Limited liability?
January 26, 2006 8:53 PM   Subscribe

ApartmentFilter: Is it financially safe to not clean up impeccably when moving out of an apartment, or will a landlord normally go after you for money over and above the security deposit, if they think enough work was involved?

The rather exuberant hourly rates listed in the move-out contract for any cleanup you allegedly didn't do "properly" when moving out seem like they could easily exceed the bond even for a pretty thoroughly cleaned place.
Is this likely to result in me being hounded for money in addition to the security deposit? It gets potentially a little worse:

There is a mildew problem in one room that for all I know about mildew (nothing) might need some solid work, so I don't know if it could blow things way over the security deposit.

What normally happens? Do landlords cut their losses at the limit of the deposit, or try to bill you? And if they try to bill you, how much "over" is enough to make it worth the effort?

Should I try to negotiate the cleanup rates in my next contract renewal?

(The landlord runs several apartments, but probably less than a dozen. I am quite happy to lose the security deposit in exchange for less clean-up work when moving out, but I don't want to screw my landlord, and I don't want him to screw me. Or more to the point, I'm ok with being screwed up to the level of the deposit already paid, just not more than that :-). My contract isn't specific about this, it mainly just lists hourly rates and fees (eg $X if the blinds are dusty)).

How much over and above the security deposit (in the landlord's view) is enough to taint referrals? (I imagine it depends on the landlord and how much over, but experiences are welcome)
posted by -harlequin- to Work & Money (17 answers total)
Do landlords cut their losses at the limit of the deposit, or try to bill you? And if they try to bill you, how much "over" is enough to make it worth the effort?

I lived in a corporate-run complex, and they billed $250 over and above the deposit. What drove me nuts me is that in California, there is no clear method for settling disputes that I was aware of. There's no independent agency to turn to. I couldn't take them to small claims, because I had no claim to make, and they wouldn't take me to small claims, because it's not in their financial interest to do so -- instead, they just leveled lots of threats and then simply dinged my credit report and moved on.

Independent landlords may act differently, though, since it's THEIR money, and not the faceless corporation's.

FWIW, I have two suggestions:

* Document everything with photographs. Take multiple shots of each room in the house just before you hand over the keys.
* Consider that a single credit report issue over a small amount (e.g. a few hundred dollars) is essentially meaningless, provided that there is not a pattern of bad reports on your record.
posted by frogan at 9:06 PM on January 26, 2006

This seems very draconian, and doesn't match my experience renting in Ohio, North Carolina, or DC. With a good-faith effort to clean up I've always gotten all my deposit money back.

Frogan's advice to document is good, but unless your landlord is maliciously attempting to rip you off, it shouldn't come to that. Normal wear-and-tear is usually covered by the lease and shouldn't be taken out of your deposit.

The mildew might not even technically be your responsibility, depending on its origin.
posted by BackwardsCity at 9:13 PM on January 26, 2006

I've rented a lot of apartments and not once did I ever have any problems with the deposit. I think (which obviously means IMO), if you put forth enough effort to show that you're not a vile human being (haven't destroyed the place, reasonable amount of cleaning and/or tidying up) then the vast majority of landlord's will be content.

However, if they have been burned by tenants before their leniency might be a lot thinner than expected. Or, even worse, if there is no recourse for challenging the deposit not being returned, some landlords might just take advantage of the situation. I know of no way of fighting it, but I live in Toronto, ON so the situation might be different in WA. Good luck.
posted by purephase at 9:24 PM on January 26, 2006

I always take the time to do a thorough cleaning, and have never had a problem with getting my deposit back.

If this mildew is in your bathroom, bleach and a light-duty kitchen sponge will get it right off.
posted by starscream at 10:59 PM on January 26, 2006

I have had problems with deposits on numerous occasions, even though I always clean my apartment thoroughly. I always photograph the entire apartment -- including the insides of closets, appliances, bathtubs, toilets, etc. When I move into places, I note every scrape and scratch on my move-in record. Nevertheless, I have had unscrupulous landlords attempt to keep my deposit and even charge me for cleaning.

Some examples:
1. Landlord said that I did not clean at all. It was only when I applied for arbitration that my deposit was returned.
2. Landlord said that they were keeping my deposit because I supposedly did not dust the baseboards in the living room. When I informed them that I had photographic evidence to prove otherwise and also pointed out that the Tenancy Act only requires "reasonable cleanliness" and not "eat-off-the-floors cleanliness", I got back my deposit.
3. Landlord said I did not clean floors, appliances, counters, or curtains. Also claimed I had left red and yellow stains on the carpet, even though my move-in record noted these stains and colours. I took this to arbitration.

