How can I get rent back from a room I need to leave
June 5, 2008 10:27 AM   Subscribe

Scary roommate situation. I want to leave and I'm trying to figure out if I have any way of getting my money back, which I really need to help me get another room.

I moved into a room in a 2BR apartment on the 1st of June with a pair of strangers who are husband and wife. Yesterday (the 4th) I woke up to my roommates having a screaming physical fight which included banging in the hall so much that my own bedroom door popped open. I believe that opening was accidental (rather than purposeful at me) but still it was additionally scary.

After 10 minutes husband left the house still screaming angrily and the wife was sobbing in their room for at least 50 minutes after, real sobbing that didn't stop. She wouldn't respond to me and I didn't know what to do for her.

For me it was clear I should leave and take with me my valuables and things that I care about. So I did that, leaving with my large bags, and spent the day wondering how to leave the room and how to get my rent money back which I really need to find a new place. I have spent the night at a friend's place which is not someplace I can stay more than a night.

What they have is two things from me, $450 deposit check and $485 cash I gave on the 1st of June for first month's rent/utilities. They had not cashed the check, so I stopped payment on that after I left their house yesterday morning. So that is safe. Although I'm afraid that will anger the husband more if he finds out I stopped it.

I already know I was stupid to give them money without a lease. I was desperate for a place to live after my previous place for June cancelled, so I moved in this place without a lease.

After I was safely away from the house I left some upset voicemails on the wife's machine (I don't have husband's number). She left me sad messages saying what happened had nothing to do with me and I should please come back, this is my home. That implies to me that she thinks it's okay what happened. Also I'm scared of the husband now. I dont want to sleep in the same house with him especially with a door that doesn't lock or even really latch strongly (old house, not in good repair).

I don't know best approach to try getting the money back. I am clear that I have no legal claim to the money or proof that I gave them money whatsoever. I want to find a way for them to give me part of the 485 back, and I want ideally to get access to take away the rest of my stuff, but the money is much more important than the stuff left behind which is just my air mattress, lamp and smaller items. Also I don't want to be inside the house with the husband.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (31 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You use the words physical fight but other than the "banging in the hall" do you have any reason to believe there was actual violence?

Because if they were just screaming at one another, this may be an isolated incident and you may be overreacting.
posted by JaredSeth at 10:39 AM on June 5, 2008

She left me sad messages saying what happened had nothing to do with me and I should please come back, this is my home.

Is it possible that she doesn't want you to leave because your presence prevents something worse from happening to her?

As for the dollars, if you cant get the money back from the couple, small claims court may be your only recourse. You may be able to return to the premises to get your stuff with a cop, since you're worried about your own safety. Call your local PD and see what you can do. Not having a lease might work out in your favor, and it might not. On the one hand, you didn't have a contract, so you're not breaking anything by leaving...meaning they don't have a leg to stand on as far as making you pay rent or a security deposit goes. But on the other hand, there is no contract, so you have no leg to stand on as far as convincing a judge that the 400 odd dollars was a security deposit, and not just part of your rent. (If they decide not to deny that there ever was a security deposit.)

But definitely take a cop with you when you return to that place. And if you're able to talk to the woman in private, make sure she is OK. She might want to leave just as much as you do.
posted by phunniemee at 10:41 AM on June 5, 2008

Your only recourse here is to simply ask for what you want. You'll have to explain to one or both of them that their fight has made you uncomfortable living there, and that since such a short period of time has passed, you're requesting a refund on rent. Even without an agreement on paper, I don't think they are obligated to give you any money back. You made the decision to live there, and you created the impression that you'd be there for at least a month by paying a month's rent. This seems to be the sort of situation where you have to deal with your bad decision rather than simply escape it.

If you can't get your money back, you should stay. Frankly, I think it's silly for you to feel unsafe in the house because of the incident you describe. When your room-mates do something you don't like, talking to them about it is usually a good first response, out-right leaving is usually not. Even if the husband is the world's biggest jerk to his wife, the idea that you aren't safe from him is pretty tenuous.

But if you can't communicate openly and honestly with your housemates for any reason, you're headed for upset and drama, so either clear the channels of communication or get yourself gone.
posted by chudmonkey at 10:45 AM on June 5, 2008

Suck it up and go.

Here's what I would do in your situation:
Never go back, don't worry about the money and don't worry about the stuff. Don't call them, and don't accept calls from them.

I don't mean that you should grudgingly write it off. I mean that you should consider yourself lucky to get out so early and at so little cost.

