I won’t mention the name of the apartment that attempted to scam me, but the story might be instructive. My landlord I found to be a vile person (Her 24 hour notices on our doors when she would have to enter always included exclamation marks.), but I only had to hand her a check once a month so I gave her little thought. While I was house shopping, she came around and posted on everyone’s door that we would have to either sign leases or pay extra to go month to month! I’d been living there for years going month to month without paying extra but they suddenly were at a level of occupancy where they felt a power shift had occurred, so they wanted to change their policy. Well, they’re allowed. I waited, hoping my short sale on a house would come through at the perfect time for me to leave, but when it didn’t, I went in and told her I’d be going month to month. She didn’t like that. Apparently a lot of people were taking that option instead of signing leases, which is what they really wanted. So she told me the owner might serve me with 30 days to vacate. I was shocked. I’d been a perfect tenant for over four years, even enduring, monthly, the irritation of handing my rent in to a person I’d grown to despise. So I told her if going month to month hadn’t really been an option they shouldn’t have offered it to me as one, and then I said, “That’s not a very good way to run a business.” That set her off. In her delusional mind, her position as landlord over her tenants was like a king over its peons. She launched into a tirade which I easily countered because she didn’t have an argument. I was holding the note that offered me the option of going month to month. I was already 50/50 on paying the extra month to month charge or staying at my mom’s until I could move into my house, so I just gave notice and left.
You can guess what happened. Instead of a check for my deposit I got a bill for a few hundred on top of my deposit, which they kept. I could go on and on and show you pictures that would make you laugh. They charged me $50 for slip safety decals that were in the tub before I moved in. (I didn’t write it down. Who would? I considered it a feature.) My favorite picture was a close up of a fingerprint on the toilet seat. Obviously I touched it after I cleaned it. Two other pictures were close ups of the oven and the air conditioner/heater with the front paneling removed.
The mistake I made next was to follow some conservative advice, and I sent a demand letter through certified mail and I filed a complaint with the BBB (better business bureau), which was a complete waste. I don’t even think they kept my complaint up when Pinewood Apartments, in Kent Oh., near Silver Meadows, responded with a load of bull. I should immediately have gone to small claims court, which I finally did some months later. My main hold up in going the small claims route was that winning in small claims is only the first step. You still have to collect, but a lawyer told me during a free consultation that a winning verdict in small claims is a powerful document. So I sued for double my deposit, which is the tenant’s right if the deposit isn’t returned in thirty days (in some states it’s triple), which cost seventy bucks I would only get back if I won. The night before, literally the night before, their lawyers filed for an extension and countersued me. Then a few weeks later came the court date. While I was waiting in the lobby of the courthouse, their lawyer came up to me and offered to drop the countersuit and we would both walk away even. I immediately said no, which surprises me because I was pretty terrified to present my case.
Turned out to be pretty easy. The burden of proof is all on the apartment. They had to make their case against me and they didn’t have one. My favorite part was when the owner tried to explain charging me for dirty drip pans on the stove, and the judge said, “I’ll bet if you came over to my house, you’d find my drip pans are pretty dirty.” Plus drip pans only last five years by a chart he brought in and presented as evidence and I lived there four and a half. Plus they’re called drip pans. Things drip into them.
I’m not sure the owner had a clue. He said he was present for the checkout but he hadn’t signed the form. The apartment manager was completely ignorant of the most basic principle of landlord/tenant law, that of “normal wear and tear.” A tenant isn’t responsible for anything that would occur from normal use of the apartment, only damage. Use isn’t damage. She actually stated in our long argument at the BBB, which I have printed out, that the apartment wasn’t returned in the same condition it was rented in. That would literally be like taking a new car back to the dealership after four years and complaining that when you bought that car it was new and now it’s four years old. She thought she could come in and charge me for whatever she wanted because she was mad at me, and he was left to defend her in court. Which in no way excuses him. It might even be a scam he encourages.
The problem is landlords can make any claim they want and it’s then up to the tenants to contest. In the over two months before I sued, they never made an attempt to collect the supposed overage I owed. They hoped they would either get really lucky and I would send them a check or I would abandon my deposit and cross my fingers that they didn’t come after me for the rest. I suspect a lot of people, especially in Kent, near a college with a lot of first-time renters, would do the second, which makes it a profitable scam for a shady landlord. A point I made to the judge during my closing arguments, which I feel like I stood for, as in rose to my feet, but I remember I was sitting when I beautifully articulated that being that some of these charges were so clearly fraudulent I shouldn’t be subjected to any of them. They demonstrated an utter lack of good faith in their assessment of the apartment and I should be awarded double my deposit plus court costs.
I was super nervous but highly prepared. Sad but likely true, murder trials have taken place involving less preparation than I put in for that court date. The lesson I learned was that nervousness can actually be vanquished through preparation because I was awesome during that hearing. The ruling arrived several days later and the judge basically spilt everything down the middle, which was bull. I thought about not accepting and demanding a retrial, but I couldn’t have made my case any better. I think they just treat those disputes as if two reasonable parties need the court’s help to meet halfway, but that’s exactly what gives a landlord incentive to make fraudulent claims. If they run into someone who recognizes a scam when they see one, they just end up sending the check they were supposed to send anyway.
Instead of that check, his lawyer sent a collection notice for the amount I was awarded. Supposedly this was an accident. The firm is used to winning, which might be true, so they misread the verdict. I had to call and get it straightened out. Which taught me a lawyer trick. Lawyers put you on hold when you get mad and start emoting and come back when they think you’ve calmed down. I caught on to that trick after she put me on hold for about the seventh time.
I learned some things I’ll probably never be in need of knowing now that I have a house. I’ve had several apartments and never had this trouble. Truthfully, I’m not a neat freak so it’s always felt like found gold when my deposits have been returned to me, but a renter isn’t obligated to clean or keep clean to an apartment owner’s standards. The umbrella of “normal wear and tear” is fairly wide. If you didn’t cause damage, and you don’t get all or most of your deposit back, they’re probably charging for normal wear and tear. Certainly the seven-hundred dollars in cleaning fees I was being charged was exorbitant. The problem is your rights come at the end. They assess your apartment (which they have legal right to do after you’ve left) and can put anything they want on that form and it’s a legal document. Your recourse is court. Maybe if it’s a discrepancy and you’re dealing with people who possess reason you can call and work it out, but when you’re being scammed, take it to court. I should have done that right away.
You might have noticed I said I wouldn’t mention the name of the apartment that tried to scam me was Pinewood Apartments in Kent, OH near Silver Meadows Rd. and then I did mention it. That’s wasn’t an accident. Everything I mentioned in this blog, the pictures, the absurd argument I had with the apartment manager at the BBB, all the court documents, I have saved and will verify, so I would win, again, if sued for libel.