My photographs proved I had cleaned, so those claims were removed. However, the arbitrator was not convinced that I had not stained the carpets (in spite of the move-in record) because, at one point, I emphasized the overall condition of the building. (I was trying to indicate that the building was not in good repair and that it was therefore not unusual for my suite to also have issues, such as a previously stained carpet. The arbitrator took this to mean that I was saying it was okay that I'd stained the carpet -- she even asked me what I had spilled on it. I never spilled anything on it! The landlord said I wouldn't have moved in if it was stained. Garbage. What are you going to do when you are there with your truck on the first day of a new month and you have nowhere else to go?!)

The arbitrator also said that my use of a rental carpet cleaner was sketchy. I produced emails to the Tenancy Board that showed I had inquired to see if this was okay and that the board had even said that it isn't necessary to clean carpets! (I was a student and saying $50 over professional cleaning was a lot for me.)

THe arbitrator also ignored my receipts for cleaning of the curtains. I was only able to show a receipt for a couple of curtains because the drycleaner said the fabric was too fragile and would likely fall apart. The arbitrator actually awarded the landlord money for all the curtains in the place, even though the landlord had only complained about one curtain which was stained when I moved in -- as noted on the move-in form.

However, I counter-claimed for all the times the landlord turned off the water while doing maintenance to thebuilding. The arbitrator awarded me an amount worth $75 above all that the landlord had claimed. So I ended up $75 ahead.

Moral of the story? Landlords can be evil, even when you're innocent. And, despite photographs and documentation, you can still end up with an arbitrator who decides it's easier to side with the landlord on a few things than to leave things open for appeal. (I assume this is why she gave me "damages" worth more than the landlord had asked for. The landlord couldn't appeal the decision, I got a bit of compensation, and the landlord technically got paid off for the things they claimed I didn't do.) However, I keep meticulous records and really do clean thoroughly, so YMMV.

I would recommend cleaning as well as you can and taking all the photographs you can.
posted by acoutu at 11:14 PM on January 26, 2006

I also live in Washington and recently had a landlord charge me more than my deposit for "cleaning" despite having the place professionally cleaned and verifying that it was spotless. After the fact, I Googled the landlord and found they have a reputation for doing this to a lot of tenants. There wasn't much I could do about it because the city I lived in wasn't very tenant friendly and I had to pay the bill or face collections while disputing the charge.

The lesson I learned is to always Google the landlord before signing a lease. Also, I scan apartment rating sites for red flags if I'm looking for apartments. (This is hindsight for your current situation but you may be able to find out if it will be a problem the next place you live).
posted by rhiannon at 11:49 PM on January 26, 2006

In my experience it's depended completely on the landlord.
posted by elisabeth r at 5:11 AM on January 27, 2006

I would recommend that when it's time to turn in the keys, you walk through the apartment with your landlord and have them note issues at that time. This is what I did when I moved out of my corporate-run complex, and the only thing she said would possibly be a problem was a hole in the carpet (that my cats had dug, trying to burrow under the bedroom door). I got a copy of the inspection report that day, and she wound up not even charging me for the carpet hole, which I had fully expected.

I would always do a basic cleaning though. Once all your stuff & garbage is out, it shouldn't take too much hard work, a decent vacuuming, dusting, and scrubbing of the kitchen & bathroom.
posted by catfood at 6:33 AM on January 27, 2006

I'm a proponent of "Leave it how you found it" and expect to pay for damages you created. I've generally always received the entire security deposit back (in Michigan), and had cleaning fees waived because I did the cleaning myself. Make sure the landlord will waive the fee before you make any Herculean efforts, though. One landlord ignored some hardwood floor damage because the apartment required no cleaning before the next tenant moved in.

Rhiannon is right about researching the landlord. See if you can find info on the reputation regarding fees. Some corporate (and private, for that matter) landlords are infamous for overcharging and railroading tenants. Photographs are great too. Especially if you have them from when you move in. In your next place, photograph any damages that you note on the move-in checklist.
posted by Roger Dodger at 7:17 AM on January 27, 2006

My approach has always been to hire a cleaning service to do a post-moveout clean. For small apartments, this is usually pretty cheap, and many services have a special rate for this. Then if the landlord complains, you have a receipt from the cleaning company to show you had it professionally done. It's always worked for me, but if money is really tight, it might not be the best solution.
posted by fochsenhirt at 9:06 AM on January 27, 2006

Second the idea of having the landlord look it over before you leave.

That said, I've never done a great job cleaning and haven't been charged even close to the whole deposit. In my experience, in big buildings they have their professionals go through the rooms anyway.
posted by callmejay at 10:10 AM on January 27, 2006

I am a landlord, albeit just the 1 other unit in my house. Talk to the landlord. Ask if they will recommend their cleaning crew, and offer to have it deducted from your deposit. I'd be well pleased if a tenant did that. If there is damage, discuss it beforehand and try to come up with a fair plan.