You've got friends right? Couch surf for a bit until you've built your money back up - if you really do need it to get another room. Everyone in the developed world seems to have an extra one to ten lamps. Someone will happily give you one. And someone probably has an air mattress to lend. You'll be fine.

Given that if you're scared enough to take the actions that you already have, it seems the possibility of further emotional and potentially physical ramifications aren't worth any amount of $485.
posted by terpia at 10:51 AM on June 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

First, I would find out if the state you are in honors verbal contracts and under what circumstances.

Then, get a police escourt to get your stuff.

Then you may ask for the money back. However, you probably aren't going to get it. You in fact, could possibly be sued for cancelling the check. Check the landlord/tenant rules in your state, they vary wildly. There is usually a hotline for free legal advice for tenants.
posted by stormygrey at 10:52 AM on June 5, 2008

Interesting - as a woman, I probably would react the same way as the OP (feeling unsafe in this environment). I noticed that both JaredSeth and Chudmonkey, who are both male, thought the OP was overreacting.

There is no reason to live in an environment like that - whether there is physical violence or not, the drama enough would make me want to leave.

Cut your losses. You didn't sign a lease so you don't owe them rent. You did the right thing by canceling the deposit check. Borrow money from some friends if you can and find some place that you really can call "home."
posted by HeyAllie at 10:56 AM on June 5, 2008

if they were just screaming at one another, this may be an isolated incident and you may be overreacting

So what if they were just screaming? I wouldn't want to live with that either.

You can try to appeal to the wife for the money, but I fear that would anger the husband more. Does he seem like a reasonable guy when he's not enraged? If so, you might be able to talk to him, but I wouldn't hold out a ton of hope of ever seeing that money again. In the meantime, see if you can line up a few sympathetic friends who will put you up in rotation until you can find a place.

As for getting your stuff, does the husband not have to go to work at some point? I'm presuming you still have a key - just go get your stuff when he's not home. Drive by and look for his car or see if there's some other sign of his presence or absense. Or just ask the wife when he won't be there.
posted by boomchicka at 11:00 AM on June 5, 2008

I wouldn't listen to anyone who says you're overreacting. Sure, you might be. You just have no history of better behavior from them, and given that this happened only a few days after moving in, it's fair to expect this is the norm in that house and that you should leave ASAP. Take them to small claims and save messages and anything else you can to document. Worry about yourself first, but also mention to the police if you notice the wife has bruises, etc. The cycle of domestic violence is usually only broken by a person outside the couple noticing something is up and blowing the whistle.
posted by slow graffiti at 11:04 AM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm torn here. As a chick, my first response was that you were overreacting, but I would probably react similarly if I myself was in the same situation.

You can get your stuff back as long as you have a key. Get a large male friend (or 2... whatever you feel you need to feel safe) to accompany you to the house, and grab your stuff. Try to time this trip to the house for when you know the husband is at work, if need be.

If you want your money back, your going to have to ask. The wife already knows you're leaving, talk to her. Offer to split the difference, tell her you'll give her back her key for $240. Or, instead of blaming your change of heart on this one incident, just tell them that you've realized that this isn't the situation for you, and see if you can come to some sort of agreement.

Otherwise, you're going to need to just cut your losses and leave.
posted by cgg at 11:06 AM on June 5, 2008

I think its a little wrong headed to think that being scared lets you out of legal obligations. I don't think this is a boy/girl thing. I'm a female, I wouldn't try to get out without any damages because I didn't like a situation.

You are absolutely entitled to leave, but you are not entitled to your money back in most cases. In some states, if they can fill your space before the end of the month, you might could back the rent for the period it was occupied.

The fact is screaming and banging is scary and threatening to some and just another facet of life to another. So arguing that you are scared or just didn't like the situation is not likely to get you far in court.
posted by stormygrey at 11:13 AM on June 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

what stormygrey said. you still live there ( your stuff is still there) so you owe them rent.
i went through a similar situation myself, only much worse, because i had a written lease agreement that didn't let me out of paying my share of rent for another 6 months. i ended up going very much into debt so i could have a place of my own. it sucks, but well, you just bought yourself a lesson.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 11:28 AM on June 5, 2008

but you are not entitled to your money back in most cases

disagree. Implied in every rental contract is habitability.
posted by tachikaze at 11:34 AM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Habitability can refer to many things, but the law doesn't guarantee a place where your other roommates don't fight now and then. Its one of the joys of living with other people. Its why if you can afford to live by your self you should.

