By Andrew Edwards
For many students, attending college marks the first time living outside of their parents’ homes and being held responsible for themselves. Transitioning into the realm of housing and legal agreements can be difficult for young people unaware of their rights.
Uninformed young people can be easily taken advantage of, and students in Bellingham are particularly at risk as “there are a lot of slumlords in town,” said Nick Berning, an attorney with T.D. Knowles & Associates and volunteer at Whatcom Community College’s Street Law program.
“You should definitely go over your lease a lot before getting into a living situation,” said Nate Braks, a 19-year-old student at Western Washington University. Braks said his landlord tries to intimidate him into paying undeserved fees just because he is a new renter. “It would be nice to be treated with a reasonable degree of respect,” he said.
Berning said that much of the cheap housing that is usually occupied by students is managed by only a handful of predatory property management companies that convince students to agree to leases with unfair terms, like rules that make it nearly impossible to get back a security deposit.
“Typically someone comes in and they have one of two problems,” Berning said. The first and most common problem he sees is an unreturned security deposit.
Under the Washington State Landlord-Tenant Act, a landlord can require renters to pay a refundable security deposit to cover the costs of damages the tenant may cause. However, when the tenant moves out the landlord can only keep a portion of the deposit equal to the cost of necessary repairs and the rest must be returned.
“The best thing to remember is that the landlord cannot keep your deposit for normal wear and tear,” said Nancy Ivarinen, the director of Whatcom’s paralegal program. Things such as dulled paint or worn-out carpet can be described as “normal wear and tear,” she said.
“Sometimes a landlord thinks they can charge you for replacement costs, and they can’t,” said Ivarinen.
“Every landlord is going to try and get the maximum damage,” said Berning. To accomplish this, many will try to charge tenants for damage that existed at the time they moved in, he said.
Property managers are required by Washington law to provide tenants with a condition report, a form that indicates any existing damage to the property, at the time they move in. The tenant cannot be charged for damage noted on the condition report, but it must be signed and agreed to by both the landlord and tenant.
“The most important thing to do is, when you move in, take pictures of everything,” Berning said. He also advised renters to keep every receipt and document relating to their rental agreement, and to keep a record of any correspondences they have with their landlords.
“If you don’t document, they will take advantage of you,” Berning said.
Photographic evidence is the best way to ensure that a security deposit is returned, since the only way to get it refunded is to take the landlord to small claims court; however, “typically I advise people to stay out of court,” Berning said.
“In general, small claims court is going to be skewed against the tenant because the landlord has been there before,” Berning said. “Anytime you can resolve it out of court everyone is better off,” since “most landlords aren’t going to want to take tenants to small claims court.”
Small claims court is evidence based, Ivarinen said, and usually “the landlord may have more proof than the tenant.” She said that tenants should do a walk-through of the property when they move out and bring witnesses who could appear in court if they feel they may need to sue for their deposit.
“If you have appropriate witnesses you should be okay,” Ivarinen said.
If a landlord is acting unfairly or refuses to return a deposit, the best course of action is to write them a letter explaining what they did wrong and show them the evidence against them, Berning said. Ultimately “it all comes down to documentation.” So long as a renter has evidence backing their complaints, “the Landlord-Tenant Act is skewed toward the tenant,” he said.
Berning advises students seeking legal resources or help to visit walawhelp.org or tenantsunion.org. Students can avoid disputes by being proactive, Berning said, since “landlords can only take advantage if you allow them to.”