My Day in Court: What I Learned as a Renter in Small Claims Court

I moved out of my old apartment in July. It was a lovely place I rented most happily for three years and though I was happy to leave the city, I missed my place. It was a building from the 1930s, hardwood floors, safe, quiet, close to downtown. Charming. Landlord was on the eccentric side but I always paid rent on time and in full, but I never had a problem.

Until I moved out.

I received a letter a month after I moved out informing my I was not going to get one red cent of my $750 deposit back. The letter stated the apartment was filthy with cat hair everywhere, wrecked blinds and I left my bedsprings in the trash. Yes I threw my old bed out, but I had quite a bit of help cleaning and there were several points of contention:

· I did not receive pro-rated rent from my last month of tenancy.

· The landlord claimed there were nine wrecked blinds. There were only eight windows.

· Without documentation, I was told I had to pay $400 in cleaning costs and $175 to haul my “unauthorized garbage” to the dump.

Because I got the shaft so bad, I decided to go to small claims court. It took me hours to get witness statements, file the paperwork, learn the laws, consult a lawyer and get my documentation in order. I didn’t want to do it, but I knew it was the right thing to do. My landlord rents to young professionals. I can’t speak to his motivation, but I’m pretty sure he thought I wouldn’t put up a fight and just pay through the nose.

He tangled with the wrong girl.

So my mother (who helped me move) and I went to court and faced my landlord and his handyman. It wasn’t unlike Judge Judy; I had pictures and a few receipts, as well as copies of all my correspondence. The judge got both of our sides of the story. He agreed with me that my landlord charged too much for the labor without receipts. He also agreed there were eight blinds in the apartment, and not “about nine” as my landlord claimed, and that I was due pro-rated rent. He also mentioned I was the only one who submitted photos as part of my evidence. He did side with my landlord that I should have had my bed hauled away and that the apartment wasn’t 100% clean, but the judge admonished my landlord for not having receipts, photos, or a legally written lease agreement.

The judge gave me $200 of the $650 I was seeking and I was perfectly happy with that. I wasn’t expecting the full amount and $200 was certainly worth my time and effort. Most importantly, it showed my landlord that people can and do fight back. Yes, I was out time and effort including the day off work I had to take, but I know in my heart of hearts it was the right thing to do. It is about justice and principle, not about the money.

I briefly want to share five lessons I learned from the experience as a renter.

1. Document, document, document. Every bill, letter, receipt, phone conversation. Make copies of everything in triplicate. I was the only party who had copies of anything. My landlord didn’t even bother to keep any receipts. If you are seeking monetary compensation, you must have concrete evidence to back up your claims. Phone conversations are hearsay and not taken into consideration for evidence.

2. Know the law. State statutes regarding landlord-tenant laws are available online. Yes, the legalese can be difficult to read. I work with lawyers so I don’t have too many problems. If you don’t understand everything, don’t be afraid to get help. But because I was able to cite specific state statutes, I was able to convey to my landlord (in letters and in the court documents I filed) that I knew exactly what my rights were and that I meant business!

3. Consult a lawyer. The municipal housing authority was no help whatsoever. A Google search put in my contact with a competent, professional and helpful lawyer who dealt with real estate and rental law. I consulted with him on the phone for over two hours, but he didn’t charge me a nickel. Maybe I was really lucky, but when I explained my case in a clear, concise and professional manner, he was more than willing to lend me a hand. I will forever be grateful to him for the invaluable advice he gave me. But know most parties in small claims do not have lawyers with them; but their advice can make all the difference.

4. Be the bigger person. My landlord sent snarky letters saying because I was such a lousy cleaner, I should not give up my day job. Because I kept my correspondence with him neutral, matter-of-fact and to-the-point, that gave me more credibility. It showed I was willing to be reasonable without resorting to name-calling. Did I want to be sarcastic and rude? Of course! But what good was that going to do me in my case?

5. Most importantly — TAKE PICTURES!!! Nothing speaks more to the condition of your apartment than pictures you have. It shows wear and tear, before and after. It proved I had eight windows and not nine. It showed I was not a total slob and because my landlord had no photos, it gave me that much more credibility. The judge said a picture is worth 1,000 words. I was the only party who took pictures and this greatly helped my case. The judge’s parting words to my landlord was, “What are pictures worth?” My landlord answered “A thousand words,” like a petulant schoolboy. Seriously, though, I took over 200 pictures of my current apartment with my phone when I moved in. I’ll be damned if I go through this again!

I hope this helps out a little bit. Going to court is daunting and quite a challenge. But if you have your ducks in a row and keep a cool head, you too can have success. You don’t have to be the victim!

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