She should consider herself lucky, if she had actually signed a lease, it might have given a much stiffer penalty for breaking the lease than just losing one months rent. As it stands now, she has to convince the landlord to give her almost $500. What impetus does she have to do that?
posted by stormygrey at 11:45 AM on June 5, 2008

Listen to your gut. It's a built-in survival mechanism and it's there for a reason. Write off the month's rent and sleep on friends' couches. You got your deposit back, so to speak, since you stopped payment on the check, so you've got that money to use for your next place. I'm not sure you've got any claim on the money you paid them for June, since it's your choice to leave before the month is up (and from your description, I'd leave too).

We weren't there so we can't say whether or not you're safe there. But the only voice in this that matters is the one inside your head and your belly that's telling you not to go back, even for your stuff. Listen to that voice, find another place and cobble together a series of places to crash in the meantime. This is a temporary setback and you can get through it. Cut your losses, move on and don't look back.
posted by Kangaroo at 11:51 AM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would not count on getting police to escort you home to pick up your stuff. Perhaps you have trustworthy friends who can fill that role.

Speaking as an attorney, trying to use the courts to get your $435 back is a waste of your time. Even if you get a judgment in your favor (you probably would get a default because I doubt Angry Couple would show up to defend the action), you're not getting the money out of them. A judgment in your favor does not mean the court hands you a check, or even the loser in the suit hands you a check. It means that you have a court-ordered-legal-right to attempt to get blood from a stone. Good luck with that.

Personally, I would write off the money. I even would have (in fact, did) when $400 was a lot of money to me. But if you really feel you can't, I would suggest asking in person (when you have a friend with you for back up).
posted by crush-onastick at 12:20 PM on June 5, 2008

Home should be a place where you can feel safe and secure. This is not that place, therefore you should not live there. Definitely get an escort for getting your stuff back, either police or some big bouncer type guy.

You can ask for your money back, but you are unlikely to get it. Write it off as tuition in the school of hard knocks.
posted by jasper411 at 12:25 PM on June 5, 2008

Well, I'm a dude, so perhaps this colors my reaction, but . . .

1. You're the better judge, but from what you wrote, I think you may have overreacted. I say this in part because the husband left as he did, which really isn't the worst way of handling this situation. I can only imagine that if you'd stayed to discuss this with one of them the next day, or phoned her without moving much of your stuff out, you might have made progress.

2. I don't mean this to suggest that you should move back in against your own judgment. Rather, I think it really does affect whether you're entitled, legally or ethically, to a refund of the money. Again, judging simply from what you wrote, I think you're not bad off to have secured for yourself the first month's rent, and it's not the worst outcome to have split the difference.

3. It's hard to say more without knowing more, which makes the "anonymous" character of the posting somewhat cumbersome. In fact, I don't get this at all, given that your post has more than enough information to identify you to anyone immediately concerned with the situation, and one of them already has your phone number.

P.S. I loved the line "with a pair of strangers who are husband and wife."
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 1:31 PM on June 5, 2008

If they're having potentially physical fist-fights on Day 3 of your stay, imagine how much worse it can get. Regardless as to whether or not you were actually in danger, these are not the kinds of people I would want to room with for who-knows-how-long.

I would write them a letter apologizing for leaving, explaining that you felt uncomfortable, and requesting they send you the amount of the deposit check back to you. Explain that you arranged for your bank to cancel the 1st month's rent check (I wouldn't use the term "stop payment"), just in case they haven't tried to cash it yet. Let them know where to send the check. See if you can arrange pick-up of your remaining items. Try not to sound mean, or threatening. I think your goal here is to just move on.

I'm not sure that small claims court will be worth the hassle; but that is up to you. Some people here can probably speak to it from personal experience, but I agree with crush-onastick regarding the negatives of going that route.

Good luck; I predict you will find better roommates!
posted by jabberjaw at 1:49 PM on June 5, 2008

The people who are suggesting you overreacted are fucked in the head. Normal, trustworthy adult would not get into that sort of thing with a tenant down the hall. The fact that they couldn't keep it together for more than five days is telling. It would be foolish to feel any confidence in your security in that living situation.

