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Real Estate Today

Leave a Paper Trail to Document Costs of Eradicating Fleas

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Robert S. Griswold | Steven R. Kellman | Ted Smith
5-November-2000 Sunday

This column on issues confronting renters and landlords is written by Counselor of Real Estate and Certified Property Manager Robert Griswold, host of Real Estate Today! with Robert Griswold (10 a.m. Saturdays on AM1130 - KSDO radio, or on the Internet at www.retodayradio.com), and by attorneys Steven R. Kellman, director of the Tenants' Legal Center, and Ted Smith, principal in a law firm representing landlords.

QUESTION: My husband and I were landlords briefly when we purchased our first home and there were tenants living in it. The tenants have just vacated, allowing us to move in, and they left the house completely riddled with fleas. They had a cat and numerous kittens that were allowed to go outside and inside as they pleased.
 
We deducted $215 from their security deposit, which was $135 for an exterminator and $80 for flea bombs and spray. The exterminators told us we would need to bomb and spray repeatedly to kill hatching fleas before they had the opportunity to lay new eggs.

The tenants are now threatening to take us to court for the $215, saying they are not responsible because the house has a "flea problem." We feel we should stay firm on this issue. They left us with a huge problem and as a result, we have spent numerous hours mopping, vacuuming and doing laundry not to mention the fact that we have been bitten repeatedly!

ANSWER: Griswold: The attorneys can battle over the legal issues, but as a property manager I would advise you to stay firm on this issue. Be prepared to document all of your facts and be sure to keep copies of all invoices. I would also suggest that you get an opinion letter from your exterminator on their letterhead stationery.

With additional experience as a landlord, you will begin to develop a sense of when disputes may arise and you should have any independent service providers write detailed information right on the original receipt. This information could prevent a misunderstanding or at least provide clear rationale for your actions in the event that you find yourself challenged in a small claims court.

Smith: Tenant allegations like this come with regularity in California. You
need to be able to show the small claims court that you have documented the condition very extensively and that your repair efforts and expenses started modestly but based on the seriousness of the problem, more extreme measures were required. You may need your carpet or flea expert to back you up with testimony.

If small claims court is still imminent, consider filing a cross-complaint back to the tenant for aggravation and damage on the flea bites. Either way, make sure you document everything carefully and present an organized case. This will give you your best shot in small claims court.

Kellman: I would agree with Ted that if these tenants caused the flea problem, they should pay to take care of it. The problem is that it is unclear in this case who caused the flea infestation. Since you bought the house already rented, you may not be able to say with certainty that these tenants caused the problem.

In fact, they could have inherited the flea infestation from the previous tenants who lived there before them. We do not know if, for example, your
tenants kept quiet about the fleas out of fear that they would be blamed and face an eviction. This is not so far-fetched in San Diego where tenants may receive a 30-day notice to move for no specific reason.

Thus, be sure of your facts before going to court. It seems clear you will prove a flea problem which required those expenses. What is not so clear is the evidence of who or what actually caused the flea problem in your house.


Ch-ch-ch-changes

Our lease is up the first week of September. Now that the time is near for us to move there are numerous concerns that I wish I would have thought of when we first moved in. Our apartment building has been sold and is going through management changes (this is the second change in less than two months).

We were given notices that new leases would be issued. We have no desire to stay in our apartment and DO NOT want to sign the new lease. Can the new owner evict us when we refuse to sign the new lease?

There are numerous repairs that need to be made in the apartment. Most of
which I have reported; however, I did not keep a written record of these requests. We've kept the apartment up to the best of our abilities but are afraid of losing out deposit due to cheap workmanship and materials.

I've thought of writing a letter to the apartment manager as well as the owner stating what repairs have been reported as well as what needs to be repaired and am thinking of giving my required written notice.

Is it too early to give the written notice of relocation and is it a good idea to write a letter concerning the repairs?

Smith: As the landlord's attorney, let me remind you that you are not in a position to dictate the terms of the new lease, nor do anything to prohibit the sale of the real estate. The new owner has the right to create a new lease that is to his liking -- it's like a new ballgame with new rules.

You may choose not to sign the lease, but then you will have to vacate the premises. You cannot force your version of the tenancy on the new landlord. Sure, repairs may have to be made. But the landlord has the right to raise the rent. There is no upper ceiling on either the amount or frequency of rental increases in California in jurisdictions without rent control.

Kellman: When the lease expires, your rights to remain are terminated. Your landlord is not under a duty to renew it unless you had an option to extend the lease and it was properly exercised. Otherwise, the landlord may, or may not, offer you a lease.

Worse yet, without any law to limit rents, the landlord may offer you a new lease but may also raise the rent without limit in jurisdictions without
rent control (such as San Diego). You have some power if you are a desirable tenant and the landlord wants to keep you there.

Of course, some landlords feel that to be a good tenant, you should not complain about repairs. Actually, notifying the landlord about repairs is good for both landlord and tenant. Good maintenance helps to prevent the development of serious problems with the property which can be very inconvenient and expensive.

Therefore, it is best to notify the landlord of repair requests with a polite letter. You should give the notice when you discover the problem. Waiting may only make things worse. A good landlord will appreciate your concern for their property. The landlord who deters you making repair requests may regret the action in the long run if the property suffers expensive damage due to unreported problems, or worse yet, if someone is injured because of it.


IF YOU'RE A TENANT OR LANDLORD, the authors stand ready to answer your questions in this column, although letters cannot be answered individually. Write them at: Rental Roundtable, Homes Section, San Diego Union-Tribune, P.O. Box 120191, San Diego, CA, 92112-0191. Or you may e-mail them at rgriswold.sdut@retodayradio.com

Copyright Union-Tribune Publishing Co.

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Robert Griswold and the Real Estate Today! radio show strongly support the intent and the letter of all federal and state fair housing laws.  As a reminder to all owners and managers of real estate, note that all real estate advertised is subject to the Federal Fair Housing Act, which makes it illegal to advertise "any preference, limitation, discrimination because of race, color, national origin or ancestry, religion, sex, physical disability, or familial status, or  intention to make any such preference, limitation or discrimination." Additional state and/or local fair housing laws may also apply.  Be sure to inform all persons that all dwellings offered or advertised are on an equal opportunity basis.

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Revised and Updated - Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Robert S. Griswold, CRE, CPM, CCIM, PCAM, GRI, ARM
Griswold Corporate Center
Griswold Real Estate Management, Inc.
5703 Oberlin Drive, Suite 300
San Diego, CA 92121-1743
Phone: (858) 597-6100
Fax: (858) 597-6161

Email: rgriswold.ret@retodayradio.com

2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1997, 1996 Robert S. Griswold.  All Rights Reserved.
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