As anyone who has lived it can tell you, off-campus housing can be a wonderful and horrible experience. At Boston College, most students move off campus junior year because we are allotted 3 years of housing, and senior housing is the best. It seems that everyone panics mid-fall sophomore year and rushes out to find affordable housing.
The house my three roommates and I lived in on Lake Street was just that: affordable. Though the “fourth bedroom” was an unheated and un-air-conditioned attic with no real flooring, and in spite of the fact that it had been the previous tenants’ “Frisbee house” (basically frat house) for at least three years before us, we agreed to sign the lease because “it was only one year out of our lives.”
That year consisted of us constantly calling and emailing our management company to report the fact that the heaters in my bedroom weren’t covered, the back door didn’t lock properly, and the chimney leaked. These complaints were all answered in a lazy, haphazard fashion that would make any property owner blush. But if our parents called the management company, they were suddenly very accommodating and punctual.
Needless to say, we were quite happy to move back on campus at the end of August. We spent all day moving out our furniture and cleaning. We swept and scrubbed the apartment, making sure to leave it cleaner than the day we moved in. And then we waited for our security deposit: counting down the 30 days after our lease ended.
32 days later we finally received an envelope. In it was a check for a little more than half our deposit and a document saying our deposit accrued $2.50 in interest, and then, under the heading Damages it said “Cleaning /Painting– $1200.” This was supposed to be their “detailed receipt” of our entire deposit. There was no bank statement of how exactly $2500 only accrues 0.1% interest, nor was there any description of what cleaning and painting service charges $1200 to tidy up an already clean apartment.
The next week, between classes, we called and emailed the management company every day asking for an actual detailed receipt and a bank statement. When we eventually spoke to our property manager, she condescendingly told us that it was all up to the landlady. Supposedly, the management company had nothing to do with the amount we were returned. We tried to enlist the help of our school, but the off-campus housing office informed us that the head of the department had left, and hadn’t been replaced. They were very sorry, but there was nothing they could do. Finally, I called my Aunt Lisa, a lawyer in Chicago, for help.
She taught us how to file a small claim at the local courthouse. In order to file we had to:
- Get the form: In some states the small claims form is available to print online, but Massachusetts is not one of those states. Instead, we looked up and went to our local courthouse and picked up the form from the clerk. The back of the form had detailed instructions for how to fill it out.
- Fill it out concisely and correctly: My roommates and I were all listed as plaintiffs since each of our names was on the lease. However, we picked one address and phone number to put down. Our defendants were both the management company and our landlady. Then we asked for the $1200 plus statutory damages and $50 court fees. In the claim section we listed our complaint with as much detail as possible. We listed the date the lease started, and wrote in third person with ourselves as “the plaintiff” and the landlady and management company as “the defendant.” We explained that our security deposit was not returned in a timely manner, the receipt was not detailed, and there was no bank statement for the security deposit.
- Cite specific laws: We looked up the laws that had been violated here: Your state probably has a similar website. Google “X state housing law.” By giving the chapter and section of the laws that we’re violated, we were showing the judge that we had done our research.
Attach relevant documents: When we returned our filled-out form, we attached a copy of our lease and our security deposit “receipt.” These also give credibility to your claim. My aunt was disappointed that we hadn’t taken any pictures when we moved in or out, but at least we had some paperwork.
- Notify the defendant: When we returned our form to the courthouse we were given a court date in January because the court had to allow for the defendant to receive notice. The court will notify the defendant for you, but by sending certified copies of everything yourself, you’ll have more paperwork showing that you are serious about the case. It also shows that you are willing to go the extra mile.
When our court date finally came, my roommates and I were all but foaming at the mouth. We had waited so long for our money, and all we wanted was our day in court. We tried not to get our hopes up too high, but my aunt had told us to ask for treble (3x) damages as that was indicated in the statute.
The courtroom was packed, and for a few panicked minutes we worried that we would have to get another court date that all four of us would have to attend. (Since all four of our names were on the lease, all four of us had to go to the hearing.) But the judge seemed determined to get everyone through as quickly as possible. Ours was the last case called, and the one with the most people on each side. We approached the bench, and met our landlady for the first time.
The judge asked us to explain why we were there, and then asked some specific questions about who we addressed our rent checks to, and why we hadn’t gone through and signed a sheet saying exactly what was wrong with the house before we moved in: A Move-In Inspection Report. We explained that we hadn’t known that was an accepted practice, and made a mental note to do it in the future.
