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.