Taken to the cleaners

What every renter needs to know before putting up that cleaning deposit

Photo By Tom Angel

Chico State student Brenden Merwin had heard that other tenants at Creekside Manor Apartments weren’t seeing much of their deposit money when they moved out. That’s why, when he and his roommates went to move out last June, they spent four days detailing their apartment, from scraping the grime off the windowsills to wiping off the tops of the ceiling fans.

However, their final bill after moving came to $1,750, $150 more then the original deposit; $700 of this was for cleaning.

Merwin and other college-aged renters in Chico are uncertain that they are getting a fair deal from their property management companies.

Merwin said he was confused about charges on his bill, such as $65 for cutting zip tie and $140 to replace chain pulls on the ceiling fans that weren’t there when he moved in. The owners also charged to replace the carpets, which were old when they’d moved in four years previously.

“I think they’re charging us for things that weren’t there so they can make this apartment better on our money,” he said.

Dan Herbert, chief operations officer of Sheraton Real Estate Management, the company that manages Creekside, said that disputes are common but not typical. Only about 5 percent of move-outs are disputed, he said.

The thing to keep in mind is that there is a difference between what the rental agency sees as clean and students see as clean, he said.

“There’s a difference in cleaning for guests coming over for a visit rather than for people who are moving in,” Herbert said. “We need the place to be spic and span.

“The truth of the matter is, they’re not spending two or three hours on their hands and knees inspecting the floor.” He said. “You can mop a floor and have it look good, but there might still be a half-inch film of grease. Those are the kinds of things we take up.”

What Herbert recommends is that people take advantage of the pre-move-out information companies send out 30 days before tenants’ leases are up, which details the companies’ standards. His company also offers pre-move-out inspections.

“Our goal is for everyone to get their full cleaning deposit back,” Herbert said.

Vanessa Vasquez, a Spanish major at Chico State, said she thinks that property management companies try to take advantage of college students.

Vasquez had moved into a house managed by Action Properties, on Sycamore Street. A red flag was raised when previous residents—a group of college-aged women—came in to take pictures for a lawsuit against the company. Vasquez and her two roommates had their problems with Action when trying to get their deposit check after they moved out.

According to California law, landlords have 21 days to return a deposit check to tenants. Vasquez waited a month before contacting the company, who she said seemed unconcerned that the check was taking so long.

“They acted like we were really stupid, basically,” she said.

After several phone calls they went in to talk to someone at the company. They waited for over an hour and weren’t pleased by the treatment they received from the person they spoke with.

“The guy was totally patronizing,” Vasquez said. “He told us, ‘Don’t worry girls, I’ll take care of everything.'”

One of the roommates’ parents stepped in and hired a lawyer. When the lawyer contacted Action, the check was sent right away, Vasquez said.

But there were more problems. Vasquez said she wasn’t told about the form she needed to fill out to have the check sent to a current address. The check was sent to their old address, which they hadn’t lived at for over a month. It was forwarded to a one of the roommates’ parents’ house in Paradise.

The other problem was that Action would write the check only with all three roommates’ names on it, but not all the girls were in Chico for the summer. Because one of the girls was in Thailand, they couldn’t cash the check.

“It was so shady,” Vasquez said. “They knew that we were college students and that we were going to go our separate ways. They didn’t want us to get our money.”

Action Properties’ chief operations officer, Dan Thatford, said that checks always go out within 21 days. The only way it ever takes longer is if there is a dispute, he said, which can hold it up a couple weeks.

“Every situation is different,” he said.

In cases like Vasquez', the company is within the law, he said. When renters are all on the lease the check has to be in their names, and the checks are sent to the last known address. Sometimes checks do get sent back to them, he said.

“We do our best to locate tenants and get their money to them,” he said.

It is up to students to stay informed. “It’s all in their contract,” he said.

Barruch Ben-Zekry, a legal intern at the Community Legal Information Center, a nonprofit university-affiliated group that helps people with legal problems, said that certain companies in Chico are notorious for having problems with college-aged tenants.

“These companies know parents are paying the bills,” he said.

The biggest problem is that a lot of students don’t know what landlords should be charging for, he said. For example, landlords can’t charge for carpets that are more than 10 years old or paint that’s more than five.

“The laws are really specific as to what they can charge for,” Ben-Zekry said. “I would get as informed as possible.”

If students are at all suspicious that they are being overcharged, they can take their case to Small Claims Court, Ben-Zekry said. The fee to file is only $10.

“And you’ll win too, even if the person did cause damages,” he said. “If a judge sees outrageous charges, it automatically discredits the landlord.”

It doesn’t pay for students to let management companies go unchallenged, he said.

“A lot of students don’t fight back,” he said. “So [the companies] are able to get away with it.”

For students moving into new places, the best thing they can do is take pictures, said CLIC’s housing project supervisor, Dane Cameron, a local attorney.

“It’s all about evidence, evidence, evidence,” he said.

In one case, where a water leakage problem was so bad in an apartment that there were mushrooms growing in the soggy carpet behind the couch, a renter used pictures to protect himself from being charged for the damage. The renter and his roommates photographed the damage as well as the rest of the apartment, which they had kept well maintained, including the toilet, the oven and the bathroom tile.

“They were ready to rock and roll,” Cameron said. “Sure enough, they got into a dispute with the landlord. When the judge saw the pictures, though, that was it; it was over.”

In this case, the renters were even paid for the couch that was ruined by the water damage. It’s worth whatever time and effort it takes to go through the small-claims process, Cameron said.

“It may take two hours to get back $350, but some people can live off that much in a month.

“Bring your evidence, people to testify and your pictures and be ready to tell your story,” Cameron said. “It’s a walk in the park.”