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updated: 4/2/2012 6:10 AM

Security deposit dispute may uncover dishonest landlord

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Q. My family of four recently moved out of a three-bedroom house that we had been renting for more than two years. Unfortunately, the landlord took a while to return my $3,500 security deposit, and he also deducted $518 for "repair and cleaning."

The landlord claims that "repair" is for things that were beyond normal wear and tear, such as hand prints on the walls and furniture marks where it touched the walls. I would expect those things to fall under normal wear and tear. However, the landlord did not even itemize how the money was spent.

I should note that when we moved in, the house badly needed painting, as it looked like it had not been painted in nearly 10 years.

What are my rights in finding out how my money was spent and what should my next step be?

A. You should send a written demand letter asking for copies of all receipts for labor and materials to support the deductions. You are entitled to understand what the reasons were for the $518 that was withheld, and the landlord should be willing to provide copies of these documents so you can verify that the work was done.

Based on his apparent definition of "beyond wear and tear" as you briefly describe, I would strongly suspect that you will find the charges to be unreasonable. At that point, I would send a second written demand delineating exactly which charges you dispute and allowing the landlord to return the deposit withheld for those items.

If those funds are not forthcoming or another mutually agreed compromise is not worked out, then you need to file a small claims action against the landlord.

Q. I have a single-family house for rent. After screening and checking the credit of four individuals on an application, I accepted the application.

I told them I accept only one check that covers the entire monthly rent for the unit.

However, one of the individual tenants has his own trust fund and tells me that the money can be sent only by his lawyer. He said he will collect the rent checks from the other three individuals and put it into his personal bank account, then make out one check plus a check from his lawyer payable to me on behalf of him.

Is it OK to accept rental payment in this way? I am worried that agreeing to this unusual arrangement will create problems collecting the full amount of rent for the unit. For example, if the other three occupants leave and he stays, will he try to just pay his portion only rather than the full amount of the lease?

A. It is difficult to predict what tenants will do, but I don't think you have to worry. Regardless of whether you accept multiple checks from various tenants or have a policy that requires one single check in full payment of the entire rent, your lease will clearly show the full amount of monthly rent due for the apartment.

Unless you have something in the lease that would limit the individual tenant to less than the full amount of the rent, the full rent will apply no matter who remains in possession of the rental unit. So these are decisions that are strictly up to your discretion.

I am sure you are aware that even the tenant's proposal of writing a personal check representing the portion of the rent paid to him by the other three individual tenants along with the trust-fund check from his attorney is technically not in compliance with your rules. But the only other option is to get an agreement from the trust-fund tenant that he will send his roommates' financial contributions to his attorney who will then write you a single check from the trust account.

I would be less worried about the details of the payment arrangement but would focus on the screening of each of these applicants. The best way you as a landlord can protect your interests is to carefully review the information provided by the applicants and check their references of previous landlords.

• Property manager Robert Griswold is author of "Property Management for Dummies." Email

2012, Inman News Service

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