly the condition she found it in. He also happens to deal in landlord/tenant law. We feel pretty comfortable from a legal standpoint, but really hope it doesn't come to that.

She does not have photographs of the damage, which if she forces the issue to small claims court will work in our favor. In addition to our lawyer, several other people who pitched in saw the unit and can provide eye witness accounts to counter her claims of damage.

From some of the response I've read, it would appear my landlord's attempt to keep my security deposit is somewhat common. Is this true?
posted by sequential at 9:16 PM on September 19, 2005

Rothko - I know City Paper had a special issue in the last two/three years about tenant's and landlord's rights.

(I see you're UPenn - from personal experience, if you're renting/rented from a place that solely caters to students, threatening to contact your legal counsel will often do wonders. Good luck with everything.

God, I hated living in University City....)
posted by kalimac at 9:26 PM on September 19, 2005

Response by poster:
You mention that you have a lawyer, but you don't say why.
Our lawyer is a friend and former neighbor. We've consulted with him on a number of issues but have never had to retain his services otherwise. His advice has generally been on how to negotiate landlord issues. For example, he helped me draft a letter to my current landlord to get him to fix our drain. He's done his best, as a friend perhaps, to keep me out of court. I appreciate that approach a great deal. At the same time if he were not a friend I probably would have never known that I had any rights to have the drain fixed.
Have you been sued in small claims court?
Unless she tries to pin the cost of the refinishing of the floors on us, which I believe would exceed the $1,000 security deposit, she has no reason to sue us.
In many states, you are not allowed to have a lawyer represent you in small claims court (although sometimes they can consult), and neither would your landlord.
If my understanding is correct, neither of our lawyers would be able to participate directly in court.
Have your questions been answered by the posts thus far?
For the most part I'm just trying to get a sense of other people's experience to compare to my own. I'm really hoping that she was trying to run a short con and found out I am not an easy mark.
posted by sequential at 9:38 PM on September 19, 2005

Response by poster: Something I just found while rereading the Tenant Rights & Responsibilities page:
Statement of Condition: If a landlord or agent takes a security deposit, s/he must give you a signed, separate statement of the present condition of your apartment including a comprehensive list of any existing damage. (1)
When we received the Statement of Condition, it was blank and unsigned. We also never received a signed copy after we submitted it back to her.

Thanks for the link, acoutu. I had poured over it previously for information on "normal wear and tear", but wasn't even looking for the things she failed to do properly otherwise.
posted by sequential at 9:47 PM on September 19, 2005

Best answer: You will want to read the MA law back and forth to make sure you understand it. This alone may give you a leg up. You will want to pay particular attention to issues of notice, form, communication, and deadlines. Any of these that she screws up on will potentially seriously screw her case.

Strategically, your object should be calling her bluff as aggressively as you can. You want to stay out of court, since in court things can not go your way for a variety of reasons out of your control -- even if you think you have a good case. (Somebody I know who thought he had a good case spent three years at Club Fed.)

Have your lawyer friend help you draft a response. A letter, which will be delivered by certified mail. Demand your security deposit back. Demand that she comply with MA law. Cite the law wherever possible. Make sure that the landlord understands that you have legal advice behind you, you are confident of your position, and you aren't taking any of her bullshit.

This alone may cause her to fold -- realizing that she doesn't have somebody who's gonna jump when she says boo.

Do not let yourself get bound up in niceties such as the condition of the apartment when you move in, or whether she tried to contact you or not. This is pure distraction. You want to counter specific claims she is making about the move-out condition, not sling mud back and forth. (This was acoutu's mistake.) She knew to make herself scarce at the end of a lease to play her con, because you would lose the proof of going through the condition of the apartment with her. This should have been a huge red flag. Scumlords like this know that people are harried enough by moving that they'll just cross their fingers and hope for fair treatment rather than going to the extra trouble to notify them in writing or taking move-out photographs or videos.

Good luck.
posted by dhartung at 12:03 AM on September 20, 2005

What happens if a company doesn't go through a complex and note the condition of it before you move in. I'm moving out of my current apartment and we never got the appropriate form.
posted by drezdn at 12:27 AM on September 20, 2005

For the most part I'm just trying to get a sense of other people's experience to compare to my own.

Here are two of my landlord experiences. One landlord was awful, the other great. Most landlords are probably in-between.

Bad landlord: She claimed a huge assortment of damages, some greatly exaggerated, some just pulled out of her ass. For example: When we moved in, she verbally stated we could strip the carpeting from one bedroom since it was rank and moldy. So we tossed out the carpet and painted the underlying plywood. Later, when moving out, she complained that we hadn't put in a new carpet (at our expense? wtf). Being inexperienced renters, we assumed this was just some sort of misunderstanding. Since it was a very small room, we went ahead and installed a new carpet. I think it cost about $500. After this act of good faith, she still withheld about $2000 from our deposit. Later, we took her to small claims court and got a judgement for almost the full amount. But we still haven't been able to collect.

Good landlord: This was a much nicer house--recently remodelled. After we moved in, we divided the living room to create a fourth bedroom. We did not use a makeshift partition--we actually constructed a real studs-and-gypsum wall across the living room. Later, we casually mentioned to the landlord that we had "placed a temporary partition" in the living room. He stopped by to have a look and said it was fine. We removed the wall when we moved out got back our full deposit.

Clearly your mileage may vary. In your case, you're getting screwed.
posted by ryanrs at 3:25 AM on September 20, 2005

She sounds seriously shady, and I've had some shady landlords. Attempting the money grab with such meticulous tenants is desparate.

Do this:
...letter, which will be delivered by certified mail. Demand your security deposit back. Demand that she comply with MA law.

I bet you'll have your check within ten days. (If it goes to small claims, she'll have to pay your court costs too when she loses.)

Regarding the paint, in PA landlords are required to re-paint after each tenant. This also may be the case in MA.
posted by desuetude at 6:16 AM on September 20, 2005

Thanks for the PA links, folks (sorry to quietly hijack some of your thread, sequential).
posted by Rothko at 3:58 PM on September 20, 2005

Drezdn: take photographs of the entire apartment before you move out. I even photographed the inside of the fridge, oven, cupboards, closets, floor, etc. Photograph everything you can think of. Keep receipts for anything you have done -- drycleaning, carpet cleaning, etc.
posted by acoutu at 10:35 PM on September 20, 2005

Response by poster: Quick follow up:

The landlord was bluffing. Without further provocation or communication of any sort she immediately returned 100% of my security deposit plus interest. She failed to return the interest on the last months rent, which was paid in advance, but I wasn't about to raise a stink over $5.00.

Thanks for all of your helpful and supportive answers!
posted by sequential at 12:28 PM on September 24, 2005


Now use your windfall to buy a digital camera.
posted by dhartung at 1:21 AM on September 26, 2005

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