THE TOUGH CUSTOMER- Open door policy: Towel-clad woman traumatized

Iara Matavelli is still upset that a maintenance worker came into her house while she was in the shower.

When Iara Matavelli heard her dog barking, she got out of the shower, wrapped a towel around her, and went downstairs– to find a man with a ladder and air filters in her living room.

The man, an employee with Dominion Air, which performs maintenance for Matavelli's landlord, said he had knocked on the townhouse door twice, relates Matavelli.

"I said it was unacceptable to enter my house without notice or knocking," she says, six weeks after the January 14 encounter. "After he left, I was shaking, scared, embarrassed, and also mad."

Matavelli was further upset when she called Associated Brokers Realty, the property manager for her townhouse near Target. She claims that ABR owner Pat Rannigan couldn't understand her English, and told her to shut up.

Matavelli is from Brazil, speaks with an accent, and concurs that her English skills worsened under the shock of finding a strange man in her living room. Her husband works at the University of Virginia, and the couple has been here a year.

"It was a very unfortunate situation," says ABR co-owner Alan Atwell, who returned the Hook's phone call to Rannigan. "She was traumatized, and my wife would have been traumatized."

Atwell says ABR company policy is for vendors to call the day before doing maintenance, and that Dominion told him Matavelli was notified in advance. "The only way to really know is to subpoena the phone records," says Atwell, who also suggests that tenants make sure landlords have the best phone number for them to get the message that work will be done.

Matavelli contends not only that she was not notified, but this was the second time Dominion Air came to do work without letting her know in advance. On December 23, says Matavelli, the same worker she found in her living room rang the doorbell to do a routine check on the heater. When she asked what he would have done if she weren't home for the unscheduled appointment, the man told her he had the key to her house and dangled it in her face, she alleges. Matavelli says she let him in, but asked him to schedule future maintenance in advance.

Dominion Air owner Ronnie Townsend did not return a call from the Hook.

"This is a very reputable company," says Atwell. "I trust them to the point they have a key." ABR has a service agreement with Dominion to check heating and air conditioning systems, change filters, and check smoke alarms twice a year. And the lease that the Matavellis signed allows entrance to their residence do that work.

Atwell says his partner, Rannigan, could not understand what Matavelli was saying.

"She was shaking and scared," says Amanda Alger, who's the Matavellis' neighbor. "Her English isn't the best, and she was scared." She agrees it's likely Rannigan couldn't understand his distraught tenant, but "what he said to her–- 'shut up'–- was outrageous," Alger maintains.

Matavelli called the police. "It came in as trespassing," says Lieutenant Todd Hopwood with the Albemarle police. "Some guy was in this lady's house, and he had no reason to be there. [Now] it looks like a landlord-tenant dispute."

Adds Hopwood, "It's not against the law to tell someone to shut up." However, Matavelli, he says, did the right thing in calling the police.

"When you get on the wrong side of a horse, and he kicks you in the face, you remember," says Atwell. As a result of this incident, ABR has stressed to its vendors that tenants have to be notified a day in advance about maintenance. "We've let them know if they don't, they can't do work for us," he says.

Matavelli is still shaken from the event. "It was by far the most traumatic and embarrassing situation I have ever had in my life, and more importantly, I now do not feel safe in my house." And when her lease is up in June, she says she's moving.


With the position of Hook consumer columnist currently open, newsroom staffer Lisa Provence dove into the case this week.