Wednesday, April 30 2014, 11:01 PM MDT
Tricks to Help Tenants Recover Rental Deposits from Unyielding Landlords
BEAR LAKE, UT (KUTV) A for-rent sign can mean a lot of different things to different people. For some it's a place to settle down for years. Others look at a rental property as a place to get back on your feet for a few months. And in some cases, a rental is nothing more than a place to escape, just for a night.
The latter was Jennifer Petersen's motivation when she turned to the internet last February. On the website KSL Classifieds she found her escape: a cabin in Bear Lake, Utah for just $99 a night.
Unlike a hotel which one might get for a single night, the cabin came with a full lease agreement that was complete with a security deposit clause. Jennifer had to pay an extra $500 up front to cover possible damages to the cabin, which are spelled out throughout the contract.
Upon leaving after a one night stay, Jennifer says there was nothing wrong with the property.
"[We did] everything you're supposed to do. We did the dishes. We took out the garbage. We vacuumed. We kept it nice."
The contract says that the $500 deposit would be refunded if there wasn't a problem, but when Jennifer's credit card statement came several weeks later, she says the $500 charge remained.
Jennifer says she has tried repeatedly since to reach the landlord.
"I was like, hey, this might be a mistake or if it's not I think you at least owe me an explanation so I have a chance to defend myself."
But the landlord wouldn't respond.
"I've called her over a dozen times, left a lot of messages. I emailed her. I texted her. Not one response."
Jennifer turned to her credit card company and disputed the $500 charge, and then she picked up the phone to Get Gephardt.
"People need to know that this happens," she said.
When Get Gephardt reached out to the landlord, she immediately responded. Via email she went on a bit of a rant accusing Jennifer of slandering her name and saying Jennifer should be more patient.
As far as Jennifer's refund goes, the landlord told me she was operating within the terms of lease.
She wrote, "It can take up to 30 days for a credit to show up on a statement. That is not my fault or my responsibility."
Marty Blaustein with Utah Legal Services says they hear stories of people not being able to get their rental deposits back all the time.
"I rarely see anybody getting 100% of their security deposit back," he said.
Blaustein says the landlord is often legally justified in keeping the deposit because of the wording of the lease agreement contract.
"That lease agreement was not written for [the tenant's] benefit," he said. "It was written for the landlord's benefit."
Blaustein says that Utah laws are very landlord friendly. He suggests doing the following things with every place you rent, no matter how long the stay.
#1 - Take pictures both when you move in, and when you move out showing the condition of the property.
#2 - Physically hand the landlord the key so there can be no question the place was left in good shape and nobody else had access.
#3 - Within 48 hours of moving into a place, tell the landlord in writing any problems you notice so that you can't get charged for those problems.
#4 - Immediately upon moving out tell the landlord in writing that you want your deposit back. If the landlord doesn't respond within 30 days, Utah law says you can collect $100 from the landlord in addition to the deposit.
"The number one thing you do to protect yourself is you don't trust the landlord," Blaustein said.
So what do you do with all that evidence if the landlord still refuses to budge or, as was the case for Jennifer, refuses to even call you back? Take the landlord to small claims court, Blausetin says. The better you can prove to a judge that you did meet your obligations of the contract, the better the odds that the judge will order the landlord give you back your deposit.
As for Jennifer, shortly after disputing the $500 security deposit with her credit card company she says the landlord refunded the $500 security deposit.
Still, she says she will think twice before signing a lease agreement for a one night stay in the future.
"I am terrified to rent something again," Jennifer said. "It's been a nightmare to get this handled."
By Matt Gephardt
Edited by Eric Bresee
Photography by Mike Sadowski and Brian Morris
(Copyright 2014 Sinclair Broadcasting Group.)