No walk-thru: Around the apt. in 80 days

"Dear Friend," Katie McCarthy's letter begins. "Help! Justice." Continuing in that breathless tone, McCarthy goes on to summarize a dispute with her former landlords, Ernestine and Frederic Westervelt, over– what else?– a security deposit. As frequent readers are aware, security-deposit disputes appear to be almost as common as complaints about Lethal Wrecker.

McCarthy moved into a cottage on the Westervelts' property, Milton Farm, on June 30, 2002. "I was so grateful to get the place," she says, that she overlooked what she claims was a "grossly filthy" refrigerator with mildew, "dirty" windows, and a "very dirty" stove with missing parts.

The Westervelts strongly disagree with her assessment. The cottage, they claim, was clean and in good condition.

"She was not one of our better tenants," Ernestine comments.

McCarthy claims, in both her letter and our interview, that both Westervelts "refused" to do a walk-through upon move-in. Even so, when problems arose, McCarthy acknowledges that they were addressed. When the air conditioner failed, for instance, the Westervelts "very quickly" replaced it.

McCarthy admits she wasn't a flawless tenant. For one, she got a dog while living there, and it chewed the front-door frame. She also cracked a window. However, she arranged a deal with the next tenant in which he agreed to repair those items, and indeed they don't appear on the list of damages she eventually received from the Westervelts.

"Eventually" is the key word here: Although McCarthy moved out on June 2 (or, according to the Westervelts, June 3), she didn't receive their list of damages and deductions until more than 80 days later. In a letter dated August 23, the Westervelts wrote, "The final costs related to terminating your lease in Cottage #1, which you vacated in June, are now at hand." A list of damages followed, which totaled $720– $45 more than McCarthy's $675 deposit.

The largest item? The Westervelts are claiming $450 for "restoration" of the bathtub– they say she damaged it by leaving a bathmat in it. McCarthy strongly disputes this. But this could be beside the point. According to the Code of Virginia, the landlord shall notify the tenant in writing of any deductions... to be made from the tenant's security deposit... within 30 days.

So are the Westervelts 50 days too late to complain? The fine print of the law (55-248.15:1) stipulates that the landlord has 30 days from "the date of the determination of the deduction."

The Westervelts claim that's exactly why it took until late August to notify McCarthy of the cost. "We had to wait," Ernestine says, "until we could find someone to give us prices."

Since the most specialized work would be repairing the tub's finish, however– a service advertised by seven local or regional companies in the Charlottesville Yellow Pages– a judge might question an 80-day delay. At least this part of the law is clear: "If the landlord willfully fails to comply with this section, the court shall order the return of the security deposit and interest thereon to the tenant."

In addition, the Westervelts deny that they refused to do a walk-through when McCarthy moved in– but claim that they shouldn't have been expected to, since they'd seen the cottage the day before, when the prior tenant moved out. "We weren't accustomed to having to do that," said Frederic, who seemed to view such an idea as frivolous.

This story illustrates one compelling reason for doing an initial walk-through: all parties can agree– preferably in writing– on the property's condition. If the Westervelts and McCarthy had done that, a great deal of angst and delay could have been avoided.

McCarthy is considering a suit in Albemarle County District Court, and the Westervelts have contacted their lawyer, Herbert Pickford. Stay tuned. When the dust settles, I'll let you know how things turned out.

In the meantime, tune in next week, when I'll report on one man's day in court with– you guessed it– Lethal Wrecker.

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