Saturday, January 16, 2010

Know Your Rights!

I had my first, and preferably last, small claims court experience this week. It was one of those Painful Learning Experiences that, as a new adult, you have no choice but to take part in because no matter what they tell you on your 18th birthday, no one can ever really prepare you for being completely and totally responsible for your own affairs after 18 years of being a child.

So when I was 20 years old I signed a terribly written lease to a house in disrepair owned by an unexperienced landlord not even ten years older than me. Three years and a lot of (frankly) bullshit later, we were suing said landlord for withholding our security deposit without doing anything remotely legal in order to do so.

The following is some advice to the newly adult, as a reminder that once you are an adult, you are truly an adult and your parents cannot help you where the law is concerned: ignorance does NOT hold up in a court of law.

The faulty lease in question was barely legal, and the copy we we were given by aforementioned landlord had zero dates in it. The first version of the lease had only one of my roommate's names on it. And yet we signed it, simply wanting to go to school with a local roof over our heads that wasn't completely falling apart or dangerous, misunderstanding the true power of our John Hancocks. So when we stood up in court and presented the copy of the lease we were given as evidence, and the landlord said that was not the lease he had, it was the beginning of the end for us. According to his lease signed by us, we were supposed to have been out a week before we thought we were based on when we paid rent. It didn't make sense, and it was incredibly shady, but there were our signatures on the last page.

The verdict was bittersweet because, though we were blindsided by the signed lease, the way our ex-landlord handled pretty much everything from the start was completely illegal according to Maryland law. At the end of the day the judge ruled that we owed him one month's rent and he owed us our security deposit, equal to one month's rent, plus interest.

So, To Summarize:

- we did not know or learn our rights as tenants under Maryland law, which can be found here:
- we accepted and signed a faulty, unfinished lease, and accepted a copy without move in/out dates.
- we accepted and signed a faulty, unfinished lease, and did not initial the other pages to ensure that they stayed the same from our signing day
- we took a few pictures of damage to the house at move-in, but they were not complete or comprehensive, and they did not have dates

- he did not know or learn his responsibilities as a landlord under Maryland law, which can also be found here:
- he wrote an illegal lease and preyed upon young college students desperate for housing (thanks University of Maryland) who he assumed (correctly) wouldn't know or understand their rights
- he "assumed" a date but did not invite us to a walkthrough before moving out
- he did not send us a list of damages at all, let alone by 1st class mail within the first 30 days of move-out

Know your rights, you guys. It's really worth it, because when you are so freshly an adult people will prey on you, and those who are not busy exploiting you will still assume that you are just young, and dumb, and they will not take you seriously.

In essence, you can't help your birthdate or the elasticity in your skin, but you can help being ignorant. Don't be ignorant, for your own sake.

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