Question: My husband and I, along with our two small children and one dog, recently moved out of a townhome that we lived in for 2 1/2 years. The property manager is telling us that due to the use of a store-bought steam vacuum cleaner to clean up where the dog had an accident, the carpet in the entire house has to be replaced. He said it will cost us within the vicinity of $1,400-$1,800. We put down $600 for a deposit and $400 for the pet deposit. Is he able to do this?
Landlord attorney James McKinley replies:
You are responsible for any damage done to the rental property by your pets, guests, children or yourself. In most cases, a security deposit can be used for three things: to remedy defaults in payment of rent; cleaning; and to repair damages beyond normal wear and tear.
Even if not legally required in your area, it would have been helpful if your landlord did a pre-move-out inspection with you. At that time, you could have been given a list of any cleaning or repairs necessary in order for your security deposit to be returned. Assuming you were notified that the pet damage had to be remedied, you were well within your rights to use any type of carpet cleaner to attempt to remedy the situation. I do not see how a store-bought steam cleaner could make the situation any worse. If you could not properly clean the carpet, the manager could have the carpet professionally cleaned, and deduct those cleaning costs from your security deposit. If your dog caused so much damage that the carpet could not be cleaned, you would be responsible for the replacement cost of the carpet.
However, your landlord should prorate the cost of deduction for the replacement carpet, based on the age of the carpet. In other words, if carpet in a rental unit should last 10 years, and the carpet was 2 1/2 years old, your landlord should deduct only 75 percent of the cost of the replacement carpet from your security deposit, and mail you an accounting and receipts as legally required after you vacated the rental unit. That said, it is probably unreasonable for the landlord to charge for replacing carpet in the entire house.
Tenant attorney Steven Kellman replies:
In my experience, carpets in rentals generally have a useful life of 10 years in normal use. Changing them after only 2 1/2 years is very unusual. You should not assume the carpets were new when you moved in. While many landlords may not agree with this logic, I would suggest you propose a more modest charge to the owner and I will give you some ideas on negotiating strategy. Since you were there 2 1/2 years, you could prorate the cost of replacement at one-tenth of the cost per year by adding the prior years of carpet life to the time you lived there.
For example, if the carpet was 3 1/2 years old when you moved in, added to your 2 1/2 years makes it 6 years old. This means your responsibility would be limited to the balance of carpet life (four years) or only 40 percent of the replacement cost. It may have been 10 years old when you moved in, meaning the carpet used up its life when you first began living there. If it was in "overtime" (i.e. past 10 years), then it essentially had no value left and you would not be responsible for any damages whether caused by normal use or not. Therefore, it becomes important to know when that carpet was installed.
Using a store-bought carpet cleaner should pose no problem except that you must take care to extract the water those machines put down. They are called "steam" cleaners, but they generally do not use real steam and have been known to cause damage if used improperly. They use warm water to clean, which, if not extracted, can cause damage or mold. The deposits you gave to the landlord can be used for cleaning and damages, including replacing a damaged carpet. If you do not agree with the landlord’s assessment of the carpet, you can have a carpet cleaning professional take a look at the situation. Many times, they can clean a carpet the landlord believes is ruined.
Question: I live in the Midwest and my landlord tells me he does not need to provide heat from a built-in heating system in my rental house. He tells me that all he has to do is give me a portable space heater and that I rented it "as is" anyway. Is he correct?
Property manager Griswold replies:
Your landlord may be correct as long as the portable space heater meets local code requirements. Not all areas of the country have the same habitability requirements when it comes to heating rental units. While adequate heating is typically a required element of habitability for a rental unit, the requirements generally do not give any indication of specific parameters as to the type of heating system. Of course, the heating system must meet building and health and safety code requirements. Thus, space heaters could potentially meet the requirement. I suggest that you contact your local code enforcement or building inspection department and have them tell you whether the landlord has met their habitability standards.
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," and San Diego attorneys Steven R. Kellman, director of the Tenant’s Legal Center, and James McKinley, principal in a law firm representing landlords.
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