Revolving Roommates Create Security Deposit Nightmare

by Chris on November 29, 2010

Q:  I rented a 2 bedroom house, completely refurbished, to two roommates.

When the first roommate moved out one month prior to lease expiration, we did a walk through with remaining tenant present. The remaining tenant had put nails all around every window sill to secure the screens (which I installed as a courtesy after they moved in so she could open the windows and her cats would stay in). Additionally, the remaining tenants’ cats had clawed and destroyed several screens.  Except for the screens and cleaning, I had no problem with the walk through with the tenant that was leaving. I deducted one half of the cleaning fee which was $50. (I only charged $100, but ended up paying $200 for cleaning).   Since the cats belonged to the remaining tenant, I asked, with exiting tenant present – “Are you willing to accept responsibility for the screens?”  She said yes.

The exiting tenant paid the rent for the next month even though she did not live there for the last month of the lease.

The remaining tenant could not find a roommate, so she stayed one more month past the end of the lease. On the 15th of the month, she said she found another place. Could she just give a 15 day notice? I told her if I could rent the house in 15 days, I would accept a 15 day notice. I scrambled, possibly hurrying the verification process, to get tenants by the 1st. 

When she left, I charged her for $111 ($37 X3) for 3 damaged screens plus $100 to repair/putty and paint the holes she left in the sills. She is screaming now because I charged her the $100 for repair. She said that should not have been charged and by law, I cannot charge her if I did not charge her roommate.

I am pretty shocked since she verbally (with witness) acknowledged that she would be responsible for repairing the screens. I did not have time to fix it before the new tenants moved in. The holes are just nail holes, but the house was painted immediately before the last tenants moved in, completely refurbished with smooth window sills. The house is 84-years old, built with original redwood.  I thought $100 was more than fair and probably less than it will cost me to restore.

Does she have to pay? – TVS Landlord

Many of the problems that you describe here have a common root – you were looking at the roommates as individuals. 

It is better for a landlord to view “roommates” as one tenancy.  That way, it is easier to see that there is only one rental unit, only one lease, only one deposit, and only one walk-through.  Each roommate must sign the lease, and each must undergo a tenant background check.  But together, they equal just ‘one’ tenant.

Allowing one roommate off the hook mid-lease compromises a landlord’s rights, a problem compounded by your “move-out” inspection.   

Otherwise, the roommate that walked remains liable for the remainder of the rent under the lease, as well as any damages that occurred during the term of the lease. They may still be.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to conduct an effective walk-through inspection with furnishings still in place in the rental property.  Not only does the landlord miss items of damage before they account for the security deposit – here you say the cleaning bill was higher than expected, but the landlord is forced to ‘ballpark’ the amount of damage.  Generally, only actual damages are allowed as a deduction, not estimates of damages. So another issue that you face is proving that you spent $100 to fix the sills.  Likewise, if you were not planning to replace the screens, you may not be able to deduct from the security deposit for the damage.

You are also in a bit of a time crunch, as most states set a deadline for returning the undisputed portion of the security deposit.  

It would seem likely that the roommates in tandem are still liable for the damages.  Only an attorney familiar with your local laws can decide what your specific rights are, and whether the remaining roommate has a valid defense regarding the first roommate’s walk-through or your agreeing to only charge that roommate $50.  This may come down to exactly what was said, and what is written in your lease. 

You mentioned you were scrambling to re-let the property when you allowed the remaining tenant to leave mid-month.  Rushing the tenant screening for the next applicants can lead to even more problems, especially if you had not yet completed the repairs from the last tenant.  Be sure to fill out a move-in inspection report each time you lease the property and note any items in dispute to avoid hassles over the next tenant’s security deposit.  Proper documentation can go a long way towards resolving these problems.  Also, if you do have to rush a tenant background check, take a look at our previous post, How to Fast Track Tenant Screening, to help you avoid mistakes that can cost you down the road.

This post is provided by Tenant Verification Service, Inc., helping landlords reduce the risks of renting with fraud prevention tools that include Tenant Screening, Tenant Background Checks, (U.S. and Canada), as well as Criminal Background Checks, and Eviction Reports (U.S. only).

Click Here to Receive Landlord Credit Reports. 

Disclaimer: The information provided in this post in not intended to be construed as legal advice, nor should it be considered a substitute for obtaining individual legal counsel or consulting your local, state, federal or provincial tenancy laws.

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