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posted: 9/30/2012 4:08 AM

Landlord demands payment for 'missing' cabinet door that never existed

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Q. I lived in a house with four other tenants for 12 months before recently moving out. There were cubbies or storage niches next to the stove that we would use to store our food. We just received our security deposit refund accounting and noticed that we got charged $125 for the "cubbies" missing a cabinet door. When we moved in there was never a door on the tall cabinet! We were always under the impression it was cubbies or a storage niche without doors.

We called the landlord and he basically said that because we didn't write it on the move-in checklist that we are out of luck. But I don't see how we could possibly see into the past and know that the cubbies used to have a door?

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A. I think your assessment is correct and you shouldn't have been charged $125 for replacing cabinet doors on cabinets that didn't have doors when you moved in. One of the primary purposes of the move-in checklist is to note the condition of the property when you moved in.

Then, when you move out, the landlord or property manager can look and determine any damage beyond normal wear and tear that occurred during your tenancy and make reasonable deductions from your security deposit to cover those expenses.

As you correctly point out, you acted reasonably in assuming that there never were cabinet doors and rightfully did not write down or take note of something that you couldn't have possibly known. I think this is clearly a matter that the landlord should refund your $125.

Send the landlord a written notice along the same lines as your question to me, and that should work. If not, then a small claims action certainly would be appropriate. Of course, many landlords know that former tenants won't take the time and effort to pursue a claim of this amount, as it can be time consuming to file a claim and then pay for the filing fees and process server costs and then have to usually take off from work to attend the court hearing.

Even if you do prevail, you will receive your filing fees and process server costs, but the courts will not compensate you for your time and travel expenses.

Q. Upon moving, I returned the house key but did not return the bedroom key because I had lost it. I mentioned this to my landlord who told me that she has a spare key so I thought that would be the end of it. I did think that I'd be charged a replacement fee for the bedroom key, but instead my landlord installed a whole new lock.

I was quite surprised when I learned the landlord was deducting the entire price of the lock and labor from my security deposit. Upon the loss of a key for a bedroom door lock, is a new lock legally required? Or is she choosing to install a new lock and having me pay for it rather than just charging me a key replacement fee?

A. If you had lost the key to the front door or any exterior lockset, then you would be responsible for the entire cost of the labor and materials to replace the lock. Landlords must be sure that only the tenant has the key to the rental unit and having keys lost or missing or simply just not turned in by the tenant is reasonable grounds for a landlord to rekey or replace the lockset.

But in your case, you acknowledge that you lost the key to a bedroom lockset. It sounds like this is a keyed lock or deadbolt and not one of the typical bathroom or bedroom privacy locks that can be opened simply from the outside with a long narrow tool through a small hole in the middle of the doorknob. So I think that this could really go either way, as the landlord apparently has taken the position that the bedroom had a keyed lockset that is an essential element to the property.

I can't disagree with her thinking that any lock that doesn't have all keys accounted for is not secure and a new tenant should be able to expect that the bedroom door is locked and that only the tenant or the landlord has a key.

But I do understand your frustration that you are being charged a much higher amount than just the nominal cost for a new key. Often, landlords will waive these costs if you had been a long-term tenant, so you might want to consider asking her to reconsider. But I wouldn't be overly disappointed if she stood her ground, as I think she would have a decent chance of prevailing if you were to push the issue and go to small claims court.

• Property manager Robert Griswold is author of "Property Management for Dummies." Email rgriswold.inman@retodayradio.com.

2012, Inman News Service

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