Story by Steven Dahl // Photos by Rhys Logan
Bellingham is a mecca for first-time college renters experiencing the world of landlords and rental agencies with open and naive eyes, as new renters are often shocked to see part of their security deposit mysteriously vanish after moving out of a part-time dwelling.
Western senior Ryan Otto dealt with this experience after vacating a two-bedroom apartment south of campus in July 2008. But unlike some new renters, Otto would not back down without a fight.
Shortly after moving out of his apartment, Otto received a check for $518.50-a significant drop from his initial $750 deposit. While signing the lease, Otto was informed $95 would be taken out of the deposit to clean the carpets, but the remaining $136.50 was removed for five-and-a-half hours of unspecified "cleaning."
Otto immediately called his property management company to ask for a detailed list of what took several hours to clean. It is the landlord's responsibility to return the deposit in full, or give a specific and detailed list of the reasons why the deposit was withheld within 14 days of the tenant's move-out date, according to the Washington Residential Landlord Tenant Act (RLTA). Otto felt "cleaning" was not an adequate reason to take the excess money, and although he called his landlord several times to discuss the matter, his concerns were not recognized.
"They loved to give me the runaround," Otto says.
Only after he made a surprise visit to the rental office was Otto able to confront the owner of the company. Well after the 14-day grace period, Otto says he was handed a generic cleaning schedule that cited various, random items and places around the apartment that had been cleaned.
Otto once again confronted the agency claiming the list they provided did not account for the time it took to clean the apartment, but was shot down, he says. And after a couple of heated phone calls and e-mails, Otto came to the conclusion that his landlord, and others like him, seem to take advantage of college renters.
"This company can bank on college students not having the time or energy to pursue their money," Otto says. "They do this on a regular basis because students don't know their rights as renters."
No longer just about the money, and more about the principle of being treated fairly, Otto found himself filling out paperwork to take his landlord to small claims court.
Holley Smith has dealt with similar situations. The Seattle-based landlord has 33 years of experience managing 10 one- and two-bedroom units in King County and says rental issues can be resolved by staying in touch with the landlord during residency.
With bigger agencies it is easy to feel like a number rather than a tenant, which can lead to animosity, Smith says. When problems arise, he says, it is important to know your rights.
"The Revised Code of Washington laws favor the tenants heavily because I, as a landlord, have the means to hire a lawyer, whereas most of my tenants don't," he says.
In April 2009, nearly seven months after Otto handed his former landlord court papers, he found himself sitting in a crowded courtroom. While waiting patiently, he listened to Bellingham residents debate traffic tickets, and glanced over his documents one more time. His nerves were being tested.
After the traffic violations were sorted through, Otto was assigned a smaller, but no less intimidating, courtroom to conclude what had been building up for months.
Both sides made their case. Otto claimed the apartment was clean when he vacated, and that the landlord had failed to provide a specific and detailed list for withholding the money. While the landlord claimed Otto's move-out clean wasn't the same as somebody else's move-in clean.
He even brought one of the employees of the cleaning company he hired to testify.
However, both plaintiff and defendant quickly learned about hearsay.
"Basically, if it turns into a he-said-she-said situation, none of it is admissible in the case," Otto says. "Judges are amazingly good at telling who's lying."
In the end, it did not matter whether or not the apartment was cleaned vigorously enough. The only thing that mattered was that the list the landlord provided was not detailed enough to live up to the RLTA, and was not delivered within the timeframe allowed by law. Otto won the case, and was awarded $160.50 to cover the missing money and the cost of filing the case.
On the short drive home from the courthouse, Otto, feeling victorious, received a serendipitous gift from another part of his local government. While calling his mom to give her the triumphant news of his win, Otto was pulled over by a motorcycle cop for speeding and talking on his cell phone while driving. His $160 victory turned into a $300 fine less than an hour after it had been awarded.
"Yeah, that totally rained on my parade," Otto says with a chuckle.