Monday, October 3, 2011

Poking a Tiger

Oh, I love dumb people - especially people who are too dumb to realize they're poking a sleeping tiger. If you’re not up to speed, please read this.

J. and I moved into our new place on the 23rd. We informed our former landlord (FL) that the unit was vacant and clean on 9/26. The keys were mailed to his post office box on the 27th, meaning he received them no later than 9/29. On Thursday (9/29), J. drove by the old place to check the mail one last time, and could see that FL had already begun renovating our unit. Since FL hadn’t bothered to reply to our email, I wrote him again and asked when we could expect our security deposit to be refunded.

He replied this morning, stating that he intends to comply with the terms of the Texas Property Code in relation to the return of our deposit. Having been a renter for the majority of my life, I’m aware that the TPC only applies if 1) an item is not specifically addressed in the lease agreement or 2) what is stated in the lease is illegal. So I reply to FL with a strongly worded email. I said that his “refusal to return our security deposit in a timely manner is further evidence of (his) unscrupulous business practices,” and that “we expect the return of our security deposit no later than October 29, 2011.”

Well, that set him off. His next email had a much more stream-of-consciousness feel to it. He wanted to know how we had the “gall” to say that he has unscrupulous business practices. And then he said that the lease agreement was the primary contract, but since we broke the lease by not giving one-month notice before vacating, now the TPC governs. Umm…we didn’t *break* our lease. We requested – and FL agreed – to voluntarily terminate our lease on September 30. We did this because his representative threatened our lives. We did not want to move; in fact, we’d been discussing that we might renew our lease for another year in May 2012!

Still, at this point, my patience was gone. Here’s my full reply to FL:

“Your attitude towards this matter, in which we have been entirely professional, shows the type of landlord you are. Continuing to employ a property manager who is abusive and threatening to your tenants = unscrupulous business practice. Refusing to refund our security deposit = unscrupulous business practice. Requiring that the tenant at (omitted for privacy) be evicted before you would close the sale with our original landlord, and then not actually evicting her = unscrupulous business practice.

Our lease agreement was not broken, since you agreed to the termination of our lease. The only reason we requested the termination of our lease is because of the threats made by your property manager. We did not want to move. We fulfilled every requirement in the residential lease agreement. It was the violation of our "quiet enjoyment" of the property by the guest of a tenant that led to this situation. Since we did not violate the lease, it is the primary contract, and Texas Property Code is secondary.

It is pointless for us to continue to debate this. You will either return our deposit or you won't. We will either pursue legal action or we won't. We will not accept further emails from you. If you wish to contact us, you may do so at the previously provided forwarding address.”

J. and I have talked this situation to death, and we decided – prior to this exchange of emails – that we were not going to pursue FL in court. Even to us, it’s just not worth the hassle (our deposit was $250). We love our new home, and we really just want to forget that the entire situation happened.

Here’s where the story gets funny.

I started to wonder what, exactly, the TPC says about situations like this, so I looked it up. And guess what? As far as I can tell, it backs us 100%!!!

The code states that, “The landlord has 30 days after the tenant surrenders the premises to refund the security deposit.” Okay, fine – he can make us wait. The TPC also states that, “If the landlord makes any deductions from the deposit, a written, itemized accounting of how much is being charged for each item must be sent to the tenant. If the landlord fails to provide such an accounting within 30 days after the tenant moves out, the landlord may forfeit the right to withhold any part of the deposit.” So FL has to contact us within 30 days, one way or the other. And we have the right to dispute any deductions he takes. Since we took photos after the unit was cleaned, that would not be an issue.

TPC goes on to state, “If a new owner buys a house or apartment and it is tenant-occupied at the time, all lease agreements and deposits should be transferred from the previous owner to the new owner.” Then it says, “Unless there are records of the move-in inventory, the new owner will probably not be able to establish the condition of the unit when the tenant moved in. Therefore, it may be difficult for a new owner to deduct damages from the tenant’s security deposit. The new owner should not keep any part of the deposit for damages unless the new owner can prove that the tenant damaged the unit.”

We did not fill out a move-in inventory; our original landlord (who is also our current landlord at our new place) did not require it. And we left the unit in better shape than it was in when we took possession, since we agreed to clean it upon move-in, in exchange for a break on our first month’s pro-rated rent.

Here’s the best part: “If the security deposit or itemized list is not mailed within 30 days after the tenant vacates the premises and turns in a forwarding address, the tenant has several options. The tenant can attempt to recover the deposit through mediation or the tenant can sue the landlord. A landlord can be held liable for $100, three times the amount of the deposit which is wrongfully withheld, reasonable attorney’s fees, and court costs, if the tenant can show the landlord acted in bad faith.”

So if he doesn’t send the deposit or the itemized list within 30 days, we can sue in small-claims court, and end up with $850 (plus court costs), instead of $250. It will be very interesting to see what FL does next. All I know is…this isn’t over. FL poked the tiger one time too many.

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