Know your rights in disputes with landlords

For Eddie Germino, being unemployed for a time last year worked to his advantage in a dispute with his Maryland landlord.

Germino, 27, had moved out of the house where he had lived with other students. Now he was trying to get his security deposit back.

"Since I had so much free time," he says, "I was able to do all the legal research and make all the calls and write all the letters."

And his efforts paid off. A court ordered the landlord earlier this year to pay Germino $2,700 — three times his original deposit.

Disputes between tenants and landlords are fairly common: The Maryland attorney general's office received nearly 700 complaints about landlords in the past year.

The most frequent complaints are about maintenance; second is a landlord's failure to return a security deposit.

Renters, of course, must hold up their end of the lease. But it is useful for them to know their rights in the event the relationship with a landlord sours.

"We have some important rights in Maryland that other states don't," says Matthew Hill, an attorney with the nonprofit Public Justice Center's Tenant Advocacy Project in Baltimore. "But there are a number of laws that are not as strong as they should be in Maryland."

One of those laws is due to be strengthened next month.

When a tenant lodges a complaint, a landlord isn't supposed to retaliate — say, raise the rent. But Maryland requires such a high burden of proof — the tenant must show that the landlord has acted solely out of of a desire fot retaliation — that it's nearly impossible to win a case.

Beginning next month, Hill says, that hurdle will be lowered and put in line with what most states require.

You are entitled to a copy of the lease before agreeing to rent the space. This is a good move because you'll have more time to read all the fine print — and there are usually pages of it.

Make sure the lease doesn't run afoul of Maryland law. A lease may not require that you waive your rights or permit the landlord to evict you without a court order. And late penalties on monthly rent can't be more than 5 percent of what's owed.

A landlord generally can't charge an application fee of more than $25.

"Often what we see is that some charge a $25 application fee and a $10 holding fee, and charge another fee for something else," says Karen Straughn, a Maryland assistant attorney general. "They can't do it."

One of the protections Maryland has that some other states don't, Hill says, is that Marylanders who live in an apartment that threatens their health or safety may ask the court for "rent escrow," in which their monthly payments go into an account until the landlord fixes the problem. The court could even reduce the rent. If repairs aren't made in six months, Hill says, tenants can ask the court for the money held in escrow.

Hill says some tenants exercise the right to withhold rent on their own when a landlord won't repair hazardous problems. Nevertheless, a landlord might try to evict them for not paying rent. Tenants in these cases are entitled to have the court place the disputed rent in an escrow account.

"A number of judges won't hear that defense and still grant the eviction action — which is against the law," Hill says.

Many disputes erupt over security deposits. A deposit cannot be more than twice the monthly rent. The money must be held in an escrow account. And if the deposit was $50 or more, it must be returned with 3 percent annual interest. (That's better than banks are offering these days.)

The landlord must return the deposit — less any money to cover damages or unpaid rent — within 45 days after you move out.

A landlord who keeps part of your deposit must let you know that within those 45 days and include a list of the damages and the cost of repairs.

Landlords can't keep your money to cover normal wear and tear to the property, such as small holes in the wall to hang pictures. But if you kicked a big hole in the wall or your kids created a mural in crayon, your landlord may subtract the cost of the repairs from your deposit.

Break a lease early, and you're responsible for the rent for the rest of the contract. The landlord is expected to make an effort to find a replacement, but you will be responsible for any lost rent while the apartment is vacant or for the cost of advertising for a new tenant.

Even in an eviction, you might get at least some of your deposit back. Often renters are evicted for unpaid rent or damaging the property, Straughn says. But once the landlord recoups losses from the deposit, she says, any remaining balance must be returned to the tenant.

If you think your landlord has violated your rights to your deposit, you can sue for three times the amount.

That's what Eddie Germino did.

He had rented a room in a College Park house while going to graduate school. His lease required a $900 security deposit, twice his monthly rent payment.

Germino says he gave the landlord, KMG Management in Baltimore, 10 days' notice that he was leaving, and the company told him the deposit would be returned within 45 days. When the deposit didn't arrive, Germino worried.

"I didn't have a job and was running low on money," he says.

He complained to the Better Business Bureau and the state's Consumer Protection Division mediation unit, both of which tried unsuccessfully to resolve the dispute.

Germino says KMG told the BBB that he didn't give the 120 days' notice of his intention to move out as required by the lease. Germino concedes that he was unaware of this clause, but adds that his room was rented shortly after he left and that he didn't deserve to lose the entire deposit.

Germino took advantage of free resources to find out how to file a lawsuit on his own, and then sued. He says most people assume it's too expensive and complicated to sue and that they would automatically lose. But Germino says his case is proof that's not true.

KMG never showed up in court, Germino says, and the judge ruled in his favor and awarded triple damages. A few months later, he received a check for $2,700.

KMG declined to comment.

Find out more about tenants' rights in Maryland and resources to help renters at Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., for example, runs a hot line to answer tenant and landlord questions at 800-487-6007.

Germino found a job as a program analyst and moved to Virginia earlier this year. He's thinking of buying a house and renting the spare rooms to college students.

"I would be a responsible landlord who takes care of his properties and who knows and obeys landlord-tenant law to the letter," he says. "I don't ever want to get on the bad side of a tenant like me."

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