Security deposit dispute
November 5, 2017 10:05 PM   Subscribe

I subtracted money from my sublessee's security deposit for damages, but they won't accept my check. How should I handle this?

My roommate from the past year just moved out. She was subletting her room from me and had no contact with the owner of our home, my landlord. He and I have an agreement in our written lease that I can sublet the other two rooms in his house and just let him know whenever someone new moves in- he's fairly hands off and I only see him if he needs to come do repairs.

We have a roommate agreement that everyone has to read, contribute to if so desired, and sign off on after moving into the house. It states "Money will be subtracted from the deposit for repairs in case of major damage, such as holes in walls, broken windows, etc." I take a security deposit of $500 from each new roommate and pay them back when they move out (my own deposit that I've paid to my landlord is $1500). I've never had to withhold any part of a deposit yet, in three years.

My roommate who recently moved out left several stains on her carpet that will require a steam cleaner to remove. The cost of renting a carpet cleaner for a day in my town is $40, and the soap is $10. I don't have a car and will have to borrow a friend's to transport a carpet cleaner to my house and back. Therefore, I decided to charge her $60 and give her $440 of her deposit back.

When she came over to exchange her house key for her deposit she became very upset when she learned I was withholding $60 and told me that the stains shouldn't cost more than $25 to clean and that she wouldn't accept any less than $475 of her deposit. She refused to accept my check and wouldn't return her house key. Then, she told me that she was going to find the landlord's contact information and tell him that he needed to come over and inspect the room to decide how much money she should receive back.

After she left, I had our locks changed since I wouldn't put it past her to come back and do something malicious. I called the landlord to warn him that she might contact him, and he told me he wanted to come over and look at the room. That was almost a week ago and despite me texting him and trying to call him I haven't heard anything since.

My former roommate keeps texting me asking when she can meet with the landlord and saying she wants her money back. I thought about sending her deposit back to her through certified mail but haven't been able to obtain her new address. She threatened to take me to small claims court, so I'm trying to document every communication we have so it'll be clear that I've been trying to give her back her deposit this whole time.

My biggest fear is that she's going to find my landlord's contact information (it's pretty easy to find his work phone number just by googling) and harass him enough to make trouble for me. I've been the ideal tenant my whole 3.5 years of living here, but apart from letting him know about any needed repairs I've stayed pretty low under his radar mainly because my rent hasn't been raised since I've moved in and housing prices have been soaring in my neighborhood lately. I'm also on a month to month lease, though I'd prefer the security of a year long one, and there is the real possibility that he could get me to move out and have new tenants move in who'll pay twice my current rent.

I also don't want to deal with the hassle of going through small claims court, though I'm doubtful she'll actually go down that road. This roommate has been a nightmare to live with since she moved in (she turned out to be a compulsive liar and functioning alcoholic) and while I know I could just give her the money for such a small amount, I don't want her to bully me into getting her way on this one final thing.

So, any advice for what I should do in regards to getting her to take the deposit back would be appreciated, especially if it doesn't involve my landlord. Thanks!
posted by mollywas to Work & Money (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Just send her the $475 and never give her another thought.
posted by prize bull octorok at 10:12 PM on November 5, 2017 [16 favorites]

Take notes and photos as always.
posted by Freedomboy at 10:35 PM on November 5, 2017

This is a lot of stress for $35. Pay the jerk the $475 she wants, and just absorb the extra cost. If you must, you could try to beg a friend for a drive to borrow and return the carpet cleaner.

I've been the main tenant in a very inexpensive apartment, and sometimes you just have to eat the cost of a bad tenant in order to keep the peace so your own great financial situation can stay stable. Compare paying her that $35 to the cost of moving if she sours things with the landlord - it's worth it.

What you asked was reasonable though- sorry she was a jerk.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:53 PM on November 5, 2017 [25 favorites]

How stained is this carpet exactly? When's the last time they were steam cleaned? Because a few spots that will come out easily with a steam cleaner over the course of a year doesn't really sound like "major damage." It's reasonable to expect that carpets will need cleaning between tenants. I obviously haven't seen the damage, but a routine cleaning task that needs to be performed periodically anyway is not necessarily up to the level of broken windows.