The tenant/landlord relationship has seriously nasty stories on both sides, and the legalities vary a lot by state and municipality. If both sides are honest and reasonable, your desire not to have to clean can be easily resolved by either paying a cleaning company yourself, or getting them to take care of it for a fee. Google the landlord, and if there are horror stories, revise your plan accordingly.
posted by theora55 at 10:16 AM on January 27, 2006

Ask the landlord. Seriously.

You say you don't want to screw the landlord, so I'm guessing there haven't been problems between you in the past.

Give a call and say you're leaving the place vacuumed and dusted, and with no damage. Mention the mildew problem, and ask if the landlord would come by, take a look, and talk with you about what you should do about it.

I have just one rental unit. When someone moves out, I don't want any surprises. Also, if someone says "Gee, I'm sorry about the nail holes," I'm less bothered than I would be if I just walked in and found scores of nail holes.
posted by wryly at 11:43 AM on January 27, 2006

In my experience, the less apartments the company/landlord runs, the more of a problem this kind of thing is. I've had no problems with any Corporate Owned apartment complexes. Generally, it's a good idea to maintain some type of friendship and/or basic good natured contact with your landlord, to avoid these types of things. They'll be less likely to screw you over if you stopped in to chat every so often, then if they never see you.

If you've been in the apartment for quite some time, it might be a good idea to check with your states landlord/tenant laws regarding moving out and deposits. I've been told that where I'm at, after a year, they're required to change the carpets, and after 6 months they're required to repaint. I'm not totally sure of those exact times, it could be longer then that. But it's considered normal wear and tear, and so if after 2-3 years you have bad carpets, they can't try to take that out of your deposit, as they already are legally required to change them.

The above suggestions are great on how to deal with the landlord right before moving out. Just clean as much as you can. Don't bother with a carpet cleaner. However, I normally do go over some spots with a carpet spot treatment spray. I wouldn't bother repairing any nail holes and stuff, they arn't going to ding you for that unless there are more then 100 or something. Just wipe down the counters and cupboard, mop the floors, vacuum, make sure the toilet and bathtub are clean, and pull the stove and fridge out and clean behind them. (That's something the last tenants of my apartment, and the complex, didn't do, which annoyed me quite a bit.)

Then like the others said, walk through the apartment with the landlord, note any problems on a piece of paper, sign it, date it, and have him make a copy for himself, and keep in touch. If you had a good experince there and are just moving areas in town, you might let him know that, and say you'll recommend the place to others.

Some former roomates and I once left an entire large closet full of soda cans after we left. We cleaned up the place fairly well, and none of us wanted to deal with them. We figure if there was any charges for cleaning, those should cover them. :)
posted by Phynix at 12:05 PM on January 27, 2006

Everybody has made good suggestions. Make a reasonable effort to clean. You did not mention whether or not you are leaving on good terms (original lease term is over, proper notice given per the lease agreement, no rent or other money owed in arrears). Even the most reasonable of apartment managers will nail you to the wall on cleaning if you already owe money to them under the lease.

Don't rent a carpet steamer. Cleaning and/or replacing the carpet (as needed) is part of a normal make-ready. This is usually done after painting so as not to mess up the freshly cleaned/installed carpet with pain. Do vaccuum. If you talk really sweet to the folks in the office and haven't previously been a pain in the butt, they might lend you theirs for a half hour or so.

As much as I like the idea of walking the apartment with management on your way out, you need to be aware that most people finish moving on the weekend, and most of the time the person with the authority to do the move-out disposition does not work on the weekend. If you want to do this, make an appointment ahead of time.
posted by ilsa at 1:03 PM on January 27, 2006

Oh heck, and as to the original question, they are required by law to send you an accounting of the deposit, detailing who owes whom what and why. How long they legally have varies by state and may be in your lease, but if it isn't call the local apartment association and ask.

If they decide you owe them money, the detailed accounting will be a bill. If they are run by a management company and/or they have an application verification service, they will send this information off and have it put on your credit report, where it will come up every time you apply for credit or housing for the next 7 years. If enough money is involved (varies by situation) they may turn the matter over to a collections agency. I have had people think they were "sticking it to me" by leaving a fillthy apartment with garbage everywhere and holes in the walls, but the truth of the matter is that those people were ruining their own ability to live someplace nice.
posted by ilsa at 1:13 PM on January 27, 2006

Don't rent a carpet steamer. Cleaning and/or replacing the carpet (as needed) is part of a normal make-ready.

This may vary according to jurisdiction. Where I live, you aren't required to clean the carpets if you've lived in the apartment for less than a certain amount of time. However, after that, you are required to steamclean them and you have to pay. (And sometimes they lie and refuse your receipt and pictures, as I noted, even when the carpet was 12 years old and you left it the way you found it.) Some landlords ask you to pay them and they'll do it. And the less scrupulous ones do that, pocket the cash, and never clean the carpets for the new tenant. There's no law (here) saying they have to clean the carpets before you move in.
posted by acoutu at 6:27 PM on January 27, 2006

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