This month's guest blogger is Julia Barnes, a 2016 Virginia Tech graduate, who is pursuing her Master's degree in Journalism in Boulder and enjoying the beauty of Colorado.
This past August, my boyfriend Nick and I moved from Arlington, Virginia to Boulder, Colorado so that I could attend graduate school at the University of Colorado. One of the things that upset me most about moving was leaving our adorable Arlington apartment behind. It had taken a month long, painstaking search to find the bright, open, high rise unit in the Clarendon neighborhood that Nick and I could afford.
Several months prior to moving, we did a Facetime tour with a landlord in Boulder and pre-leased an apartment for the upcoming school year. Although the Boulder apartment wasn’t as spectacular as our current dwelling, on Facetime all looked well. The apartment appeared to be bright, older but well-maintained, and had beautiful hardwood floors throughout.
When we arrived in Boulder on Friday, August 2nd (after a week-long road trip from the East Coast) our new landlord met us at the front door. She showed us around our new home, and I tried not to cry. The floors were dirty, the living room radiator was covered in rust and grime, paint was peeling off the walls and doors, door handles and kitchen cabinet hardware was missing and falling off, and, worst of all, there was disgusting black mold covering tile and window frame in the shower.
Everything in the new apartment was dank, scary, and smelly. There had clearly been no deep cleaning done between the prior tenant moving out and us moving in.
After the landlord left, I immediately burst into tears and told Nick there was no way I could live there. It only took us about 20 minutes to decide – we weighed the pros and cons of staying in the apartment for a year versus breaking the lease. We both felt that we could not be happy in this apartment. I get easily stressed out by school work, and therefore I need my home to be a calming sanctuary. Nick works from home and did not feel like he would be comfortable sitting at home most of the day in a dank apartment. We agreed that it would surely look better with a deep clean, but that felt like putting lipstick on a pig.
In an attempt to be diplomatic, we called the landlord and told her about all of the issues we had with the apartment. She offered right away to get her cleaning lady to come by that Wednesday to deep clean, an offer which we accepted and appreciated. She did not offer to fix the peeling paint and did not think the mold in the bathroom was a huge issue. She also told us to put a piece of plywood over the rusty radiator if we found it visually unappealing.
By the weekend, we were desperately apartment searching. We found an acceptable, darker-than-I-would-prefer but very modern apartment in Boulder. After realizing we had a valid option, and not wanting to miss out on a much more comfortable apartment, we texted (her preferred method of communication) our landlord and told her we were moving out by Sunday, August 11th.
At the time, our landlord was apologetic – she said she was sad to see us go, but that she would post the apartment listing online immediately. Thankfully, she was able to find a tenant to move in within 5 days of posting the ad.
After we had settled into our new apartment, and the new tenant had moved in to our old apartment, we texted the landlord asking when we should expect our $1,650 security deposit back (we did not ask for, or expect, any portion of August rent back).
She responded by saying, “I have no plans to give back any part of your deposit. You forfeited the entire deposit by breaking the lease.”
Like any good tenants, Nick and I had combed through our lease prior to breaking it just to know exactly what we could be dealing with. There was no “deposit forfeiture” clause in our lease. At this point, it was clear that she was attempting to use jargon and scare tactics to try and keep our money. This deeply upset me – I felt that she was being predatory and taking advantage of the fact that we were young, and maybe didn’t have the resources to fight back. Well she was wrong. Like any informed and educated individuals, we realized we were in over our heads, and reached out for help.
At this stage, we consulted with Little Falls Mediation. The principal mediator told me that you need to try and negotiate and attempt to reach a reasonable solution before you can escalate matters. At first, we tried to talk to the landlord, both by calling and texting – all attempts were ignored. To us, it seemed reasonable that we should get some portion of the deposit back, minus any expenses she incurred in attempting to find a new tenant.
Finally, the landlord emailed Nick a bogus itemized “list” of expenses to try and justify keeping our security deposit. Here’s what she sent:
I have retained the deposit to recover my damages for your default of the lease. My damages are as follows:
Property management: $1,000
Rental commission: $800
G&A Costs: $250
Total damages: $2,400
I believe and support that the landlord was entitled to recoup any damages she had from our decision. However, it was clear to us that this “list” was nonspecific and, honestly, fraudulent.
Later, we found out that we received this “list” because Colorado requires all landlords to compile this list if they are keeping any part of a deposit. If a landlord fails to send an itemized list within 60 days, the landlord is required by law to give the whole deposit back.
It looked like it was time to consult with a lawyer. Fortunately for us, the University of Colorado provides free legal consultations for its students. We met with a wonderful lawyer who knew Colorado landlord/tenant law forwards and backwards. He spent over an hour and a half with us going over our story and running through all scenarios. He agreed that the damages that our landlord claimed were fraudulent, and he helped us write a “7 Day Demand Letter” asking for our full deposit back. Here’s an excerpt from the letter we sent:
We paid a $1650 security deposit at the beginning of the lease. You have withheld itemized deductions that were for damages that are not supported by Colorado law or general contract law. Further, an email with a recitation of subjective damages not supported by invoice does not constitute a proper “itemization of damages” under the security deposit statute.
Notice is hereby given that the undersigned intends to file legal proceedings against you, due to the wrongful and willful retention of $1,650. If we do not receive the full amount of $1,650 from you within seven days of your receipt of this letter, we will sue for treble damages in the amount of $4,950, plus court costs and attorney’s fees pursuant to Colorado State law.
Our lawyer advised us to wait about a month for her to respond before we filed against her in Small Claims Court. Within two weeks after sending the letter, we received a check from her in the mail for the full amount of our security deposit.
For us, it was really important to try and negotiate with the landlord and resolve the dispute ourselves. Unfortunately, sometimes that isn’t possible when the other party is not willing to negotiate. In this instance, we had to take a more aggressive stance. Although threatening litigation is not ever our first preference, Nick and I are very grateful for the help we received from Little Falls Mediation and our lawyer.
Julia and Nick
Ellice Halpern, J.D., is a Virginia Supreme Court certified general and family mediator.