Honestly, the $35 difference between her $25 and your $60 sounds like a cheap price to pay to have her not harass your landlord (who is not her landlord and so is not required to get involved here) and have her out of your life.
posted by zachlipton at 10:58 PM on November 5, 2017 [12 favorites]

I can't remember if this is just "best practice" or actually the law in California, but one of the Nolo Guides for landlords recommends doing a pre-move-out walk through to notify renters of likely deductions with enough time for them to repair the problem themselves. If she thinks the stains can be addressed for $25, she could do so herself. I'd at least offer her that option now rather than locking her out. My understanding of the legal relationship here is that a court would consider you to be her landlord, I believe (which also means that the landlord is making a mistake by stepping in). You might want to read one of those Nolo Guides to get a sense of the obligations that a court might consider you responsible for. For instance, landlords need to put all security deposit deductions in writing and provide it to her within 21 days of her departure.
posted by slidell at 10:58 PM on November 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

Oops, just realized that you didn't say you were in California; I don't know where I got that idea from. You should find a guide that is specific to your state, if possible.
posted by slidell at 10:59 PM on November 5, 2017

$35 is not the hill to die on. I know it's the principle of the thing, and personally I'd be pissed too, but just let it go and give her $475. It will be worth it in reduced stress.
posted by Slinga at 11:06 PM on November 5, 2017 [12 favorites]

Another vote for Pay It And Move On. There is no way out of this that costs less than $35 in time, money, and stress.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:41 PM on November 5, 2017 [4 favorites]

^I've been the ideal tenant my whole 3.5 years of living here, but apart from letting him know about any needed repairs I've stayed pretty low under his radar mainly because my rent hasn't been raised since I've moved in and housing prices have been soaring in my neighborhood lately.^

Okay, know this is not what you want to hear, but: having been this person, in this sweet but precarious situation, I *strongly* recommend you don't risk screwing it up over $35.

Even if you think she's being totally, utterly unfair, you have to focus on the big picture here. I know that sticking up for yourself feels good, but the temporary high is not worth cutting off your nose to spite your face over.

Pay her the $35. Tell your landlord it's all good, dispute over. Think of it as the price of doing business (which, subletting, you kind of are). Go to bed happy that you're not a compulsive liar or alcoholic, and you have a cool housing setup
that she doesn't have. You win. :)
posted by Salamander at 11:59 PM on November 5, 2017 [7 favorites]

Carpet cleaning (for small stains that will, in fact, come out) is considered part of a landlord's usual maintenance and upkeep costs where I live, and isn't supposed to be deducted from security deposits (according to case law, at least; practice, of course, varies). This varies by jurisdiction, and may not be the case where you live. But if you're going to be in the position of a landlord relative to these subletters, then you should perhaps educate yourself about the law and procedures where you live, so that you can be a responsible landlord. Security deposits, for example, are usually the tenant's money simply held in trust. So deducting from the security deposit usually requires going through a specific process, including documentation of actual costs incurred via receipts. Otherwise it may be considered theft, or at least would not hold up in small claims court.
posted by eviemath at 2:39 AM on November 6, 2017 [6 favorites]

This is what I like to call Fuck You Money(TM).

Pay her the $475 to be rid of her. She's a liar and a functioning alcoholic, her inner life is an absolute misery. That's punishment enough. Write the check and don't look back.
posted by jbenben at 4:48 AM on November 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm going to refine my answer somewhat. To truly qualify as Fuck You Money(TM) you should send her back the full $500 without explanation.
posted by jbenben at 4:51 AM on November 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

You've already spent money to change the locks. If you have her email, you can email her to let her know that her lease is over, the locks have been changed, and if she comes by the house you will consider it trespassing. Inquire about an address to send the remainder of the security deposit, if she'd like it at all, and then send her $450 and the receipt for the cleaning stuff. If all you have is your phone number to text, you'll have to convey it that way, but I think email is better because it's not a real-time exchange, just a statement of facts. If she refuses, open a new bank account and transfer in $440, and let it sit there accruing interest until you eventually have to surrender it to her. Act in good faith, you will feel better about it in the end.