Then it was the defendant’s turn to talk, which turned out to be the management company. They claimed that we had painted rooms colors that had not been agreed upon and that we had left the apartment a pigsty. When the judge asked for a receipt they produced a sheet of computer paper with no seal on it and a very simple outline of $500 for supplies and $700 for work. A receipt they wouldn’t give us three months prior.
The judge told us the best case would be if we could come to an agreement without his order, so that the landlady wouldn’t have a mark on her permanent record. So we went outside and asked to speak with only our landlady, without the interference of the management company. After much debate, and the management company constantly cutting in, we came to the agreement that they would pay us the $1200 along with $500 dollars in damages/court fees. It wasn’t treble damages, but hey, it was a lot more than the $1300 they’d originally sent. In fact, the judge smirked when we told him the number. It seemed like he would’ve only given us the $1200, or less. But he kept his thoughts to himself, and instead gave us a court date one month and two weeks in the future in case the check hadn’t arrived.
I wish the story ended there, but our check did not come at the assigned date. And after another long trail of phone calls and messages we thought we were going to have to return to court. Then, two days before our court date, my roommate called our landlady to leave a message that we would see them again in court on Wednesday, but to our surprise, our landlady’s daughter actually picked up. She apologized profusely, to which we replied “Apology accepted, but we’ll still see you in court.” But then she offered to expedite a certified check, meaning the funds are there, by the next day. We told her that this was the only possible way we would not be showing up to court, and she agreed. Sure enough an envelope came on Tuesday that finally brought our saga to a close.
Our journey to court was long and treacherous. That decision to live in undesirable housing for “just one year” cost us another year of stress. We had to fight every single step of the way, but it was a huge learning experience for the next time we rent an apartment. It seems a lot of property owners think they can get away with keeping the college students’ security deposits because we don’t know our rights or are too lazy to try and fight it.
That being said, not every rental issue needs to go through all the hassle it takes to go to court. Before you decide to file a claim, ask yourself these questions:
- Have you tried to settle the matter on an informal basis?
- Have you made a formal written demand on the other side – such as one you wrote yourself?
- Are you and the other side far apart, or is the difference trivial?
- And most importantly, will the matter be worth your time and effort and the emotional stress involved?
If after asking yourself these questions, you still think you’ve been taken advantage of, then good luck! It may be a struggle like ours, but it was definitely worth it in the end. We got our money and learned a lot about our judicial system and our rights as renters. And if you’re getting ready to move into your first apartment, here are some tips we learned for being a smart tenant:
- Get everything in writing: It seems like a cliché, but it’s overused because it’s true. We made some claims that the management company refuted, but couldn’t prove because they had been phone conversations. Towards the end we wised up and would follow up phone calls with emails that stated exactly what we had just discussed on the phone. Also, if you agree to something that isn’t in the lease, make sure to ask for an email of what you just agreed to. A full paper (or email) trail is the best defense.
- Take lots of pictures: And I don’t mean of the decorations you hang on the wall. If we had had pictures of all of the little things wrong with the apartment and the condition of the apartment as a whole before and after, the whole court case would have tilted in our favor much sooner. Take pictures of every part of the apartment, especially any damages, on the day you move in and on the day you move out.
- Fill out a Move-In Inspection Report: This was what the judge asked us for at the beginning of court. Your landlord (or property manager) is supposed to walk through the apartment with you to agree on all the pre-existing problems. This also would have made the court case much quicker and probably would’ve helped the judge to see that we didn’t, in fact, leave the apartment as if it had been partied in for a year because it had been partied in the three previous years. Your landlord is supposed to provide these forms, but they are also easily found online. Try this link.
- Enlist help: Fighting a landlord is especially daunting when you have no idea what you are doing. So find someone who does. My aunt was a huge asset in our case, and we may not have been so successful without her aid. If you aren’t lucky enough to have a lawyer in the family, try your school’s office for off-campus housing. Also, your college’s law school or one nearby might do free legal work. Although a lawyer is not necessary for small claims court, it’s really helpful to have a contact who has some experience.
- Be confident: Sometimes it feels like the court system is closed to the general public. It is so glorified by the media with shows like Law and Order and movies like Legally Blonde, that it feels almost otherworldly. But, my roommates and I proved that if you have a real complaint it’s worth finding a way to get it resolved: even if it means going to court. If we did it, any collegiette™ can!
Lisa Lantero, Attorney