Thursday, January 20, 2011

Justice is Ours!

My husband and I are principled people.  We really try to do the right thing and treat others the way we'd want to be treated and so on and so forth.  The truth is important to us.  As are rules.  And laws? They're not suggestions to us - they're absolutes.  And we hold others to that standard too. Because that's what keeps society functioning.

That's why we got so absolutely beyond pissed off when our landlord from Virginia decided he was going to charge us extra money out of our deposit following our move-out.  So pissed off, in fact, that we took him to court.  For more money than we were owed.  Including a road trip with 5 people 14 hours away.

Did I say we were pissed?

Let me back up:

I won't get too far into our relationship with this particular individual.  Let's just say he wasn't one of our favorite people of all time and as landlords go, well... we, as landlords ourselves, made sure to learn how NOT to treat our tenants from him. He had a history of hearing about a problem and, instead of saying, "Well, let me see what I can do for you," would say, "What did YOU do to my _____?".  Things were always someone else's fault or issue or problem and it was pretty obvious that he was not one to accept much responsibility for anything. Like the roach and rodent problem we had.  Once, we had a problem with the plumbing beneath the sink for the second time and instead of saying, "Wow, this has been a recurring problem for you guys, let's see if we can find a permanent solution to it," Mr. Landlord accused us of not knowing how to use a kitchen sink and told us that we'd better figure out how to fix it ourselves.  We were pretty sure the problem was wear and tear on an old plumbing system, but he berated us and called us irresponsible and stupid.  So, a few trips to Lowe's, a few hours spent on Google, and we had the whole plumbing apart... the result?  A broken washer between two pipes.  The cause?  Wear and tear.  Mr. Landlord's response? Silence.  No thanks, no apology, nothing.

Leading up to our move-out, we anticipated some issues with him so we really busted our hineys to get the house and yard into top shape.  We'd like our tenants to leave our house in pristine condition, so we put an extraordinary amount of effort into re-landscaping the yard, spending two weekends and over $300 on the project.  I cleaned the house and polished every inch of wood in the 3-story structure.  We repaired simple things and purchased replacement bulbs for EVERY single bulb - burned out or not - in the home and left behind two replacement filters for each air intake in the house.

When we asked him when he wanted to do the move-out inspection, for which we wanted to be present, he told us he'd have to schedule it for two weeks after we were scheduled to move due to him being out of town.  Since that was unacceptable, we asked that it be moved up and we got into a series of back-and-forth calls and emails until he finally consented to walk through the house with us the morning of our departure.  He at one point asked in an email what I was so concerned about.  I replied that I was worried that he would charge us for the screens on the porch being ripped out during a big storm and for some loose electrical outlets, and for the kitchen faucet which was loose as a result of it being the wrong size for the hole in the sink.  He responded that he thought I should fix the screens myself and that he was aware of the kitchen sink issue.  So we proceeded as normal.

On the morning of the move-out inspection, we walked through the whole house with Mr. Landlord who had a piece of paper with his name and address on it, in addition to a statement that said, "I am charging the tenant the following amounts of money for the following items which will be deducted from their deposit" followed by 10 spaces for things to be written.  He charged us $50 for a spot on the hardwood floor that needed repair and drew a line through the remaining 9 spaces.  He signed the sheet and handed it to us after complimenting me and thanking me for fixing the screens as he had asked.

So we expected roughly $1200 to be returned to us.  Two months later, we got a check for $750 and a letter that was written in 3rd grade English about how he thought it was unfair that he walked through the house a month after we moved out and found that the screens had torn loose again and that the sink faucet was also loose.  He said he charged us for those repairs in addition to some repair of some door or another.

When we attempted to contact him to discuss this egregious claim, he refused to answer his phone.  We asked him to please return our phone call or we would have to involve an attorney.

He didn't, so we did.

And after paying a $500 retainer (keep in mind we were only owed $450) we had legal counsel filing a warrant in debt on our behalf.

Following a little bit of back-and-forth and Mr. Landlord asking for a continuance, we had a court date set for mid-November. At one point he contacted our attorney with a settlement offer - saying he'd be willing to pay us half of the $450. 

We rejected it.

As we explained to our lawyer from the outset of all of this, the issue wasn't about money.  It wasn't a dollar amount that we desperately needed for day-to-day function.  It was about the fact that an individual in a position of power abused the knowledge that we were leaving town.  He took advantage of our situation, knowing that we were moving and recognizing how difficult that it would be for us to return.  He gambled on $450 being pretty close to as much as he could get without much fuss... unfortunately for him, $20 would have been too much.  We are fortunate enough to have resources and the ability to fight him; what upset us was thinking of the countless other military families to whom Mr. Landlord caters that may also have been exploited - past and present.  We saw it as our duty to pursue this as a way of enforcing consequences. 

