Weitzner Properties: All three refunds-- MIA

Few business transactions are as arbitrary as The Return of the Security Deposit. In theory, it's supposed to cover damages and outstanding fees, but in practice, many landlords, knowing that renters may be leaving town or too busy to fight, simply decree how much will be withheld and refund the rest. Short of going to small claims court armed with before-and-after pictures, there's little an unhappy tenant can do.

Three aspects of the transaction, however, are spelled out in the Virginia Landlord and Tenant Act: The landlord is required to provide an itemized list of all deductions, to return what's left of the deposit no more than 30 days after the tenant moves out, and, if the landlord had the deposit for more than 13 months, to include interest.

Leah Woody, advertising coordinator for the Hook, rented from Weitzner Properties for 20 months, from October 2000 to May 2002. When she moved in, she paid a deposit of $765, which included a $200 pet deposit. Weitzner's staff, she says, were "pretty good landlords"– at least, until it was time to get her deposit back.

Weitzner complied with the first item in the Landlord and Tenant Act, and provided a list of what was being deducted and why; it totaled $360, leaving a balance due of $405. The check arrived two days after it had been written, and well within the 30-day limit. So far, so good.

The problem? The check was for $205, not $405; the $200 pet deposit was nowhere to be seen. Neither was the 20 months' worth of interest Woody was due.

Woody emailed me on September 10 with an account of what followed. She began by calling Laura, the property manager at Weitzner, on June 21. Woody claims that Laura said she would "get right back" with her. Instead, according to Woody, several weeks and many messages later, she finally spoke with Laura, who promised to send the check the same day. It never arrived.

Woody says she called again and was told to wait a few more days. "I waited another week and called her back. At this point she would not return my calls."

On July 29, almost 60 days after the lease had ended, Woody emailed Laura and cited the Landlord and Tenant Act. Still no reply.

When she finally succeeded in reaching Laura, another check was promised, but that one went the way of the first: MIA.

"I called and called," says Woody, "and this time asked if I could just pick it up at her office, to which she replied that she would not be there and she would rather send it again." But the third check, like the other two, never arrived. That's when Woody contacted me.

When I spoke with Laura on September 13, she said she had indeed sent three checks to Woody for $200. I asked whether she had asked the post office to trace any of them, since the loss of three checks in a row– which were only traveling from Charlottesville to Shadwell– would suggest a serious postal problem. She said she hadn't.

I said that I was about to embark on some Postal Service research for an upcoming column, and offered to look into this situation as well. Would she fax me the check stubs of the disappearing checks? That way, I could provide dates for the post office to use in tracing them. She said she'd send copies of the stubs– but, like the checks, they never arrived.

Laura did, however, agree to let Woody pick up a check later that day. Even though I had cited the Landlord and Tenant Act's stipulation that interest be added to the deposit, the check did not include any.

On September 17, I faxed Bob Weitzner, owner of Weitzner Properties, to ask whether he intended to refund the interest due Woody, and from then on, things began happening fast. An employee called me to say that they were busily calculating the interest and writing the check, and Laura called Woody to apologize for the delays.

The Virginia Landlord and Tenant Act, which is part of the Code of Virginia, can be found at centerforrealestate.com/legal/vrlta.html. If you're a renter, I'd suggest that you get familiar with it now– which may save you from needing it later.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.