I assume you made it fully clear in your messages you stopped that check, it's all you can do. The money is most likely gone, frankly. It's not worth getting sucked into this situation over it. You can't do anything for these people. You were their tenant for five days, it's not a relationship. If you haven't already when making it absolutely clear to the wife that you are not going to come back, you can ask for the money, honestly I'm not convinced you have any legal or meaningful claim to it. With no transaction record, no lease and having left voluntarily (however messed up the situation) you certainly have no recourse to getting it except hoping the wife will give it to you. If you honestly can't make the nut to move you will have to borrow money from your friends and family. Relax, you are about the forty billionth person to be in that unenviable position, including yours truly. Coordinate with the wife to get in while he's gone and get your stuff. If she has access to the money and can give it to you she may, otherwise you're out of luck.
posted by nanojath at 2:05 PM on June 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

Well, I probably AM f*cked in the head, but dunno how you accessed the evidence. I probably shouldn't have second-guessed the OP all. Then again, all we know was that there was "screaming physical fight which included banging in the hall" that went on for ten minutes and had sobbing afterwards for 50 minutes. If it involved one person hitting the other, or putting the other in fear thereof, I certainly would agree with leaving immediately. I just don't know enough based on what was said.

As to whether it exhibited a lack of trustworthiness, I myself have been in arguments that involved yelling and potentially even the slamming of doors, and that might have been scary for someone listening in; I'd like to think I would never have done so within earshot of a tenant, but I would also like to think that I would never lose control like that period.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 2:16 PM on June 5, 2008

Nthing the people saying to follow your instinct. Write off the money already paid over as a learning experience. Unless there is something you REALLY need I wouldn't go back. Find a pal or two that can have you sleep over for a few weeks. I hope it works out well for you.
posted by ClanvidHorse at 2:35 PM on June 5, 2008

I don't think this is about judging the landlords, but with the OP's comfort level with these people. The landlords could be the nicest people in the world; this could have been a one-time only fight.

I don't personally think the OP is in any physical danger in going back to get her stuff; but I wasn't there, I haven't met those people, so I don't know. But, that's besides the point; it's ultimately about the OP's comfort level. And I think that being uncomfortable living under the same roof as people who get into terrible, terrible, loud fights, followed by uncontrollable sobbing by an unresponsive person, on the third night that a new tenant has moved it; well, that's justifiable.
posted by jabberjaw at 6:10 PM on June 5, 2008

First thing I would say is TRUST YOUR INSTINCT. If you sensed that night that you needed to get out of the house, trust that, do not move back. I had to do the same thing when two married housemates got a divorce and the husband suddenly started acting.. weird. You aren't in Glover Park are you :) ? Not in a way I could point to anything, but just an aura of deep rooted anger that made my intuition say, get the hell out of that place before he does something. So I did. Lost about $400, but it's just money. Congratulate yourself on using your good sense to do the right thing and get the hell out, instead of sticking out a miserable and possibly dangerous situation for a lousy $485. Also I see you paid cash so there is not really proof that you paid it. ..

I think if you don't want to involve the police (I don't know what you can do on that count.. in my hometown I bet they'd do that no problem, but here in a major city, not sure if they would) and you really want the rest of your stuff, get a bunch of friends to help you get it. Preferably some big guys. Er, unless you think the husband is completely crazy and might be armed.
posted by citron at 6:28 PM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

As a lot of others have said, I'd have some friends come over to help get your stuff out. Unless things get really weird and you feel unsafe, I think that makes for a cleaner exit than involving the police.

Speaking of the police, though, I think it's standard operating procedure for them to bring backup to a domestic situation. That says something.
posted by altcountryman at 6:44 PM on June 5, 2008

I agree with everyone who says go with your gut.

If, on the other hand, the financial crunch is as bad as you make it sound (you need that four hundred bucks in order to find a new place) you might mull over the possibility of calling back and asking for a house meeting. Do it during the daylight, bring a friend who makes you feel safe along with you, and lay it all out there on the line.

See how they react. As some have suggested, this might have been a one-off for them. They may be incredibly apologetic. If you feel more comfortable with the dialogue, suggest that you might be willing to stay if locks - inside and outside - are installed on your bedroom door. At least then if they stage a repeat you won't have to worry about your own safety.

Bluntly tell them that it cannot happen again, it makes you feel unsafe, and if it does happen again, you'll move out immediately. Consider withholding the deposit for the first month to make sure that this isn't going to happen again.

But if you do have the cash to go and you feel unsafe, get out. The stress just isn't worth it.
posted by arnicae at 9:08 PM on June 5, 2008

sondrialiac, I've lived with a couple (met them on Craigslist) for over three years and have never had a problem that related to their being a couple. On the contrary, it was the other non-couple roommate that was the problem, but she's since moved out. We are all extremely anti-drama.

