Fleaced? Renters itchy for deposit return

At first sight, the stone cottage at the end of Maywood Lane looks like something out of a fairy tale. As you walk down the path, you can almost forget the row of dilapidated houses, long since chopped up into apartments, and the brick-and-concrete complex across the street. For one thing, it's not technically on Maywood Lane; it's tucked a little way down an alley, and because you pass the house at 126 before you come to the cottage at 117, it's doubly hard to find.

But draw closer, and the enchantment quickly fades– a rotting windowsill here, an upturned trashcan there. Once you're inside, the spell is completely shattered, replaced first by a strong, musty odor and then by layers of dust, grime, and decay. If you stand next to the bathtub on the first floor, for instance, you can see through to the basement. Throughout both floors there are spent bug-bomb cans.

It's those bug bombs that are at the heart of the dispute. Bailee McCauley is one of four people who shared the house this past year until she moved out June 1. McCauley emailed me on July 15 to say that the four still hadn't received their security deposit– even though the 45 days allowed by the Virginia Residential Landlord-Tenant Act (Chapter 55-248 of the Code of Virginia) were officially up.

McCauley claims that when the group first asked owner Eugenia Bibb about their deposit ($1,200 plus an extra $200 for pets) in mid-June, Bibb replied that she had to check the house for fleas. "I asked her if our pet deposit was not enough for this exact situation, and she said maybe," McCauley says.

According to McCauley, fellow former tenant Jon Hampton called a week later and was told that Bibb had found fleas "and needed to fumigate the house." If store-bought flea bombs didn't work, she allegedly told him, "it would cost $525."

McCauley thought that was a bit steep and claims that when Hampton called "several" pest-control companies for estimates, Orkin was the only one that quoted him $525, and that was for a year's worth of spraying. I spoke with James Crawford at Orkin, who stated that a one-time application (which isn't guaranteed) costs $175. The fact that there's no carpet in the house, he said, "would help."

When McCauley and Hampton next spoke with Bibb, she reportedly said that the first set of bombs hadn't worked, and that she would have to try another round. But, as Bibb confirmed to me, before she did that, she went on vacation for two weeks.

On July 13, by McCauley's account, she called and learned about the vacation and that the matter had yet to be resolved. "I asked if we could get a copy of our lease. She said she would mail a copy."

McCauley, who claims that she had been asking for one since she moved in, says the copy didn't arrive.

When I spoke with Bibb on July 21, she claimed she'd brought copies over three times during the group's tenancy, but since the place was always "in disarray," she'd never left one. Then, in response to McCauley's request on July 13, she'd mailed the copy that apparently hadn't arrived. On July 20, she sent another, and that one arrived.

Turns out the lease (which, of course, McCauley should have read carefully before signing) states that because the group had pets, she would be entitled to hold the deposit for three months– not the 45 days specified in the Landlord-Tenant Act. I said I'd never heard of such a clause, and Bibb replied that it's necessary because it takes a while to figure out if a place has fleas.

Bibb ultimately decided to withhold the pet deposit and an additional $100 from Hampton and McCauley's shares (since they own the cats), but she refunded the other tenants' amounts in full. So everyone lived semi-happily ever after.

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