Double trouble: Reporter's call irks landlord

Stop the press! Turns out I misinterpreted one section of the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (VRLTA) when I quoted it two weeks ago. So let's begin by setting the record straight.

That column ["No walk-thru," October 28] described Katie McCarthy's dispute with her former landlords, Frederic and Ernestine Westervelt. The Westervelts claimed that repairs to the cottage, which is on a 50-acre spread east of Charlottesville, came to more than McCarthy's deposit– but they waited 80 days to tell her that.

Section 55-248.15:1 of the VRLTA states that if deductions are not specified within 30 days of the tenant's departure "the court shall order the return of the security deposit and interest thereon to the tenant." I wrote that "at least this part of the law is clear." Now, thanks to reader and attorney John Conover, I know that it's anything but.

Conover points out that the 30-day notice applies only to damages discovered "during the course of the tenancy." In other words, if your landlord notices that you've punched holes in the wall while you're still a tenant, he has only 30 days to tell you how much he'll deduct from your deposit when you move out.

The VRLTA, I now realize, says nothing about how long landlords can wait to notify tenants of deductions after they move out. However, since under the VRLTA landlords are required to return the security deposit (with or without deductions) within 45 days, this may be a moot point.

Conover also informs me that the VRLTA doesn't apply to all rental properties– and that the Westervelts' cottage is probably exempt. The law lists 10 types of rental agreements that are exceptions, and #10 applies to the cottage that McCarthy rented. Because it's in the country and the Westervelts don't own "more than 10 single-family residences subject to a rental agreement," they aren't governed by the VRLTA.

Even so, Conover says, a judge might rule against a landlord waiting 80 days to inform a tenant that she would not be receiving any part of her refund, even if it wasn't a violation of this statute.

In case you're a tenant or landlord and wonder whether the VRLTA applies to you, the phrase "single-family residence" is key here. If a rental property has more than one unit, the VRLTA automatically applies. For instance, I rent out an apartment in my house. Therefore, it's not a single-family residence– and the VRLTA rules.

Let's apply what we've just learned to Dave Goldstein's situation. Goldstein and his wife rented an apartment at 308 10th St. NE from Narinder Arora for four years, moving out on August 31. Arora, a physician, operates a clinic on the first floor of the building. We know the rental agreement is covered by the VRLTA, because the building isn't a single-family residence.

Unfortunately, that's the only part of the dispute that's simple.

Ten days after the Goldsteins moved out, they received a list of damages that came to $785. In his September 8 letter, Arora stated, "You indicated that you don't want to do [the work yourselves] and asked me to make the deductions from your deposit. I don't think I will do that, but I will get all the estimates."

This is a situation I can't find in the VRLTA: Does a landlord have the right to demand that tenants perform repairs themselves instead of simply forfeiting part of their deposit? That's the first sticky wicket.

Now for the other one. The Goldsteins protested the alleged damages, and contentious correspondence was exchanged.

I dropped by Arora's building on October 14 and tried to interview him. It wasn't a cozy chat: He ordered me off the property and warned that I'd better not put his name in print. Six days later, he sent the couple a new list of damages with a new total: $1,744.26. Since the deposit was only $1,050, he wrote, "The balance is $694.26. I would appreciate your sending this payment today."

Double damages? That's definitely not in the VRLTA. The Goldsteins are consulting a lawyer, so stay tuned for an update.

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