THE FEARLESS CONSUMER- $87 solution: $5K later, tenant's ordeal ends

The moral of today's tale o' woe: Get it in writing!

Arin Bennett certainly wishes he had insisted on that with University Place Apartments, instead of allowing the situation to drift off into the ozone. After all, it ended up costing him thousands.

As I reported last spring ["Keyed up," May 4], someone broke into Bennett's University Place apartment on March 30 and stole about $1,800 worth of electronic equipment, and Bennett suspected that someone with a pass-key might have been involved.

According to a letter his lawyer, Lisa Davis-Lee, wrote to the complex's management, the Albemarle County Police report stated that "the deadbolt on the front door was not tampered with." Instead, as Bennett's then-roommate, Chris Miles, told me, it looked like the damage to the door had been done from the inside. In one possible scenario, the burglar got in with a key and then damaged the inside of the door frame to make it appear the lock had been forced. 

Susan Rooke, who was the property manager at the time (but who has since left), claimed that although maintenance workers had been in Bennett's apartment two days earlier, on March 28, the key was not checked out the day of the break-in. The Albemarle County police investigated, but when the assigned detective took a week off in mid-April while his wife had a baby, the investigation appeared to fizzle.

Bennett and Miles claim that neither Rooke nor the assistant property manager ever contacted them to express concern about the crime. Rooke, after declining to answer questions, referred me to College Park Communities, which owns 77 such "student housing properties" and manages 18 others for clients. The employee I spoke to, however, refused to comment because the matter was under investigation.

Bennett, believing that nothing much was being investigated, met with Rooke on April 24 to tell her that he intended to move out on April 30, and he says she promised to recommend to her superiors that he be allowed to break his lease. As I reported on June 8 ["Lessee lessons"], however, the last Bennett heard from Rooke was an April 26 voice-mail message in which she said was still "waiting to hear" from higher-ups. On April 30, he moved out.

Bennett was eager to assume that no news was good news, and I was wearing rose-colored glasses when I wrote that I suspected Bennett's travails were "safely in the past." Au contraire; his costs were about to climb still higher.

Bennett emailed me on November 15 to say that sometime in July, he received a bill from University Place for $1,200 in back rent. Because he couldn't afford to pursue the matter in court– where, of course, he might well have lost (leases have a tendency to outweigh vague promises)– he paid the back rent plus "a few hundred dollars" in late fees.

"During all that mess," Bennett says, "I overpaid them by $87." The amount pales beside the "over five grand" Bennett figures he lost in the theft, rent, and fees. "But somehow," he says, "it's an amount that I'm not willing to let go of."

So began Part Two of his dealings with University Place. Bennett says he called the complex in mid-August and was told they'd already detected the overpayment and issued a check on August 5. The check, however, never arrived. Bennett claims he made "numerous" calls and was told two more times that a refund had been issued– but still no check arrived.

I called Darrell Dudley, University Place's new property manager, who said he had talked to Bennett in mid-October. The corporate office had sent a check to Dudley at University Place, and he mailed it to Bennett at his new address. Bennett finally received the check on November 22. It was a long and expensive ordeal, but it now appears to be over.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at 100 Second Street NW, Charlottesville 22902.