True Story of Landlord-Tenant Dispute

by Jason Dean 

for rentThis past Wednesday, I had to go to court. It was my first ever experience with the legal system, and yes, I was very nervous. I was being sued by my old landlord in small-claims court, and even though I knew I was in the right, I assumed the judge would have a bias against me, as the tenant, and that I would probably end up being ordered to pay money I didn’t really owe. I even considered just blowing the whole thing off and not showing up — good thing my wife talked me out of that!

I took a job in 2006 with a stock-brokerage firm that required me to move — quickly. Thus, my wife and I put our house on the market and looked for an apartment to rent. We couldn’t be too picky — we only had six weeks until I started my new job. So when we found a gorgeous, newly built, modern-architecture duplex, with a wicked cool dvr security system and we took steps to secure it as quickly as possible.

At first, we were overjoyed with the place. Yes, it was a step down from home ownership, but our new apartment home was stunning. But it didn’t take long for serious problems to surface. In fact, it was the first day that we noticed a horrible creaking whenever someone walked on either of the bedroom floors. “Creaking” isn’t really the right word for it — it sounded like the Jolly Green Giant twisting a tree in mammoth hands, hooked up to a megaphone. And worst of all, the sound was even louder in the other parts of the house when someone was walking in the bedroom!

A couple of days later, the previous tenant of the apartment stopped by to pick up a package that had been delivered to his old address (our new one). I took the opportunity to ask him about the creaking.

“It’s horrible isn’t it?” he said. “I woke up my wife every night when I got up to use the bathroom.”

“The landlord told me it was due to the humidity. Does it get better when the humidity dies down?” I asked.

“Is that what he said? Let me tell you something; that guy is a crook. I’m taking him to small-claims court to get my security deposit back. He nickel and dimed me to get the whole security deposit, not a penny more.”

Fast Forward 11 Months Later

We’ve had tons of problems by now, and we’re planning on finding a new place when our lease is up. But one day in late April, we reach our breaking point. It was one of the first nice days of the year in Michigan, so we took our baby daughter out to play — for the first time ever, mind you. My wife noted that the grass was “kinda sticky,” but I didn’t seem to notice.

We came inside after about an hour, and then my wife went out to the store. Upon arriving home, she was freaking out. “Call the landlord, right now!” she demanded. On either side of our driveway, at least fifty feet away from our apartment, there were little white flags indicating that the lawn had been sprayed with pesticides. There were no signs in the backyard. Our daughter, just eight months old at the time, had ingested harmful chemicals.

I called up the landlord and berated him. “Are we supposed to look out the front window every time before we use our backyard?” I asked. Yes, we were, according to him. I hung up on him and went on to compose a letter informing him we would be out of the apartment by June 1st, and that we would not be paying rent for the month of May. I requested that our security deposit, equal to one month’s rent, be applied toward the rent, and gave him a forwarding address to reach me at with any damages that could be negotiated. I wasn’t going to let him steal my security deposit as he did with the previous tenant! Also critical: I told him to contact me if he had any problem with this. He didn’t.

We moved out on the last day in May. During our packing, I put a hole in the wall trying to move my computer desk, and we were unable to move a glass tabletop and a couple of broken shelves. I took full responsibility for the costs associated with fixing the hole and getting rid of the junk items, leaving my landlord a handwritten letter that said, “Here is a check for $75 intended to be settlement in full. If this $75 is not sufficient, do not cash this check, and instead, return it along with an itemized bill of damages. By cashing this check, you agree that settlement has been made in full.”

He cashed the check, and I thought I was pretty slick. Case closed! He only got $75 of my money, which he deserved — not $850 that he didn’t. But then about a month later, I got an itemized list of damages and a demand to pay or “face legal consequences.” The list included:

  • $220 for a pair of sliding doors that were broken when we moved in
  • $89 for a water bill that I had already paid
  • $20 for the dishwasher and garbage disposal, both in need of repair, but which were his responsibility, not ours
  • $30 for “cleaning cat hair, despite the fact that pets are prohibited by the lease” — there was no cat hair — we had the apartment professionally cleaned before moving out — and he had agreed to let us have a cat… This was just a shady trick to make us look bad in front of a judge, if it got that far
  • $36 for repairing the hole in the wall (fair)
  • $20 for getting rid of the shelves and the glass tabletop (fair)
  • Worst of all: A $180 “late fee” for “not paying rent” in May: We paid May’s rent with our security deposit!

All in all, it added up to $595 minus the $75 check he had cashed, for a balance of $520. I thought the whole thing was so ridiculous that I wadded up the letter, threw it away, and promptly forgot about it. But then another month later, I had a knock at the door — it was the Sheriff’s Department serving me with papers! I was being sued for $520 and I needed to show up for court at 8:30 A.M., August 22.

