Some renters say landlords are keeping security deposits...even when there's no damage left behind.
Melissa Bemont thought she had found the perfect apartment to share with her 3-year-old daughter Paige. She answered an ad on Craigslist in October of 2012, and had a positive impression after a conversation with the owner of a New Britain duplex.
"I thought it was legit," said Bemont. "Everything seemed fine. He seemed fine."
When she agreed to rent the apartment, the owner, Juan Perez, told Bemont that there were still repairs that had to be made before it would be ready. After paying the security deposit of $1,350, Bemont says contacting her landlord became difficult over the next several weeks.
"Not showing up, not answering calls, not answering text messages," said Bemont.
She finally got the keys to the apartment two weeks after her lease started. Bemont says when she got inside, she couldn't believe what she saw. She took photographs to document the problems. Gaps were not repaired in the second floor bannister that were wide enough for Paige to fall through. Bemont found holes in the floors, a window falling out of its casing, and furniture still there from a previous tenant among other problems. She wanted to walk away.
“I had texted and told him listen, let’s just part ways, give me back my security deposit," said Bemont. "This way, you know, we can just call it quits. You can fix this apartment and have the next person happy.”
She never spent a single night in the apartment, and she has not heard from Juan Perez since December. The Troubleshooters tried contacting Perez several times - our calls and messages were not returned.
After contacting the New Britain Assessor's Office, we discovered Perez doesn't even own the property. He sold the duplex in December for $133,000, one month after Melissa Bemont and her daughter were supposed to move in.
While Bemont's case is extreme, Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut is seeing a large number of calls from tenants claiming their landlords won't return their security deposits.
"It's more common than people might think," said Jan Chiaretto with Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut.
Chiaretto's staff works with low-income clients to help them wade through the process of dealing with their landlords. But she says they're receiving a lot of calls from middle-income renters with the same problem.
“It’s a business relationship," said Chiaretto. "There are laws in place to guide both parties and protect both parties, and you need to know your end of it. “
One place renters can seek help is through the Connecticut Department of Banking. They have an investigator who works specifically with tenants and landlords to settle disputes over security deposits.
"We've gotten a lot of money back for tenants that were not dealt with according to the law," said Howard Pitkin, Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Banking.
In the last five years, his office has collected $497,370 on behalf of renters. He says there are several important steps that can be found on the DOB website, for both renters and landlords, to avoid disputes. Among them, be able to prove you've paid your security deposit and rent on time.
"Keep all the checks that you pay the landlord, or the money orders, or however you pay them," said Pitkin. "Keep them for three years to ensure matters are settled.”
He recommends that renters take pictures of the property before moving in, and make a list of any deficiencies. Also, take another round of pictures when moving out.
“It does resolve any ambiguities later as to who did what damage at what time,” said Chiaretto.
Pitkin and Chiaretto also remind renters that the security deposit is their money, not the landlord's. By law landlords are required to put the security deposit in an escrow account that earns interest. Ask to see proof, such as a bank statement, that the account actually exists.
Chiaretto says when renters vacate a property according to the terms of their lease, they should immediately send their landlord a letter asking for the security deposit to be returned. The landlord has 30 days to respond with the money or a list of the damage they believe was caused by the tenant. Pitkin says if landlords are found in violation of the law, they could be forced to pay double the deposit.
Tenants may still need to elevate their cases to housing or small claims court. It's a process that takes several months. It also requires a good deal of homework and organization.
"There’s a complexity built in at every step that is there to serve the public so it’s done right," said Chiaretto. "But it doesn’t serve the public in the sense that it’s still complex.”
Melissa Bemont says suing her former landlord is the only way she thinks she'll ever get her money back. She's just starting the process, but is ready to see it through to the end.
“The last text message I sent him was on December 8th telling him I’ll see you in court.”