Landlord problems in Chicago suburbs
June 12, 2018 11:06 PM   Subscribe

Our landlord is probably setting us up to keep our (incredibly hefty!) security deposit.

He is currently using a real estate agent to show the house to other potential renters while we are in the process of moving out. We just received an email from him referencing disarray in the house (presumably, the boxes that we are using to pack), the overgrown weeds in the flowerbeds (which is fair) and the pet smells (that are entirely imaginary). He also claims a floor was in terrible shape when he last visited (there is minor water damage, but everything is otherwise fine).

He signed his email telling us that we had to get everything in shape, or else that was what the security deposit was for, quite ominously. We are talking about $5K in security deposit, which I am willing to part with a portion of for the water damage but certainly not the entire amount.

He definitely bought the house as an investment to make passive income and tried to do any repairs/replacements as cheap as possible (for instance, when the dryer broke, he waited a week to come fix it himself, then another week to buy parts online, even though we offered to contact the Maytag guy ourselves and subtract the cost from our rent payment).

Through work, I have access to a Hyatt Legal plan, where one pays in per month for cheap or free legal services. I will try contacting a lawyer to assist tomorrow, so that we can make sure we are legally covered when we move out, and receive at least some of the security deposit back. What steps can we take to make sure he isn't setting out a case for pocketing our deposit? Do we ask that all future contact occur through the lawyer? Do we find a local tenant advocacy group? I have never had landlord problems before and I'm not sure where to start with this.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If your legal plan finds you a landlord/tenant lawyer, do what the lawyer tells you.

Otherwise I'd weed the flowerbed and then write the landlord saying what you said and no more: the pet smells do not exist and were imagined, illusory or some other temporary odor, and there is some minor water damage to the floor but no more. You therefore look forward to the prompt return of most of your deposit, as expected by the law etc.

If you're worried he's going to get shady about the floor, get your own estimate now while you control the premises.
posted by snuffleupagus at 11:35 PM on June 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

Start documenting everything, including contact or correspondence with the landlord (communicate by registered mail or email when possible, to leave a paper trail; but document phone calls or face to face contacts in a log book as well). Take copious photos and video on move out. If possible, schedule a move-out inspection with your landlord (there should be a recommended form for this from the city or state) and get them to sign something at the time. Second best is having some neutral third party witness type person also present for your move-out inspection.

You may wish to find the move-out inspection form asap, and send it to the landlord with a summary of the rules around security deposits and a request to schedule a move-out inspection with them. Showing your landlord at this nip-in-the-bud stage that you know your rights and responsibilities and do not plan on letting them bully you about the security deposit may forestall any problems.

Yes, definitely talk to a lawyer if free legal advice is an option!

A tenant advocacy group can give you some strategic advice beyond what the lawyer can specifically recommend as legal advice. For example, they might know if your particular landlord has a pattern of stealing security deposits, or if your landlord is a member of a landlord group that tends to do shady stuff like this, and so can give you a better idea of what to expect and what has been effective against such moves in the past. They can also help you understand the relevant law if the free legal aid available to you isn't well versed in landlord-tenant law. So I would highly recommend getting in touch with your local tenants rights group too, yeah.
posted by eviemath at 12:05 AM on June 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

Document everything. Take pictures tomorrow. Save all emails and text conversations. I don't know if you need to route everything through a lawyer at this stage, but try to keep further communication written, if it's an in-person or phone conversation take notes. Since it sounds like you have some legal coverage through benefits it doesn't hurt to ask some questions, but yeah a local tenancy advocacy org is your best friend here.
(-not a lawyer, have been evicted).
posted by mannequito at 12:06 AM on June 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

I would think that anywhere it snows regularly minor water damage to floors is something to be expected when snow gets tracked inside.

