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Q: Recently, my apartment building management decided to replace the pipes with new copper piping. Upon completion of the job, my apartment was a mess. There was plaster everywhere and some personal items in my apartment were damaged. What is the responsibility of the building management for cleanup inside an apartment on this type of repair, and for the loss of a tenant’s property? –Michael G.

A: When a landlord needs to make repairs or improvements to a tenant’s rented space, it’s up to the landlord to properly clean up afterward. Your landlord may not even know that his workers left a mess, so having a word with the owner would be the place to start. Hopefully, you have some evidence of what it looked like when you got home (if you’re like most of us, you probably got to work right away and cleaned it up, but maybe you took the time to snap a few pictures).

Talk to other tenants to see if they had a similar experience. If they have, you will have the added advantage of strength in numbers when you approach management. Doubtless you have all cleaned up by now, so your request should be for reimbursement for the value of your time, plus cleaning materials. Set the hourly rate by finding out how much a cleaning service would have charged to clean the mess (resist the temptation to use your own hourly rate, even if it’s considerably higher — you could have hired that cleaning service, after all).

Your damaged belongings merit a slightly different approach. If management used a reputable contractor, that contractor should have insurance or a bond that will cover him in the event of a claim like yours. The landlord’s liability insurance should also cover it. Write letters to both the landlord and the contractor, describing what was damaged, the extent of the damage, and what it will cost to repair or replace the items. From that point, your chances of collecting will depend on the amount in question. The landlord and the contractor (or more properly, their insurance companies) will be more willing to settle with you when the amount is relatively low. If you’re claiming that a piece of priceless heirloom furniture was broken, you may be in for a fight. You can also make a claim on your renters’ insurance, if you have it.

Q: When we moved in, our landlord gave us a one-page, yearlong lease that had just the basics (apartment number, rent, move-in date). It also had a paragraph saying that we agreed to abide by the "House Rules," which could be changed at any time. The rules covered who could park in the lot; use of the laundry and other facilities; fees for late rent; and charges for replacing lost keys.

Last week, our landlord gave us a new set of rules. They’ve drastically reduced the pool hours (no weekday hours, which is the only time we can swim), are charging for parking and have doubled the late fees. We feel that the landlord shouldn’t be able to impose these significant changes mid-lease. –Walter and Dot H.

A: House rules are meant to be the place where landlords explain the details of living on their property. Properly used, house rules cover "housekeeping" issues such as the use of the laundry room, how to pick up packages, where to place recyclables, and proper etiquette when using common areas, such as the pool.

Leases and rental agreements typically refer to house rules in a clause saying only that the tenant will abide by them, and that they can be changed without notice. Because the rules cover rather mundane and relatively unimportant issues, most tenants wouldn’t consider it "unfair" for the landlord to revise them. Whether you have to put your recycling in the basement or on the curb probably doesn’t matter much to you, for example, as long as it gets hauled away.

But house rules are not the place to set and change major policies. A major policy is one that most tenants would consider when deciding whether to rent the property in the first place. Put another way, if a policy covers something that most tenants and landlords would expect to find in a lease, it doesn’t belong in the house rules.

Placed against this standard, how do your landlord’s rules measure up? It appears that he is taking advantage of the inherent flexibility of house rules to make changes to policies that properly belong in an amended rental agreement (for tenants renting month to month) or in a new lease (for tenants like you who have the protection of a stated rental term). For example, if the pool hours have been cut back so much that you can’t realistically use it, that’s about the same as renting at a property without a pool — something you would have considered before committing to this property. Most tenants would also factor in parking fees when deciding where to live; if the fees are too high, tenants might look elsewhere. A late-fee policy definitely doesn’t belong in house rules, because these policies can cost tenants plenty. Tenants need to have advance warning of the consequences of late rent before they sign on the dotted line. A judge probably would not enforce a late-fee policy that a landlord tried to sneak into a set of house rules.

Q: I had a person renting a room in my home for eight months. She gave me a $100 deposit and her rent was due on the first of each month. On the last day of the month she just up and moved out without any notice or reason and left me a note directing me to mail her the deposit back. Do I owe her the deposit, when she gave me no notice that she was moving out? We had no lease or rental agreement. –Marilyn N.

A: Although you have nothing in writing, you had a month-to-month rental agreement with your roomer. It’s always better for landlords and tenants (and roomers) to have a written document that recites the key terms of the rental, but oral understandings are legal and enforceable. In order to properly terminate her tenancy, she needed to give you the legally required amount of notice (30 days in California and many states).

When tenants move out without giving the required amount of notice, they remain liable for rent for the notice period, measured from the date they left. You are entitled to use the deposit to cover unpaid rent, so you may apply the deposit to the number of days’ notice your tenant should have given you.

Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of "Every Landlord’s Legal Guide" and "Every Tenant’s Legal Guide." She can be reached at janet@inman.com.

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