Apartment damaged due to plumbing issue

December 11, 2012 23:42 by Consumer Ed

Dear Consumer Ed: 

My apartment flooded because of a plumbing issue with the upstairs neighbor.  My bathroom caved in, my walls and ceilings got soaked with water, and my carpet was ruined.  The apartment management was great for the first four days, but now they say I have to find a place to stay on my own dime.  They say the apartment is safe.  However, there is no carpet, the apartment is still drying out and smells, and they still have all my stuff covered in plastic.  What can I do?  (I do not have renter’s insurance, but I am now going to get it.)  

Consumer Ed says: 

You have several options, but you must give your landlord a reasonable time to make the repairs before pursuing any of them.  Determining how long a “reasonable time” is depends on how serious the condition is, and the nature of the repairs.  Based on the extent of your damages, it sounds reasonable that repairing your bathroom, drying out your apartment, and replacing your carpets might take longer than four days.  Since you’ve already notified your landlord of the condition that needs to be repaired, you have two options if a reasonable time has passed.  The first is to hire an attorney and sue your landlord for damages caused by his failure to repair your apartment.  

A second option is what’s known as a “repair and deduct”. In this scenario, you would have the needed repair completed by a competent, licensed repair person at a reasonable cost.  If you pursue this remedy, you should notify your landlord in writing that you plan to use the “repair and deduct” remedy before moving forward.  Also, remember to keep copies of all receipts, and ask the repair person for a statement detailing the work performed and the problem corrected.  Note that the only repairs you should have done are those that get the problem fixed; you cannot ask your landlord to pay for any other improvements to your apartment.  Also, be careful to replace damaged work or property items with those of like and not greater quality or value, because your landlord will not be responsible for the increased cost of such upgrades. After the repairs are complete, subtract the cost of these repairs from your next month’s rent check.  In addition to the reduced rent check, send your landlord copies of all the repair receipts.  By providing both, your landlord will be able to see that the difference between the reduced rent check and what you’d normally pay is reflected in the costs listed on the receipts.

Additionally, there might be city and/or county ordinances or codes, which regulate residential rental housing in your area.  To find out if your area has any of these ordinances or codes, call the city hall or county court house and ask for the building inspector or the code enforcement officer.  You may want to contact the housing code inspector if you live in an area with city, town or county housing or health and safety codes.  Your landlord is required to comply with any such local housing codes. 

If the damage from the flooding is so bad that it is impossible, not just uncomfortable, to live in your apartment, and your landlord has not repaired the apartment in a reasonable time, this could amount to what is called a “constructive eviction.”  A constructive eviction relieves you from having to pay rent.  To qualify as a constructive eviction, the landlord’s failure to repair must have made your apartment an unfit place to live, such that ordinary repairs would not make your apartment fit to live in again.  As with the repair and deduct option, before you pursue this route you should make sure you get written assessments of the damage, as well as repair estimates from competent professional contractors.

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If I terminate my lease early, can my landlord keep my security deposit and charge me a fee?

November 9, 2012 17:49 by Consumer Ed

Dear Consumer Ed:

I moved out of my apartment before my lease was up. The property management company made no effort to contact me to let me know I owed a lease cancellation fee.  They claimed to have mailed two letters, but never did call me, nor did the letters arrive, nor was anything certified.  They turned me over to a collections agency.  Can they legally do that?  They haven't explained where they got the dollar figure from, nor did they credit my security deposit when sending me to collections.  Can they just keep my security deposit and not even count it as credit as to what I owe?  That seems like double-dipping to me.

Consumer Ed says: 

When you signed your lease, you entered into a contract with your property management company.  In this situation, the terms of your lease are legally binding. 

Some leases allow tenants to cancel the lease early but impose a set penalty fee for doing so. If the terms of your lease permit your landlord to do this, you will likely be obligated to pay that fee, regardless of whether your unit sat vacant or was re-rented.  The property management company is not required to notify you before charging you the lease cancellation fee, unless your lease says that it must do so.  And yes, the property management company has the right to refer the matter to a debt collection agency after attempting to notify you of the debt.

Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, it is the duty of the collection agency, not your property management company, to validate your debt.  Within five days of the collection agency’s initial communication with you, it must send you written notification including the following information:

•    The amount of the debt;
•    The name of the creditor to whom the debt is owed;
•    A statement that unless you dispute the validity of the debt within 30 days after receipt of the notice, the debt will be assumed to be valid; and
•    A statement that if you notify the debt collector in writing within the thirty-day period that the debt is disputed, the debt collector will obtain verification of the debt and mail it to you.

In most cases, the property management company is required to return your full security deposit within one month after you terminate your lease.  However, there are several conditions that would allow a landlord to keep a security deposit, including financial loss caused by your early termination of the lease.  Again, the particular terms of your lease will determine whether the property management company would be required to count the security deposit as credit toward the early termination fee that you owe.  You should carefully read your lease, and if it turns out that the terms don’t allow your landlord to impose a cancellation fee in addition to a forfeit of your security deposit, you may want to consult an attorney for legal advice.

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Landlord charging for normal wear and tear

September 7, 2012 23:49 by Consumer Ed

Dear Consumer Ed:

I am moving out of my apartment and just got a move-out inspection sheet with the following itemized costs:  Carpet - $75, Cleaning - $75, Blinds - $105, Crayon marks - $50, Damaged tub - $50. The tub is not damaged. Carpet is old (5 years). The apartment is clean. I thought these items were considered normal wear and tear. Do I still have to pay?    

Consumer Ed says: 

Depending upon how large your apartment complex is, you might.  Under Georgia Law, there is a separate standard for landlords who own more than ten rental units or who employ a management agent (regardless of the number of units owned) and landlords who own fewer than ten units.  Landlords who own ten or more units or who employ a management agent are required to conduct a move-in inspection of the premises and then must give the tenant a list of any existing damages to the premises before collecting a security deposit.  If your landlord falls into this category, but did not provide you with a move-in inspection sheet, s/he may not withhold your security deposit when the lease ends.  If your landlord did comply with this procedure, s/he may withhold your security deposit, ask you to pay for any additional damage not covered by the cost of the security deposit, and sue you for any additional amount if you refuse to pay.

Landlords who own fewer than ten units and who manage their own units are not required to follow any inspection procedures.  If your landlord falls into this category, s/he only needs to notify you whether s/he intends to keep your security deposit, and if applicable, whether you owe an additional amount for the damages.  S/he also has the right to sue you for this additional amount if you refuse to pay.  You’ll have five business days starting at the end of your lease to specify, in writing, the items for which you don’t think you should have been charged, or to contest the amount charged for any particular item. 

If these costs are only for normal wear and tear, the landlord cannot keep your security deposit. Normal wear and tear applies to slight damages that are the result of the renter, his/her family, and guests using the apartment for its intended purpose.  If the premises or its fixtures are damaged in any other way, the landlord can charge you for that damage.  Crayon markings, for example, might not fall into this category.  This is true even if the item damaged is old; however, the age of the item or fixture should figure into what you get charged for any damages.  The amount charged per item should reflect the age and/or quality of that item as it was when you moved in.  If there’s any damage to an older carpet (as in your case), you shouldn’t be charged for the cost of the new replacement carpet, but a reasonable amount for the actual damage that can be quantified.  To confirm whether a charge is reasonable, you could check with reliable sources in the flooring repair business, and get estimates from them to compare to the amount charged by your landlord.  Just know that you’ll likely have to pay this cost if you, members of your household, or guests, actually did damage the carpet.

If your landlord refuses to refund your security deposit, you may sue to recover the portion of your security deposit being wrongfully withheld, interest on that portion of the security deposit, attorneys’ fees, and legal fees in the magistrate, state or superior court where your landlord (or where his registered agent, if any), resides.

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