Q: After a two-year tenancy I gave my apartment manager written notice that I would be moving out, and I moved out four days prior to the end of my lease. I even stayed with a friend before moving out of state so that my apartment manager would have enough time to do a walkthrough and suggest any additional cleaning and or repairs that needed to be done to receive my full security deposit back. She walked through and told me that everything looked perfect and that I would be refunded my entire deposit within the legally required time limit.
But after moving out of state as planned, I received a check with a $75 carpet cleaning fee and a $32 apartment cleaning fee deducted from my deposit. I immediately contacted her because not only had she agreed that she would return the full amount of my deposit, I feel that the charges were unfair and illegal. If I knew that the carpet needed to be professionally cleaned I could have hired a carpet cleaning company for $50 instead of $75.
My lease does say that I must professionally clean the carpet, but I did vacuum it thoroughly and there were no soiled areas. To my understanding, a landlord cannot legally charge the tenant for normal wear and tear. I think the apartment manager is simply taking advantage of me because she knows I moved out of state. I am very angry and want to pursue my legal rights. I feel that this company is most likely cheating many renters out of their security deposit. What can I do?
A: The situation you describe where there are disputes even after both parties have done a walkthrough at the end of the tenancy is unfortunately all too common. While the majority of landlords are honest and keep their word you may have found one that is not. But you should give her the benefit of the doubt.
I suggest you start with your most practical and efficient option and send a written demand letter and explain the situation calmly just as you did to me but ask if maybe there was a mistake. Maybe the manager got your unit confused with another tenant or there was a mix up in the rental office or accounting department and you were charged improperly.
No matter how angry you are it doesn’t make much sense to pursue this in small claims court unless you are willing to spend much more than the $107 that is in dispute based on the principle. Don’t do that because the small claims action must be filed in the city where you lived, as there is not reciprocity or ability to file small claims cases in other jurisdictions or other states.
While you may be able to find someone to file the suit for you or handle it by mail, you would still have to fly there for the hearing. Be aware that the small claims court will not award you for travel and lost wages to have your day in court so I will recommend some other less expensive options.
Contact the local Better Business Bureau and make a complaint. They usually have some success in getting a response and because the dollar amount is so low the owner or management company may prefer just to send you back your money.
You can also contact media consumer reporters or even a governmental consumer agency in your former city and see if they will make a call on your behalf. Many television stations have this service.
My final reminder would be that there is no allowance for normal wear and tear when it comes to cleaning or carpet cleaning. If you brought the dirt in you need to remove it, and it would be your word versus the manager. A charge of $32 is very nominal to clean an apartment and tends to support that you left the unit almost completely clean, and it would be your burden of proof that the cleaning of your rental unit was not necessary. If you didn’t clean the oven or the shower door tracks in the bathroom or even a few other small areas, that would justify the charge.
You seem to acknowledge that you should have had the carpet professionally cleaned so the "overcharge" is only $25, and it is questionable in my mind that you can prevail. The landlord does not have to prove that she got the lowest price in town, only that the charge was fair and reasonable. While the walkthrough and verbal statement regarding a full refund is compelling, such a walkthrough is not legally binding and the landlord is very likely going to testify that these items came to light after you moved out.
This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold, author of "Property Management for Dummies" and co-author of "Real Estate Investing for Dummies."
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