On a smaller security deposit in a different state, the only time I had a landlord start to make noises about hanging on to a security deposit fortunately coincided with a manic episode (I'm bipolar) and the five-page letter I wrote to them after a phone conversation, meticulously detailing and arguing that I'd kept my end of the bargain on every matter of dispute I could think of (without any knowledge of tenant's rights where I am, even, just using plain language), appeared to convince them of my resolve so they immediately sent me a check. So finding some way to demonstrate resolve with a lawyer on hand may be even more effective.
posted by Sockpuppet Liberation Front at 12:06 AM on June 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

Complete your move and then video EVERYTHING in daylight after you clean. Be prepared to take him to small claims court to get the money back, so do everything in writing and document everything.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:37 AM on June 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you do have a pet, get a friend to evaluate whether it smells or not. Actually even if you don't have a pet. The occupants of any dwelling are the worst qualified to evaluate its smells. Hire a cleaner to do the kitchen and bathrooms thoroughly - unless you're a professional cleaner yourself, you're not going to do a particularly good job of cleaning the areas that count, even if you had the time.
posted by Gnella at 4:57 AM on June 13, 2018 [23 favorites]

Familiarize yourself with state and local tenant laws - basic Googling should get you at least an overview of what your rights are. IANAL but I believe in most states the landlord must a) give you an itemized list of reasons they're keeping your deposit within X days of move out and b) if challenged, must provide invoices or other proof that they actually used your money to fix those things. In many states, I think the landlord actually waives their right to keep any of the deposit if they haven't returned it or told you why not within X days.
posted by nakedmolerats at 8:28 AM on June 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm a small time landlord. It sounds like three possible things could be going on here. (By the way, I've returned all security deposits ever, even a couple of times when I probably shouldn't have, like to the person who punched holes in the drywall.)

One, could your landlord just be covering their bases? In one of the popular landlord books, it talks about the importance of the pre-move out walk through and putting in writing anything you might charge for. (That might even be a legal requirement, i can't remember.) Are you sure that your landlord isn't just telling you what needs to be addressed to get your full security deposit back, and / or what repairs will be charged for? You know you're planning to take all those boxes with you, but they don't. As a landlord, I try to be really careful with how I say things, so I probably would've said "and of course, you'll be taking all those boxes, I assume." But the underlying point would be, if you leave a lot of junk, we'll have to charge you for its removal (actually, it's way more complicated than that, at least in California; if it seeks valuable enough, we have to notify you that you left it, give you X days to come get it, etc.). Maybe your landlord was just trying to cover his bases and prioritized clarity over sensitivity.

Second, might you be minimizing or underestimating what damage is there? You agree that there is disarray, weeds, and water damage, and it's hard to know how your own house smells. What sort of water damage are we talking about -- normal wear and tear of a few drops around the sink? damage near a leaking fridge that you never warned him about? Replacing or refinishing a floor can be pretty expensive. It's hard to replace just a couple of boards. I agree with the suggestion to get a bid while you're still there. It'll inform you and could be useful material if you want to challenge their estimate.

Last, your landlord might just be a jerk. Hopefully not. But I have heard that Chicago has good tenant laws, so it's pretty likely that you'll be able to get back what you deserve.

In any case, the only things you can do now are clean the place well, take photos or video, and maybe get bids for any repair work that seems needed. You could start reading about your rights. I wouldn't get a lawyer involved, at least not yet. That'll just cause them to get careful. Let them make mistakes, then bring in the lawyer, or better, just read the rules and do it yourself. Good luck!
posted by slidell at 8:36 AM on June 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

People get deposits back? I always thought it was just a bullshit extra cost to renting a place. Finding nonsense to chisel away deposit seems to be modus operandi for landbarons.

I wish you good luck but you should also look into the pet smells. You may not smell them, since it's either your pet or pet you're adjusted to, but there's never been a pet owner on this planet whose home did not have some degree of pet smell. You absolutely have them, I don't think that can be put on a landlord trying to bilk you even if other part sare. It's simply not possible, even the best cleaning will leave some smell, you'd have to replace so much to truly get rid of it.
posted by GoblinHoney at 2:11 PM on June 13, 2018

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