With most rental homes or apartments, you barely ever hear from your landlord. You shake hands at move-in and move-out but otherwise, your only interaction is sending the rent once a month or requesting the occasional repair. After you move out, the security deposit comes back to you. Perhaps with a few reasonable deductions for pet damage or scrapes that couldn't be avoided.
But sometimes, you find yourself with a landlord gone rogue. Fee-charging landlords are among the worst sort, whether you are being charged frivolous fees during your residence or received a jaw-dropping list of deductions to your security deposit. If your landlord is demanding unfair charges for imagined infractions, we're here to help.
You don't have to put up with landlord financial abuses. Use the following process to legally dispute the charges and protect yourself from rental extortion.
1) What Can Your Landlord Charge You For?
The first step is to be absolutely certain what is and is not a legal charge. Landlords are allowed to charge tenants for one of three reasons.
- Valid security deposit deductions
- Fees Agreed On in the Lease
- Splitting Repair Costs During Tenancy
- Read the Lease Terms
Always start by reading your lease. Get out a pen and paper to take notes on anywhere the lease indicates you can be charged money. In most boilerplate leases, this may include late rent fees, lease-breaking fees, pet fees, and security deposit deductions. Then look closely and write down the conditions that must be met for any lease-agreed fees to apply.
- Lease-Agreed Fees (Watch Out for These)
If your landlord is trying to claim a pet fee or 'conduct fee', it must be in the lease to be legal. Your landlord cannot charge you for making noise, for parking an extra car, or having a pet if there is no fee agreed upon in the lease for these violations.
- Security Deposit - Damage vs Wear & Tear
Security deposit charges are only permissible if
- A) You actually caused the damage,
- B) The damage does not constitute as 'Normal Wear and Tear' and,
- C) The repair costs are not inflated.
- Splitting Repair Costs
Sometimes, landlords charge tenants a portion of repair fees. This is usually appropriate it the tenant was responsible for the damage or if they are requesting an upgrade to the landlord's basic repairs and will pay the difference. Usually, split repair costs do not create unfair charges, but they can if your landlord is charging you for damage you did not cause or did not request a repair upgrade for.
2) Collect Your Dispute Evidence
Next, you need to collect your evidence. Be prepared with everything you need to prove the charges are fraudulent and that you shouldn't have to pay them.
- Lease Terms Being Violated
Carefully record each way that the lease terms have been violated. Document if a charge is not listed on the lease, if you are being charged for things the lease says landlords are responsible for, or if you were fully in compliance with the rules.
- State Laws Being Violated
Research the rental laws in your state protecting tenant rights. Document any way that your landlord is violating those laws or rights. Do not assume that your landlord knows the law. Many of them don't.
- Photos from Move-Out
Photos can prove a lot about how well you kept the house or the condition you left it in. If you were diligent about your move-out procedure and took photos after the place was empty and clean, this can prove that any claimed non-existent damage wasn't left by you. Or that existing damage repair costs are being massively overstated.
If you haven't moved out yet, look for recent photos taken inside the house that prove the good condition you've kept it in.
If you are being charged for tenant conduct, look for evidence that refutes the poor conduct claim.
- Receipts from Your Own Efforts
If there was damage that you repaired, ket your receipts. If, for example, you hired a cleaning service before leaving and are now being charged for the landlord's cleaning service, your cleaning receipt will prove that the landlord's charge is spurious. Your receipts for cleaning supplies, touch-up paint, and other proof of good care can also be relevant.
3) Draft a Formal Letter
The next step is to formally inform your landlord that you are disputing the charges and will not pay any unlawfully charged fees. You will need to do this with a formal business letter that states all the facts, your intentions, and a deadline for your landlord to respond or drop their demands.
- Use Templates for Reference
The best place to start is a template business letter. There are several rental dispute letter templates you can start with online or use as your guide. The most important thing, however, is to use clear formal language stating your evidence, intent, and deadline.
As long as this information is clear and simply written, your letter should be sufficient legal notice.
- State the Facts
Outline the basic situation in plain language. Include your move-in and move-out dates, any damage you legitimately caused, and any measures you took to get the home good-as-new on departure.