During the actual trial, Mr. Landlord tried to insist that Justin and I deliberately tried to hide the condition of the sink and screens, and we countered with the emails exchanged between us that stated that Mr. Landlord was aware of the sink issue.  As to the screens, I explained that the primary issue was that there are no gutters on the house so water pours down the outside and has warped the wood lathing that pinches the screen against the support structure of the porch.  If that wood is warped, it can't hold the screens tightly.  I told him as much during our walk-through and he scoffed at me when I said I believed the screens would probably tear again without major work... which is outside the scope of my responsibility as a tenant. 

Since Mr. Landlord was acting as his own attorney, he got to cross examine me which amounted to little more than attempted browbeating and was met with my sweetest smiles, plenty of "Sir"'s and as much politeness as I could muster.  I kindly pointed out that, as landlords ourselves, if I were going to do a move-out inspection with a tenant who had raised two problems prior to the walk-through, I'd probably inspect those areas first and most thoroughly.  Mr. Landlord, however, claimed that he did not notice the sink issue until his NEW tenants called him and stated the sink did not work.  To that, I responded that I did not think he could hold us responsible since, according to the signed document from our walk-though, we were clear of the house and that there was no way to claim that WE had damaged anything... and that it was more probable that Mr. Landlord himself had inflicted the damage (if any existed) or that the new tenants had broken something.

After some fairly absurd back-and-forth between us and Mr. Landlord, the judge finally felt we had each stated our positions in enough depth and awarded us our $450 plus $250 in attorney's fees and ordered Mr. Landlord to pay the filing fee for the suit and the whole thing was entered as a judgment on Mr. Landlord's credit.

At that point, we felt a hollow victory, as the judgment still required that we follow up to collect our money... either by garnishing his wages or placing liens against his property, etc. and that would only be possible AFTER Mr. Landlord had filed his appeal, if he chose to do so.  Immediately following the trial he said he intended to file an appeal, which would have required another trip to Virginia.  So we sat in limbo for awhile.  Although our attorney assured us that the cost of filing the appeal, combined with the fact that our case was so solid would be prohibitive to Mr. Landlord's efforts to fight the judgment, we had seen how stubborn, arrogant and ignorant the guy could be.

As it is, the judgment itself serves as a bigger punishment than the cash awarded us.  It stays on a person's credit for 7-10 years, even if it is paid, and can drop a credit score 150 points in one fell swoop.  For an individual involved in purchasing property for a living, that's a pretty hefty consequence for dishonesty, and we feel pretty good about that.  It'll be hard to justify taking the chance in the future with his tenants, considering he's got 7-10 years to wait before his credit score will recover.  Thankfully, we received a check in the mail recently for the full amount of the suit which means it's over for us.  It means we don't have to deal with an appeal and we can finally close that chapter of our lives.  And it means that he's finally seen reason. 

So, we got our justice.  We fought for what we thought was right, even though it was a pain in the ass.  Even though we felt a little absurd for going to the lengths we did over a sum of money as paltry as $450. 

The end.


N said...

You know as little money as it was, the fact that you stood up to this man was paramount. I have felt abused by every landlord we've ever had because of the final walkthroughs. One of our landlords witheld part of our deposit for having to remove a couch, which he had left in the house when we moved in and I had asked him at the beginning of our lease to remove. But like you we had left the state. So what could I do? They bank on the idea that you won't put up a fight from far away. So I am glad that you guys had the resources and fortitude to go after him.

Anonymous said...

Good for you! That scumbag of a landlord deserved a swift kick in the pants for the way he treated you. There is no telling how many other tenants he took advantage of. Karma can be a real b*tch and so is a pissed off woman :) whose family is being ripped off.

Jessi said...

Good for you! I know it's not about the money, it's about standing up for what is right and not letting anyone run over you and take advantage of you.

I kicked my sister out today for the same reasons - tired of being ran over and taken advantage of!

Good for you!

Tanya said...

YAHOO!!!!!!!!!! Remember when he called the day of to do the inspection...and then never showed up??? What a turd. I'm glad everything is resolved!

Jami said...

Good Lord! What a story!

I have a feeling I would not want to go up against you in court! :)


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