As for this situation, anonymous, I would say that you should trust your intuition on leaving the place. If they fought like that right after you moved in, they'll probably do it again since they don't seem to care that someone else is around during their fights. The more difficult issue is whether or not you should get your money back. You should certainly get your things back, but being uncomfortable with a roommate doesn't entitle you to have your rent returned. I think you should get the deposit back - though I guess you already did - but not the rent unless they offer to give it back.

What I would suggest is that you call the wife, try to schedule a time during which you could get your stuff out of the room (they don't want it either!) and definitely bring a male friend or two for backup. Tell them they can keep the rent, but not the deposit. I think that would be appeasement enough.
posted by wondermouse at 10:23 PM on June 5, 2008

Whether your fear is justified or not (and it seems that it is), if you moved back in you would keep feeling that fear. Living in that doesn't sound so great, and it's not easy to just "get over it."

I was stupid to give them money without a lease.

I don't think so. If you had, you would probably be on the hook for thousands of dollars. But yeah, a receipt for any moneys paid in cash next time would be a good idea.

You should be able to get your stuff back. As someone else pointed out, they don't want it either. If they try to keep it, report it to the police as theft.

I would forget about the rent money.
posted by grouse at 12:27 AM on June 6, 2008

Popping in to say: I agree with everyone above except JaredSeth at 1:39 PM on June 5:
You use the words physical fight but other than the "banging in the hall" do you have any reason to believe there was actual violence?

Because if they were just screaming at one another, this may be an isolated incident and you may be overreacting.

Please, please ignore his comments. Threatening behavior is violence. It is incomprehensible, after reading this story, that this could possibly be an isolated incident - normally happy, mentally-healthy, peaceable couples do not suddenly have maelstrom epic fights like this as a single isolated incident. And in no way are you overreacting.

I applaud you for being so proactive - stopping the check, preparing to move out, etc. And I agree that a court would probably support your right to get your money back, as you were subjected to an unworkably hostile living environment.
posted by IAmBroom at 6:50 AM on June 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I hesitate to keep this going, because in my view a proper answer requires clarification from the anonymous OP. But again, for purposes of "overreaction," I think one has to distinguish between the historical and prospective questions. As to whether the OP was right to leave, I think reasonable minds may differ, but he or she really knew best, and it's water under the bridge. (I always pause when people say things like "threatening behavior is violence," since at the very least this means that more kinds of violence may be tolerable, but no matter.) I subscribe to the view that s/he knew best what was right for her on balance. I also think s/he knows best whether to return.

Prospectively, can s/he get his/her money back? IAmBroom says "And I agree that a court would probably support your right to get your money back, as you were subjected to an unworkably hostile living environment." I don't know whether IAmBroom is also IAmLawyer, but as one who has practiced long ago in the landlord-tenant field (who INYL), I would shrink from venturing that opinion. Most states have statutes that clearly establish that victims of domestic violence have the right to vacate. I am less confident that that someone who is not a victim in any rigid sense has an equivalent right, or that we can translate the relatively progressive notion of a hostile working environment (for certain civil rights) to what may be an extremely unpleasant, fear-inducing ten minute spate of yelling and door slamming suffered by a tenant. Others undoubtedly know more.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 8:52 AM on June 6, 2008

Clyde Mnestra, I'll bow to your superior law experience, but won't budge a bit on my approval of her (IMO appropriate) level of reaction.

Agree to disagree?
posted by IAmBroom at 10:56 AM on June 6, 2008

I should have known my comment would draw some flack. Obviously anonymous knows best whether or not she'd ever be comfortable there again, and I wouldn't second guess her on that.

I'm just not about to rush to judgment without more information. Were they throwing each other into the walls? Or slamming doors and drawers? Because I believe (and can't imagine I'm the only one) that there's a huge difference. The latter is typical argument behavior that I think most couples have engaged in at least once...and yes, it's completely inappropriate especially when you have a tenant, but certainly not a reason to fear for your safety.

I do agree that threatening behavior is a form of violence but just because someone perceives a threat it doesn't mean one exists. As far as we know, no one threatened anonymous or engaged her at all during this incident. I am by no means trying to discount how uncomfortable this has made her, but I don't see where she's getting the impression that she's in any danger whatsoever.

And for some here to recommend calling the police, saddling these people with a record of a domestic violence visit, presuming they don't already have one, seems premature considering how much we don't know about the situation. Yes, she should bring friends to pick up her stuff, but I couldn't recommend involving the authorities without more facts.
posted by JaredSeth at 10:18 AM on June 8, 2008

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