The first thing I did was go to my online banking and try to print a copy of the check my landlord had cashed — the one for $75 that said “payment in full” in the ledger. It was nowhere to be found. Had I hallucinated that he cashed it? I assumed I had. Now I realize I should have gone to the bank and asked about it, but at the time, I assumed I was wrong and that he hadn’t cashed the check.

Court Day

The only evidence I had was the letter I wrote to my landlord in late April, and a receipt from the water company indicating I had paid long ago. He came to the courtroom with a binder full of papers. We actually made small talk before our hearing, and I asked him if he had been through this before. “At least once a month,” he said. Oh no. I was up against a pro.

“You know, I really wish we could have worked this out outside of the courtroom,” I said.

“You know, Jase, I tried to be fair. But you just cannot alter the terms of the lease. The lease is the law,” he said.

Finally, at around 9:00 A.M., we were called into the courtroom. Since this was a small-claims case, we didn’t actually have a judge, but a magistrate — small claims also means there are no lawyers. The magistrate asked me if I agreed I owed the money. “No sir, it is in dispute,” I said, not knowing whether to call him “your honor” or not. With that, he sent me and my landlord back outside for one last chance to reach an out-of-court settlement.

As we exited the courtroom, my landlord had a smirk on his face. “There’s no way I’m going to settle with you,” was what he was saying, non-verbally. But I decided to use my words: “What I really object to is this $180 late fee,” I told him.

“Hey, it’s right here in the lease,” he said.

By now I was getting really frustrated. “Okay, look — if the magistrate awards you $520, I’m not going to pay you. You will have to fight me, at your own expense, to ever see a dime, and I’ll make it as difficult for you as I possibly can. Alternatively, I can give you this check for $251. That’s everything, minus the $75 I’ve already paid, the $89 for the water bill I’ve already paid, and the $180 for the late fee which I don’t really owe. I shouldn’t have to pay for those doors that were broken when I moved in, or the ‘cat-hair removal’ that was non-existent, but I’m willing to settle with you.”

He thought for a minute. “Okay, I’ll meet you half-way on the late fees. Make me out a check for $341.”

I was tempted to take the offer, but by now I was fuming mad. I refused.

“Well,” he said with another egotistical smirk, “we’ll just see what the judge says.”

Back in the Courtroom

Upon re-entering the courtroom, the magistrate asked for our stories. For the most part, there was no disagreement. Yes, I had been a tenant. Yes, I had moved out prior to June 1. Finally, the dispute — did I or did I not pay rent for May?

As “evidence” against me, my landlord supplied a copy of the letter I had written in late April. The magistrate read it in its entirety and then said, “I’m going to throw out the $180 late fee.” My landlord was shocked! The magistrate explained: “The defendant asked you to apply his security deposit towards his last month’s rent, and asked you to contact him if you had a problem with that. You didn’t contact him. No late fee.”

Next was the water bill. I supplied my receipt. Now we were down from $520 to $251 — exactly what I had offered my landlord outside.

Then came a list of charges I did not dispute: The hole in the wall and the removal of junk. “In fact, I took full responsibility for those items. I left Mr. Landlord a check for $75 along with a handwritten letter apologizing for the damage and the inconvenience and asking him to accept the check as payment in full,” I said.

The magistrate’s eyebrows raised. “Do you have a copy of the check?” I didn’t. But by now I knew that my landlord had cashed it — he had admitted so outside. “How about the letter?” the magistrate asked.

Then, to my complete and total surprise, my landlord provided the magistrate with a copy of the handwritten letter that clearly stated the $75 was to be considered “payment in full.” The magistrate read the letter and said, “I’m going to have to dismiss the case.”

My landlord was outraged! He had turned down an offer of $251, and now he was going to get nothing. In fact, he was so mad that he actually tried to argue with the magistrate — as if he was going to change his decision!

I exited the courtroom feeling like I was the hero of a John Grisham novel, winning the biggest case in the history of the legal system. My wife and I went to Chilis to celebrate.

Lessons Learned

If you’re a tenant:

  • Don’t let your landlord bully you — know your legal rights and don’t be afraid to use them
  • Get everything in writing. Make sure you get a copy of your lease, for example. And document any complaints you make against your landlord. Save all receipts!
  • Be a little pickier when it comes to choosing your apartment or house!

