THE FEARLESS CONSUMER- Rueful renters: Take pictures right away

Of all the words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: "It might have been!" This week's contretemps brings the late Maude Muller's famous lament to mind because, yet again, I'm writing about an irate former tenant who neglected to document the property's condition before moving in– and now, months after moving out, is paying the price.

Kathy Gardner and her husband, who were moving here from another state, rented a house on Nahor Drive in Lake Monticello after seeing it on the Internet. Ray Caddell of Century 21 was the rental agent; the house is owned by his frequent business partner, William Tucker. The Gardners paid six months' rent in advance plus a $1,600 deposit, of which $500 was a pet deposit.

The house they walked into when they arrived in May, Gardner claims, was in "great disrepair," with black mold and food particles in the refrigerator, handprints on the walls, and missing balusters from the staircase. In addition, she says, there were sheriff's notices taped to the door that suggested the prior tenant had "left the property in rather a hurry." In other words, it wasn't the cozy domicile they'd pictured when renting it long distance.

Gardner says that she asked Caddell employee Tom Tingley to "note the poor condition" and hire someone to do a basic cleaning. He did the latter– but expecting a rental agent to document a property's "poor condition" is expecting a lot.

As long-time readers know, I've written about unhappy former tenants almost as often as I've written about unhappy former Lethal Wrecking towees. So let's cut to the chase. The Gardners moved out in July, only three months into their lease– because they'd bought a house.

Caddell's client, of course, got to keep the three months of unused rent. But when it came time for the Gardners to get their security deposit back, disagreement erupted.

Caddell withheld $600 for "damages assessed beyond normal wear and tear," almost all of which Gardner claims were pre-existing.

For instance, Caddell's list includes three items related to the Jacuzzi area in the master bedroom: the crown molding on the floor had separated from the walls, which was ascribed to probable water overflow; there were several chipped tiles; and the Jacuzzi "was nasty, and water lines were filled with blacken[ed] material." Yet Gardner claims they never used the tub except for storing boxes.

It wasn't just the withheld $600 that upset Gardner. To get the rest of the deposit was, she claims, another struggle.

In February, she wrote to the Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors to complain about Caddell's conduct; she states that she began trying to get her deposit back in late October. According to Gardner, this turned into a lengthy ordeal.

At one point, Gardner claims, Caddell told her he had a check for her and that she could either pick it up or he would mail it. She chose the latter. Two weeks later, she was still waiting.

After several more days of phone calls, she says, she finally went to Caddell's office and got the check– which is when she discovered that $600 had been deducted

Even though the Gardners had been out of the house since July, Caddell was entitled, under the Virginia Residential Landlord Tenant Act, to wait 45 days after the end of the lease (which, according to Gardner, was "around October 16") to refund their money. That would make December 1 the deadline– but the check was dated December 13.

Caddell declined to comment, saying that Gardner intends to sue him. Gardner, however, says that she has "no immediate plans to do so."

If Maude Muller were here (instead of dead), she'd have some stern advice for all new tenants: Take pictures. Make a list of existing problems, and insist that the rental agent sign it. And when lease is up, tell him he's got 45 days– but not a second more– to refund your deposit.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at Box 4553, Charlottesville 22905.