A Difficult Renting Experience – Rat Infestation and Security Deposit Fraud – Part 1
24 November, 2020
When I moved into my apartment three years ago, I thought I was getting a great deal. It was a recently updated in-law unit tucked away off the street with a private yard, parking, and plenty of natural light. For the first year or so, everything was smooth. There were no real issues, so I never had to deal with the landlord, “Kevin,” who I assumed was a chill and reasonable person. However, all of this changed when my neighbor (who occupied the main house on the property) and I started hearing rats in the walls.
At first, we thought this was not a big deal – pest infestations are fairly common in Texas, most landlords in the area are used to dealing with them, and exterminators aren’t exactly expensive or hard to come by. However, Kevin decided he didn’t want to spare the money for a professional and decided to tackle the problem himself. After delaying the project repeatedly, he came in and set up a few traps in the attic. Several weeks go by and there are still clearly rats in the house. It’s difficult to negotiate in this situation, since it’s a judgement call as to whether an attempt has failed or not. At the same time, it’s a health hazard to live with a rat infestation, since they’re well known disease vectors. After a couple months of the issue still not being resolved, I contacted the Austin Tenant’s Council.
The law is also somewhat grey on this issue where I live. Texas Property Code 92 states that landlords are responsible for providing a habitable home. Still, the responsibility of pest control can fall on either the landlord or the tenant depending on the type of pest and the cause. For rats, the precedent is that they may be the tenant’s responsibility unless stated otherwise in the lease, unless the infestation is caused by unfixed holes in the home. My building was quite old, and though some interior finishes were new, it was overall not in the greatest condition. There were multiple clear paths of potential ingress for the rats. Based on this, the ATC had one of their lawyers send a strongly worded letter to Kevin, which finally motivated him to hire a real exterminator and get the problem taken care of.
From this point on, a few minor issues came up. At each turn, Kevin would come up with some excuse to try to weasel his way out of even extremely minor expenses, even when they posed health hazards to me and my dog – rotted steps leading into the yard from the back door, nails scattered around the yard from one of his abortive construction projects, etc. Each time I would have to ask the Tenant’s Council to send a letter to prompt him to act. Fortunately, they were quite willing to help and easy to work with.
When I finally decided to move out, I had my suspicions that it may not be a clean departure, especially with my $1100 security deposit in his hands, so I made sure to take extensive photos of the unit after I had cleaned it and moved my stuff out. Sure enough, two issues came up for which he withheld almost the entirety of my deposit. First, he claimed, with zero evidence, that I had damaged 125 square feet of flooring which needed to be replaced. Second, a window which had needed to be replaced (that I had agreed to pay the cost of) had suddenly become 500% more expensive than what he had quoted me just weeks prior.
I asked him to provide evidence of the damage and repair costs, in response to which he sent me only a receipt for the window. I called the company listed on the receipt and asked for a quote of the item he had supposedly purchased, and was given an estimate of $30 instead of the nearly $200 I had been charged, meaning Kevin had either forged the receipt or convinced the supplier to give him a fake receipt. Regarding the floors, I went to visit the current tenant, who was luckily very understanding of my situation and allowed me to photograph the floors, which had clearly not been repaired at all, a fact she was able to corroborate since she had moved in immediately after me. With all the evidence in hand, I decided to file suit with Kevin.
Before filing the case in small claims court, I had a final strongly worded letter sent to Kevin as documentation of the status of our conflict. After receiving no response for over two weeks, I finally filed the case at the county courthouse, where it is currently pending.
To be continued.