“Landlord charged for painting – can we win in court?”

Photo by PoPville flickr user Mike Maguire

“I’m hoping someone who went through a similar situation might be able to offer advice or share their experience. Do we have a good chance of winning our case in small claims?

We moved out of our apartment in the middle of August. It was a 1BD/1BA condo, and we had lived there for 20 months. The people we hired to clean the place did a super awesome job, and we left everything in great condition. We had a pretty quick turn around between the moving, cleaning, and walk through because our landlord is currently living in another country, and he was back in the US for a limited time, during which he wanted to do the key exchange. So we didn’t have any time to do additional work, if the landlord pointed anything out.

We did the walk through, and the only things that my landlord pointed out were that there was a bit of pink mildew in the tub grout (like maybe an inch) and there were a couple places where the wall was scuffed; one in the closet and one in the hallway (and possibly the living room). These scuffs were pretty minor. The landlord pointed them out, said something along the lines of, “I’m not sure if I’m going to have to paint that.” Did not directly say he was going to charge us for anything. For what it’s worth, the apartment was NOT freshly painted when we moved in.

Forty four days later, he sent us an email saying that he needed to paint the apartment, and that it cost him $1000, but he was only going to charge us $500 because he realized that they had a part to play in keeping up the apartment.

This was the cost for painting the entire apartment, not just the scuffs (we confirmed this with him). We’re pretty sure that for the condition of the apartment when we moved in and the length of time that we were there, that these scuffs would constitute normal wear and tear. On top of that, the landlord did not send us an itemized receipt, nor did he send us the interest on the deposit (both of which by our lease and the law he is required to do).

We’re still doing some research on how exactly small claims will work with an out of country landlord (will he get served overseas??), but we plan on taking legal action if they do not agree to give us our money back. However, I would like to know if others have had to fight for their security deposit after being charged for painting? Did you win? The regulations are a little murky on where painting falls. We don’t want to go in with a case on shaky legal ground, then have to pay for his (likely hefty) plane fare if he counter-sues.”

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42 Comment

  • Sue the shit out of him, and do so in small claims court.

  • If only you had signed some kind of agreement with your landlord that delineated your respective rights and responsibilities…. LOOK AT YOUR LEASE. What does it say about who is responsible for this kind of work, understanding that the tricky part here is probably figuring out what “this kind of work” actually is: routine maintenance, versus tenant neglect, versus work that needed to be done before you even moved in. But there are no hard and fast judicial rules for these things — start with your lease and take it from there.

    • That’s not necessarily correct, and I would be careful to conclude so quickly. Are you a lawyer? A lawyer who works on tenant’s rights? Lots and lots of leases have illegal provisions.

      • I repeat: “Start with your lease and take it from there.” Worry about illegal lease clauses only if/after you’ve determined that the express lease provisions don’t work to your favor. Jumping right to “it’s not fair!” when you actually could rely on negotiated contract language is, well, dumb.

    • OP here. Yes, we obviously looked at our lease. The lease is the standard DC lease. There is no mention of painting, and it does not get into specifics about what qualifies as routine maintenance (actually the only thing that is specified is changing the air filters). We as tenants are responsible for negligence, but we do not consider scuffs to be negligence.

  • If it’s registered as a rental in DC, he’s required to have someone in DC that can receive a legal summons.

    But I would start by sending him the DC rental laws. It’s enough to scare most landlords.

  • just dont pay him. let him sue you for it.

  • Unless you are really down to the last $500 save yourself the hours of grief and emotional torture of going to court. You are likely going to have to take some time from work, maybe even consult a lawyer. I am not saying that you are in the right or the wrong. The time is better spent sharing the story with friends over beers, or providing afternoon entertainment on Popville. But the possibility of getting some of the $500 back is not worth the rest of the wasted time and anguish.

    • Maybe not to you, I’d be livid and eager to get the money back for the principle of the thing.

      Also, there’s a decent chance that all that is required here is announcing an intention to pursue legal action.

    • In some places wrongly withheld security deposits are worth double or triple the amount withheld. If they didn’t get interest they may be able to get triple the whole deposit. Depends on what DC’s laws are.

      • I successfully sued an old scumbag LL of mine in 2009 and I was awarded treble damages because he illegally withheld my deposit from me.

  • Your landlord should not be pursuing this course of action. IF the scuffs you made were beyond normal wear and tear, I can see him maybe debiting $50 for that — but not $500.
    “nor did he send us the interest on the deposit (both of which by our lease and the law he is required to do)” — You realize that the interest on the deposit is likely to be just a few dollars, right? IMO, this part is not worth pursuing.
    ” bit of pink mildew in the tub grout (like maybe an inch)” — I don’t understand this. You hired professional cleaners and they failed to clean off visible pink mildew??
    I would first try writing a polite e-mail to the landlord to bring it to his attention that normal wear and tear does not count as chargeable damage, and asking him to send the remaining $500. IF he balks at that, maybe e-mail again. And only if that doesn’t work would I pursue the small-claims court angle — it sounds like such a huge headache that I really think it should be an action of last resort.
    Also, even if you win a judgment in small-claims court, that doesn’t guarantee that you’ll ever see the money. (My brother took a former roommate to small-claims court and won, but never got the back rent he was owed.)