If you’re a landlord:

  • Just because you’re a landlord, it doesn’t mean the law is on your side. Your lease can be overridden by subsequent “contracts” — including cashing a check clearly intended to be settlement in full
  • If your tenant proposes something you’re uncomfortable with — such as using his security deposit as last month’s rent payment — notify him that it’s unacceptable and let him know what the penalties will be. You cannot try to bill him for late fees after the fact!
  • Do not take cases to small-claims when your time is more valuable than the money you hope to recoup, and make sure you actually have a case before wasting your own time. Will you be able to collect even if you win? If not, then why bother?

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12 Responses to “True Story of Landlord-Tenant Dispute”

  1. Clever Dude on August 25th, 2007 8:20 am

    Awesome story. Congratulations. My heart was pounding as if I was the one arguing with the landlord!

  2. Patrick on August 25th, 2007 1:54 pm

    What a great story. I’m so happy that you were able to deal with this in a professional manner, and the magistrate sided with you. I agree with Clever Dude. I got a little worked up reading this. Something very similar happened to my parents and it ended up costing them almost $1000, though they never took it to court. The landlord used the $1000 to fix up the house and put it on the market. Jerk.

  3. dimes on August 25th, 2007 7:21 pm

    Well played. I see landlord-tenant disputes all the time, and the tenants usually lose because they don’t bother to show up to court. A lot of times they would do better to show up; if they didn’t win outright, they might not get saddled with court costs.

  4. Best Finance Posts from Carnival of Personal Finance #115 at Clever Dude Personal Finance & Money on August 26th, 2007 9:40 pm

    [...] loved Smart Money Daily’s article story of their tenant-landlord dispute. I KNOW you’ll enjoy the story [...]

  5. Cash Money Life - Personal Finance with a Salute to the Military » Carnival of Personal Finance #115 is up at Free Money Finance on August 27th, 2007 8:32 pm

    [...] Money Daily: True Story of Landlord-Tenant Dispute. This is a very interesting read, and I won’t tell you the outcome. It did have me worked up [...]

  6. Carnival of Personal Finance #115 on August 27th, 2007 10:45 pm

    [...] contribution to the carnival was my article, True Story of a Landlord-Tenant Dispute, which has received quite a few links, diggs, and general accolades from readers — if you [...]

  7. Paul Alstad on April 1st, 2009 12:32 am

    The magistrate had a bad day, lucky for you… You did owe the $180.00 in Late Fees – a Security Deposit is held in trust in your name and cannot be attached until after you have moved. A Security Deposit isn’t the same as a Last Months Rent. Clearly if rent was due on the 1st and considered late after the 3rd, 4th etc. and rent was not paid as due under the terms of your lease. The mistake of the landlord was that he didn’t immediately issue a 3-day pay or vacate following through until you paid or a stipulation of eviction was issued making allowance for all fees and rent due. Regardless the reason there’s a lease is to make things clear, like the fees due if rent isn’t paid on time. It’s interesting that when the lease worked to your advantage (your comment about it saying no pets and yet he allowed you a cat) you wanted to point it out but when you wanted to rewrite it by using an untouchable security deposit you didn’t want to follow it.

    There’s an attitude that landlords are out to get everyone, but without landlords where would so many people live.

  8. Jason Dean on April 1st, 2009 11:15 am

    That’s all fine and dandy — but the Agreement we had by virtue of me saying I intended to use the security deposit for last month’s rent and to let me know if that was unacceptable, him NOT telling it was unacceptable, and him then admitting to the magistrate that he hadn’t told me it was unacceptable, trumps. Yeah, I had no proof that he said I could have a cat — it was his word against mine, and honestly, I think he probably forgot… He was “honest” about everything else. But he admitted that he essentially told me (i.e., did not tell me it wasn’t okay when I specifically asked him to if it wasn’t) I could use my security deposit and last month’s rent, and then accepted a $75 check THAT EXPLICITLY SAID that by cashing it, we would be 100% settled.

    I’m not anti-landlord; I’m pro-property rights and pro-contract. You’re just pro-property owner and pro-owner class. Big difference.

  9. Susette Horspool on May 9th, 2010 4:58 pm

    I took a HOA to small claims court several years ago and also won, to the surprise of the judge that eventually ruled in my favor. The HOA had towed my car when I was gone for the weekend and had accidentally left it in the front parking lot, instead of parking in my carport. There were signs posted saying it was 24 hour parking, but nothing that said they would take you to court. I would normally have thought I was guilty, but my landlord was really upset that I’d been towed. He had heard the Board’s lawyer tell them they needed to post signs before they started towing. He sent me the portion of the law that proved they were in the wrong and urged me to take it to small claims court.

    I put together as much proof as I could. I took photographs showing there was no sign. I sent the Board notice that I was going to sue. They’re response, after waiting three weeks, was to send me a letter saying, “There is indeed a sign posted . . . ” I looked. There was . . . with fresh-tamped dirt at the base of the brand new sign. I took photographs of the sign and the dirt, and went again with the court case.

