Protect your deposit from 'inflated' charges, 'greedy' landlordson August 23, 2012 @ 9:08 am (Updated: 2:53 pm - 8/23/12 )
While state law gives landlords the right to withhold portions of a deposit for damages beyond normal wear and tear, some have made it a practice to keep money they are not entitled to.
"I think there are a lot of honest landlords that only charge legitimate costs, and then I think there are some landlords who just view the security deposit as money that they're entitled to keep," said Eric Dunn, a staff attorney for the Northwest Justice Project, a non-profit law firm that provides free legal services to low-income people.
Dunn said low-income renters are often targeted by landlords and property management companies who believe they can take advantage of them to pay for upgrades to units and make extra money.
Last week, he said a renter sought the law center's help after being billed $3,500; the amount the complex said it cost them to replace carpet in a two-bedroom apartment after the tenant moved out.
"That's not what it costs," Dunn said. "That landlord had come up with $10,000 worth of damages and they were all inflated."
He also points to an apartment complex in Renton that he said caters to low-income families and frequently bills tenants for costs above and beyond their deposits.
"Just about everyone that moves out of there gets a bill for four-figures in damage, and it's basically a cookie-cutter, corporate apartment complex," he said. "You have to use your imagination to find out how someone could do that much damage."
Dunn said he had a conversation with someone who works there, who he said made "derogatory" statements about the low-income people they service. Dunn declined to name the apartment because he has clients who are in ongoing negotiations with management at the complex.
A certified professional manager who works for a Seattle property management firm said oftentimes landlords and management companies can find extra money by expanding their definition of normal "wear and tear."
"When a landlord feels that they are responsible to return the owner as much money as possible, they are going to try to make sure that happens," he said.
"There are a lot of managers out there, landlords out there, who feel like they need to return to the apartment to like-new condition," said the manager, who asked to have his name withheld. "I have seen some landlords charge for the upgrading of a unit. It really comes down to how you define normal wear and tear."
Andrew Ackley, a Mercer Island-based attorney and expert in landlord-tenant law, said it is common for tenants to have complaints about how much of their deposit was withheld. He represents disgruntled tenants in court.
"I found there is a significant need for it and it is fun, frankly," he said of his work. "It's just something I like to do to help tenants level the playing field."
He said he realizes how important it is to some people that they get as much of their deposit back as possible.
"The deposit, for most people, is a significant amount of money," he said. "It's their month's food, it's their family's food, or it's their living space for a month."
Ackley said his parents have been landlords his whole life and taught him how renters are supposed to be treated.
"My parents were the type of landlords that left chocolates and flowers and stuff for their tenants on special occasions," he said. "I'm really familiar with how it is supposed to work, and how it ideally should work both for a landlord and tenant. It's a good system if it's fair.
"You can have a really good landlord-tenant relationship, but when it goes sour it's almost like a divorce."
An employee of KIRO Radio got into a battle of his own with a property management company after moving out in June. He complained that the company withheld $590.03 of his $1,000 deposit for charges he believed were normal "wear and tear."
In a letter, he told the company he was not required to pay for "touch up paint."
The property manger promptly refunded him $354, and wrote in an email that she was wrong to charge him for that service.
"My sense was they knew that they were wrong," he said. "They were hoping I wasn't going to complain."
He also took issue with a charge of $100 for what management said was two "repaired lights." While they would not specifically say what "repaired" meant, he assumes it was a charge for changing two light bulbs that may have burnt out.
He calls the charge "outrageous" and told the company that he will take them to small claims court simply on principle.
"It is so wrong and they're probably doing this to a lot of other people who need that extra $100," he said.
While not all renters have the money or the resources to take landlords to court over lost deposits, Ackley said it is important for those who do to stand up against "needless" and "greedy" withholdings.
If tenants and landlords are unable to resolve disagreements outside of court, he said small claims court can be an inexpensive option. It cost just $25 to file a claim.
He reminds tenants that landlords cannot keep a deposit unless a move-in checklist was completed. By law, renters must receive their deposit refund, along with an itemized list of deductions, within 14 days of move-out.
For a list of resources, visit the Washington Attorney General's website.
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