(FYI, it costs $24 to file a small claims court filing in Flagstaff AZ and it will cost her $26 to get a judgement document certified. Add $8 to get it served to you by mail. That's already $58 of the $60 she wants from you. You can safely call her bluff on the small claims thing, this is actually too small.)
posted by juniperesque at 5:57 AM on November 6, 2017

That's already $58 of the $60 she wants from you. You can safely call her bluff on the small claims thing, this is actually too small.

In most jurisdictions (I dunno about yours), a tenant can sue for up to triple any illegally-withheld security deposit (and as described here, the $60 is illegally withheld - even leaving aside the fact that carpet cleaning is generally the landlord’s responsibility, you need to provide receipts for what you’ve actually spent and only withhold that amount in order for it to be legal, you can’t just withhold what you think you’re gonna spend ahead of spending it), so assuming that all that’s at stake is the $60 is a mistake.
posted by Itaxpica at 6:07 AM on November 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Not to mention that even if it was only $60, never underestimate the lengths that an aggrieved person will go to to make your life difficult. I’ve had landlords that I would have gladly spent $58 and lots of time to get $60 from just for the satisfaction of dragging their derelict asses to court.
posted by Itaxpica at 6:10 AM on November 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

None of this is worth the drama. Give her the full amount of money back because the pain will only continue if you fight over $35. Unless it's your last $35 in the world and you will die without it, it ain't worth it. No good will come from fighting this out with her. NONE.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:10 AM on November 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

If she hassles your landlord, that will cost you much more than $35. How much money will you save in the future on rent (or heaven forbid moving costs) if you continue to fly under his radar? She's not worth it. The risk, stress and worry is not worth $35, either.

You've changed the locks. Inform her that you did so when she moved out. She cannot return. Tell her by email you will mail her a check for $475 and request her address. Send by certified mail, return receipt requested. Wash your hands of her.
posted by zarq at 9:13 AM on November 6, 2017

I don't have a car and will have to borrow a friend's to transport a carpet cleaner to my house and back. Therefore, I decided to charge her $60 and give her $440 of her deposit back.

I appreciate the difficult situation you are in, the fact that your subletter was a jerk and the fact that you are trying to do the right thing here. However, it's not the roommate's fault that you don't have a car and I could see her objecting to the somewhat arbitrary nature of "Oh and $10 because I need a ride...."

So, again, I sympathize and this is annoying. That said, it's super duper worth just saying "Fine, here's $475, please sign this thing saying we are square" and following up on eviemath's suggestion that you make sure what you are doing is in line with landlord-tenant law where you are. Because where I've been a landlord, most small stains would be "normal wear and tear" and the cost of cleaning between tenants is the landlord's responsibility. I understand your situation is slightly different but in the interest of wrapping this up QUICK before your landlord becomes (any more) a part of it, I'd just cut your losses.
posted by jessamyn at 9:38 AM on November 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

Totally agree with everyone about cutting your loses, paying the the $475 and moving on with your life. However I think your mistake was asking for far too little if the damage was serious and too much if the damage was not.

If you had hired carpet cleaners, they would have set your back a few hundred dollars and if you valued your time at a sensible wage, I am sure the time you spent picking up the cleaner, cleaning, returning it, etc would push the cost to $150 or so. That would leave you more room to negotiate and, in fact, would be the fair cost if the damage was above the usual wear and tear. If it was not, $0 is probably the right number.
posted by bsdfish at 11:47 AM on November 6, 2017

I think you should charge the cost of carpet cleaners and charge for the failure to return keys. How old was the carpet and how long was she in the room?
posted by ihadapony at 6:10 PM on November 6, 2017

« Older Do I have to pay back the vacation days I used...   |   Overthinking primary (elementary) school: how much... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.