    • +1 to this. Unfortunately just because you win a small claims case the other party can still not pay.

    • OP, I don’t know if you’re still reading, but while I was reading the “Ask A Clean Person” blog (in conjunction with something totally unrelated), I happened upon a link to a nolo.com piece with examples of normal wear and tear vs. damage that a tenant would be responsible for:
      It lists as normal wear and tear “Minor marks on or nicks in wall.” It lists as damage ” Large marks on or holes in wall.”
      So that basically supports what I was saying in my earlier post — the landlord can conceivably charge you for just those marks, but can’t stick you with the entire bill for painting the whole unit.

  • Based on my experience with DC leases, your landlord is most likely in the wrong here to charge you for the painting as it’s normal wear and tear. However, the cost (monetary plus time/hassle) really isn’t worth it for $500, especially when something like 80% of small claims awards are never paid. I would send a firm, lawyer-ly sounding email to him, mentioning DC regs and maybe mention a possible report to DCRA, and demand a refund. If he doesn’t pay, move on.

    • Judgements are payable for years. LL would be really upset to be overseas and find out that his bank account was frozen because he didn’t pay a past judgment. Plus that goes on your credit report.

  • You sue a landlord in landlord-tenant court, NOT small claims.

    This is extremely straight forward. My landlord in college tried to do this and we successfully sued him. My roommate was also a smoker and we had arguably damaged the walls but paint naturally wears out over time and the LL would have had to re-paint regardless of the smoking or wear and tear. (We lived there for 2 years.) He will probably back down if you threaten him but if not filing in L-T court is very simple.

    Catholic or American law school also has a housing clinic where they deal with issues like this. (It might be UDC.) While they are unlikely to take your case, they probably have materials that will help you with your case.

    • “You sue a landlord in landlord-tenant court, NOT small claims. ”


    • Only landlords can initiate cases in landlord tenant ct in dc. Small claims is the proper place.

      • It’s been a while that I’ve practiced in that area, but I could’ve sworn that they changed that to allow tenant suits for things like repairs.. What I’m not sure about is whether ex-tenants can sue to recover withheld security deposits in that branch.

        • No they have not. There is a Housing Conditions Calendar where the judge will address current problems with the unit and require repairs. This court does not award damages. Small claims is the place to sue the landlord.

    • Aside from the actual question – smokers more than “arguably” damage walls. Smoke leaves a greasy film all over the walls the makes them impossible to paint without extensive professional cleaning first.

      • I would say that’s normal wear and tear if you’re choosing to rent to smokers.
        If you say no smoking, then I’d absolutely sue for the pre-paint deep clean.

  • HaileUnlikely

    As others here note, you should win easily, but likely never get your money back. Up to you how much time and effort you want to invest in fighting for it, with the understanding that at best you will get $500 a long time from now, and more likely you will get nothing but the satisfaction of a virtually unenforceable legal judgment in your favor. If that is worth the time and effort to you, knock yourself out.

  • Go to DCRA website and see if he/she has a business license on the property filed with DCRA. If there is no business license filed for the property, your landlord is SOL. He/she was renting the place illegally and can’t take you to court. You can take him to small claims if he/she does not return your deposit and h/she does not show you a valid receipt/invoice for painting. You probably will get your money back just based on him/her renting without a license.

  • You lived there 20 months and it wasn’t freshly painted when you moved in. Do you know when it was last painted? I think rentals have to be painted every three years per DCRA regulations. If so, maybe he is trying to paint the whole place while sticking you with half the bill. Either way, it’s BS and shouldn’t take lawyers and court. As others have suggested, send him a strongly worded email.

  • Wow, your landlord sounds eerily like my previous skeezy landlord. He also lives overseas most of the year and even tried to rip us off along similar lines with some vague excuse about painting. We’d also had left everything in good condition, went over the walls to patch any nail holes, and paid to have the apartment professionally cleaned in advance of his inspection. To me, it wasn’t even just about the money, we were also just angry at getting ripped off.

    I went to the Office of the Tenant Advocate and found them enormously helpful. As you stated, they are required to notify you in writing of their intention to withhold part of your deposit, and to provide a full accounting. From my discussion with them, unless you’ve done serious damage to the walls (large holes or stains), painting falls under normal wear and tear. Talk to them, but I can’t imagine a few scuffs would fall beyond the scope of wear and tear.