If this isn't a security deposit dispute, include details that are currently relevant like the date your pet arrived, the day you paid your rent, or any measures you've taken to be a responsible tenant and make the situation right. Include any money you paid to remediate the situation.
- State the Landlord Charges
Start by stating what your landlord is charging you and why the charges are supposedly being demanded. This is for clarity. List the security deposit deductions by line-item or by category.
- Reference the Terms and Violations
Next, clearly explain how the landlord is violating your lease terms or your tenant rights under state law. You don't have to quote specific sections from the lease or law, but you should reference them directly and you can use quotation blocks if you want to.
- State What You Will & Will Not Pay
Then state what you are willing to pay, and what you are not willing to pay. In many cases, some of the charges will be legally legit and your claim will actually be stronger if you take responsibility for them up-front. If your pet really did leave a small carpet stain, for example, agree to pay for that, but not any spurious or false charges.
Then clearly state why you are not paying the fees you are disputing, and reference your lease and legal code as the reason for each disputed amount.
- Give a Reasonable Deadline
As you conclude your letter, give your landlord a deadline to respond. This is an important step or they will legally be able to procrastinate response while maintaining their demand for charges.
Five to ten business days from receipt of the letter is usually seen as a reasonable deadline time. However, if your landlord is hassling you to pay right away or has a deadline ticking over your head, it's okay to shorten this down to three business days.
- State Intention to Take Legal Action
At the end of your deadline, state that you are ready to take further action, or legal action, to dispute the charge. The willingness to take legal action is often enough to encourage abusive landlords to drop the charges because they fear the consequences of their abuses being brought to court.
4) Send the Letter in Triplicate
Once you're happy with the formality and completeness of your letter, package it with copies of your evidence (never originals) and prepare to send it to your landlord. You will want to send multiple copies and get confirmation that each reached the landlord at a specific time. With this method, there's no way your landlord can claim they 'didn't receive the dispute message' and justify charging you further.
They will be required by law to address your dispute or face you in court should you choose to level a civil lawsuit over the charges.
- Registered Mail the Letter and Evidence Packet
First, print everything up including your letter, photos, and any other printed evidence. Fold it into a standard-sized envelope and send it by certified mail to your landlord. Be sure to get a receipt and track the letter to know the exact date it reaches the landlord's mailbox. That is when their deadline timer starts ticking.
- Email the Letter and Evidence Packet
To be thorough, also send them an email copy of the packet. This creates a physical and electronic paper trail and their metadata can be checked, if necessary, to prove your landlord received and opened the email. This also creates a trail that leaves a copy in the 'sent' folder of your email.
- Keep a Copy for Yourself
And of course, always keep a copy of the entire packet for yourself. If there is a dispute of your dispute (and there might be), you'll want proof of exactly what you sent in the packet. Some landlords are not above pretending you omitted photos or added a threatening note. Your copy (and the copy in your email sent folder) will serve as proof that everything is above-board.
5) Be Prepared to Go Legal
Finally, you must be prepared to lawyer up and take the issue to court. Even if it's only a few hundred dollars, landlords cannot be permitted to 'shakedown' their tenants with lies, inflated repair costs, or spurious fees. If your landlord disputes your dispute or refuses to respond before the deadline, it's time to seek out a tenant's rights attorney in your area.
Consult with an attorney about your options and show them your packet of evidence. They will give you advice on how to proceed. In many cases, another letter of intent to sue from your new lawyer's letterhead (the letter comes from your lawyer, showing you've lawyered up) will be enough to scare an obstinate landlord into letting go of the charges. And if it comes down to it, be ready to testify in court to defend your rights and the rights of every tenant that landlord has bilked in the past or planned to bilk in the future.
Most landlords are cool people who just want a quiet renting experience and a smooth turnover process between tenants. But if you get a bad apple, you don't have to put up with unfair charges. With these steps, you can stop your landlord from unfair charges through a formal dispute letter, legal consultation, and legal action if necessary. Contact us today for more smart renter tips or help in finding a better rental situation for your next home.