    The day of the case, the HOA sent their maintenance guy to negotiate an out of court settlement. He didn’t have any authority to negotiate a financial deal, so I refused their offer. In court, the judge mocked me. I submitted my evidence and the photographs anyway. A few weeks later I received a letter in the mail saying that I had won and ordering the HOA to pay impoundment and court costs. They did and, too, felt empowered.

  10. Brenda on July 2nd, 2011 5:34 pm

    Moved to Asheville, NC 1.5 years ago and landed in a rental house a couple weeks after a major snowstorm. Nice area, okay house (smelled of mold in the garage and bonus room – our main entrance way into the house). We asked for a long-term lease. He said landlords here don’t do them. But, he caved and gave us a one year lease. He lied and we knew it – there are one and two year leases here and months-to-months as people come in to use the hospitals. We’re 57 and 61 yr old women. The guy and his wife are about our age and he is a “defense contractor” (I internet searched him). He lied about heating costs and he lied about a lot of things – including on the stand. We sued him because he returned 1/3 of our deposit. I nailed him with emails and before and after photos. I also showed a rotting door to demonstrate how much pride the guy takes in maintaining his house. He didn’t see any of the photos and I liked having that power as well. I showed the size of the wysteria that was choking off plants (it showed the $125 he wanted for yardwork was an old – not new problem). We both said we kept on it but when we saw the size of the trunk… we knew it was bad. I produced an email I sent him about how bad the weed was in April of last year. Part of the money he withheld was $500 (out of a $1000 he claimed to have paid) to paint the house. He said in his first email it was due to shoddy work by the painter we hired – it left streaks and drips on the walls and ceiling. I emailed him and asked him which walls were bad. He never responded. We were able to ask him in court, though, and he said the living room. I had move-in photos (to show friends – gosh, not for court) and said we only did one wall there and never touched the ceiling or three walls – his streaks were obvious. I also showed our bill for the high-quality paint we used on his house (the store actually printed it out for me over a year later. He lied and he lied a lot and he was angry and it showed. We won but we thought he might pursue the next step because he’s a nut case. We got the full check in the mail the next day.

    Lesson learned -
    1. He said not to bother writing a checklist of the condition before moving in. WRITE ONE and date it.
    2. Take photos of everything (I didn’t have a photo of the crawlspace with the furnace and fan). He wanted 152.00 for maintenance and furnace repair. So, I covered it by saying he had a fan in there for a reason – there was water in there a lot (from the mountain).
    3. Keep emails – you may need them. I have a hearing loss, so email was my main mode of communication. It was to our advantage.
    4. Don’t be intimidated by small claims court or be intimidated but don’t let it stop you. If you are being taken advantage of – go after the landlord. It’s not right. We were intimidated by the landlord but he tried to pull one over on us and we won.

    We talked with the nice lady who stepped me through the process after winning because we needed to know the next steps. She was calming to me when I went in. So, use the court resources – they’re there for you.

    I agree – it was empowering. I was infuriated but kept my cool in court and stayed on track with what he withheld. The landlord did not stay cool and I was very happy about that. Sometimes a little revenge really is sweet. So, go get ‘em. If you win and they don’t pay, their credit rating can be damaged. If they’re a slumlord, good luck…

  11. anrgy tenant on March 3rd, 2012 6:21 pm

    i had a landlord illegally evict me after filing a 540a petition and fighting still for 3 months to get back into my home,, i was able to sue for a judgement of 56,000 times three. I did not recieve payment as oredered by the court , I filed for contempt. I was then informed by the court that my landlord had filed bankruptcy and I wouldnt get a dime after everything I was put through. He went to the court and said he was my lover and we lived together and got a domestic vioelce restrrainging order on me whcih put me out of my home and put my home and all my possesions in his hands!! ( i later proved this all to be untrue nothing was done about the crime he committed)

  12. Kin Kong on March 20th, 2012 10:37 am

    I have experience in going into residential tenancy dispute.
    I don’t think the dispute process will help if either landlord or tenant intended to cheat on the system.
    Before the arbitration, I did not receive any photo or receipts. I only get a notice of hearing.
    I remembered during the arbitration, the landord kept on crying and shouting saying “you are liar, you damage my apartment”. The whole process took an hour but I could hear the landlord voices all the time making the arbitrator cannot hear anything from me.
    Finally, the process ended and the arbitrator said “Stop!. I heard enough”.
    Then, a few weeks later, the landlord noticed me by email mentioned that the judge were made and asked me to pay her money.
    The whole process to me was like a joke.

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