Beware of ‘stacked’ late fees

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Q: My landlord and I are having a dispute over the timeliness of my rent payment several months ago. I gave it to the manager on time; the manager claims he got it a day later, and charged the fee. I refused to pay it, and then, in the next month, the landlord deducted the unpaid fee from my on-time rent payment, making that payment late -- and triggering another late fee! This has gone on for three months, so I now have three late fees. Is this legal? --Nancy C. A: Your landlord has hit upon a creative way of making money -- and ensuring that annoyed tenants will leave at the first opportunity. Under settled principles of law, this scheme is probably illegal (and is unquestionably illegal in at least one state, North Carolina). Late fees are supposed to compensate landlords for the damages they suffer when they get the rent late, such as the monetary value of the time they take to remind tenants to pay, and the interest they lose on the rent while it remains unpaid. Let's...