    When our landlord pulled something similar, I replied with a polite, but firm email asking when we could expect his full accounting of his alleged expenses. He did an immediate 180 and suggested a “minimal copay of $100 as a token of good faith.” Yeah, ok guy. It was clear that not only did we both know that he was full of it, but also that he knew exactly what the rules were and was just counting on getting away with it. At that point, we’d had enough and just agreed to let him keep $100, but if I’d had the energy to keep going, I definitely would’ve taken him to small claims court. I’d started discussing my options for how best to serve him w/ the OTA person, but don’t remember the specifics. Again, I highly recommend talking to them about this.

    • Thanks – we are in the process of talking to them. Hopefully we’ll get a similar compromise from our landlord when we send him a request for the receipts and money back…

  • You’re a fool for cleaning it to that degree AND agreeing to any painting related to normal wear & tear.
    In terms of cleaning, the place should be dusted, broom swept, and all items remove when you leave. That’s it. EVERY landlord should be hiring a cleaning company to come do a deep scrub between tenants. Inexcusable.
    The painting is BS as well – he’s trying to get you to pay for a paint job that would otherwise be done on his own dime (and a tax deduction! ugh)
    Tl;dr – your landlord is a scumbag. And if he’s working overseas for the US government while pulling these shenanigans, also an idiot.

  • I also second what Anon said above! I had a similar experience and I contacted the DC Office of the Tenant Advocate (http://ota.dc.gov/page/information-tenants). They were incredibly helpful in assisting us in getting our security deposit back from our landlord. There a Tenant Petition you can file with the DC Department of Housing that is similar to a lawsuit and you initiate a case against your landlord for not returning your security deposit within the requirements of the law. Even though he is overseas, he is still required to have a business license for the rental and when the DC Housing Regulation gets involved, he will take notice so that it does not get revoked. It sounds like in him not giving you an itemized receipt and not returning the interest, he is in violation of the law. I would also check to see if the timing of the inspection and notification of withholding the security deposit were within the regulations of the law (copy and pasted below). To note, when we went through this, we did not actually end up having to file a petition but based on the suggestion of the DC Tenant Advocate, we sent a demand letter requesting the deposit be returned in full or we would file the petition. Upon receipt of the demand letter, our landlord sent back the deposit with interest.

    To summarize from the old DC Tenant Handbook:
    Under DC law your inspection had to be within 3 days of the move-out date. Notice of the inspection has to be sent at least 10 days before. Within 45 days after the termination of your tenancy, your landlord must either return your security deposit plus interest or notify you in writing that he or she plans to keep all or part of your security deposit. The written notice must be delivered to you personally or sent by certified mail. You are also entitled to a list of the interest rates for each 6 month period during your tenancy.
    Within 30 days of the notice that your landlord intends to keep part or all of you security deposit, your landlord must return the balance plus interest and send you an itemized list of all repairs or other uses of the money not returned to you. The failure of your landlord to comply with this refund and notice process gives you the right to a full return of your deposit plus interest.

    According to D.C. Municipal Regulation Section 14-309:
    309.1 Within forty-five (45) days after the termination of the tenancy, the owner shall do one of the following:
    (1) Tender payment to the tenant, without demand, any security deposit and any similar payment paid by the tenant as a condition of tenancy in addition to the stipulated rent, and any interest due the tenant on that deposit or payment as provided in paragraph (4)(a) and (a-1) (14 DCMR § 311); or
    (2) Notify the tenant in writing, to be delivered to the tenant personally or by certified mail at the tenant’s last known address, of the owner’s intention to withhold and apply the monies toward defraying the cost of expenses properly incurred under the terms and conditions of the security deposit agreement.
    309.2 The owner, within 30 days after notification to the tenant pursuant to the requirement of paragraph (2)(a)(2) (14 DCMR § 309.1(b)), shall tender a refund of the balance of the deposit or payment, including interest not used to defray such expenses, and at the same time give the tenant an itemized statement of the repairs and other uses to which the monies were applied and the cost of each repair or other use.
    309.3 Failure by the owner to comply with § 309.1 and § 309.2 of this section shall constitute prima facie evidence that the tenant is entitled to full return, including interest as provided in § 311, of any deposit or other payment made by the tenant as security for performance of his or her obligations or as a condition of tenancy, in addition to the stipulated rent.

  • Someone may have pointed this out already, but your landlord is supposed to have 30 days to make any claims on your deposit. At 44 days, he is well past his time period. Additionally, scuffs are considered minor wear and tear in which you should not be responsible. You can sue, and will most likely win.

  • As a PI and someone who works at a PI/process serving company, serving someone overseas for such a nominal amount (in this business 500 is nominal) is pointless worthless and a waste of everyone’s time. Some of these countries you have to serve them through the Hague and that shit is not cheap. Be smart be creative and be one step ahead. Bullshit the bullshitter. Threaten suit. Email fake filed docs and see if he/she bites. Enough about the principal of it. Walk away if they don’t bite and stop signing shitty leases with shady landlords. And hire us to run background checks on the landlords (goes both ways running tenants and landlords)