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Q: Knowing that I wanted to move out of my parents’ house, a friend from work told me about this great little guest house that her aunt had available. I went over and it was just what I needed, but I wanted to think about it some more. However, she said she had two other people call on the guest house who were coming over to see it that afternoon. I was planning on moving in after my next paycheck in a couple of weeks, and she agreed and promised that she wouldn’t rent it to anyone else as long as I gave her a "holding deposit" of $300. She didn’t make me sign the 12-month lease, but offered me a blank one to take home.

I didn’t want to lose the place so I wrote her a check, which I noticed online had barely cleared my bank account the next day. The problem is that since putting down the deposit I have changed my mind and would rather save money for a new car by continuing to tolerate old Mom and Dad and their archaic house rules. I called and told my friend’s aunt that I changed my mind, and she is refusing to return my deposit saying that she now has to start all over again and place ads and it will take her at least two weeks to find a new tenant. Don’t I have the right to simply change my mind? I can return items to my favorite store at the mall even after I have worn the items and I get a full refund. Why can’t I get my money back from this lady?

A: Sure, you have every right in the world to change your mind before you sign the lease. But you agreed to a verbal contract for a holding deposit and that is what the landlady did for your benefit. While verbal contracts are not advisable when dealing with real estate, they can be used for this type of short-term agreement wherein the expectation of both parties was that you would be back in a couple of weeks to sign a 12-month lease.

The problem is that you made a legal contract or agreement with the landlady and each of you negotiated for certain rights, which you can’t just change to suit your latest whim. The landlady agreed to take the guest house off the rental market in exchange for your payment of the $300 holding deposit and your promise to move in later in the month. Your $300 was a good-faith deposit that showed you were sincere, which the landlady relied upon. Clearly, the landlady lost the opportunity to rent the guest house in the meantime and would have to start all over again. With the weak rental market in many areas of the country it could easily take more than a couple of weeks to re-rent this property.

You seem to believe that you should have the same rights as you might get at your local mall. Sorry, but rental real estate is not the same as an item you claim doesn’t fit several weeks later. The return policies of some retail stores are very liberal, and it is unfortunate that some people apparently take advantage of them. But there is no "unlimited return policy" to get your rent back with rental housing unless the owner specifically agrees to such a contract in advance.

As tough as I have seen rental markets in my 30-plus years of property management, I haven’t seen any rental guarantee programs that are so generous that they offer a no-conditions unilateral refund policy that would allow a tenant to arbitrarily change his or her mind. You should be glad the landlady is seeking to keep your holding deposit only and not her actual out-of-pocket damages. Maybe after this experience you will find that Mom and Dad may not be so bad after all.

Q: I am a single mom and have two boys and a daughter. They are all teenagers. I currently rent a large house that has four bedrooms so each of my children can have their own bedroom. I am worried about my job security and the economy so I am thinking of moving to a 2-bedroom apartment where my children would have to share a bedroom. I mentioned this to a co-worker and she told me there is a federal law that prohibits teenage children of different genders from sharing the same bedroom. Is that true? Do I have to have my daughter stay in the bedroom with me? Can the government tell me how to be a parent?

A: I am not aware of any such federal, state or local law. What your friend may be referring to was many years ago I recall that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) had regulations concerning children of certain ages and the acceptable sleeping arrangements for HUD-subsidized housing units, but those requirements were phased out at least 20 years ago. Parents or guardians make this determination as they see fit. A landlord or property manager that attempts to have any such rules is very likely to find himself subject to a fair housing familial status or discrimination investigation.

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."

E-mail your questions to Rental Q&A at rgriswold.inman@retodayradio.com.

Questions should be brief and cannot be answered individually.

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