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Renters' rights: What to do if facing unexpected charges

Posted at 9:31 PM, May 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-24 00:26:15-04

SALT LAKE CITY — The average one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment in Utah cost almost $1,200 per month in 2021, according to the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. That’s an increase of almost 50 percent in just six years.

As market prices climb, if you find a place or price that seems too good to be true, tenant lawyers are advising you to know your rights before you sign your lease.

“What would I do differently? For sure the day I moved in I would take my own video of the whole unit and take pictures of anything and just save that,” said Zach Wilson.

Wilson lived with his family in the Overlook Community in Herriman for 15 months. Their townhome was home to many "firsts" — it was where Wilson and his wife became parents and shared their first memories as a young family.

“I want to knock on this door where I used to live and let them know, ‘document everything,’” he said.

Wilson said Maxx Property Management told them rent would be going up, so they decided to move out in April.

They waited for the return of their $1,400 security deposit but never got it. Instead, they received an email saying the company not only wouldn’t return the deposit, but that the family was charged another $3,000 in damages.

“Anyone who knows us who came into our unit, we’re a clean family,” said Wilson. “To pay $3,000… It’s a lot.”

In the email, the company told the Wilsons they only had six days to pay the bill, and if it was not paid in full, an additional 40 percent collection fee would be added on.

The Wilsons were charged more than $2,000 for carpet replacement, $426 for cleaning, and more tahn $1,700 for repairs and painting over mismatched paint.

“It just seems like it’s a free-for-all for landlords,” said Wilson.

In a statement sent to FOX 13 News, Maxx PM wrote in part: “The process is inherently unpleasant but future residents deserve the same quality living conditions as the previous resident. The lease holds parties responsible for the damages they cause.”

“We said, ‘We’re not going to pay it,’” Wilson said. “And now per our contract, they’re going to tack on 40 percent.”

Attorney Marcus Degen with People’s Legal Aid said that’s why you should scan every word of any contract before signing.

“If you’re in a contractual relationship, read and understand that contract,” he said.

People’s Legal Aid Utah is an organization that provides Utahns “free education and legal advice for housing issues, and low or no-cost eviction defense.”

Degen said to make sure you have the pictures to back it up — both when you move in and out.

“You don’t just take a couple pictures — you take an obsessive number of pictures,” he said. “If somebody sees this section of your phone’s photo gallery, they should think you’re trying to solve a crime that happened at that apartment.”

He said a lot of renters don’t know the rights they do or don’t have. He said a landlord cannot lock you out without a court order signed by a judge. A landlord cannot raise your rent in the middle of a lease — unless you receive a low-income housing subsidy.

According to Degen, if you’re on a month-to-month status, your landlord does not need to give you more than 15 days' notice before the end of the month to raise your rent. Once that term is complete, they can set it to whatever they want.

“There is nothing stopping a landlord from raising rent,” said Degen. “However much they see fit.”

“When renters have rent increases, they have options," said Paul Smith with the Utah Apartment Association. "There’s other places they can look around. We have almost 305,000 rental units in the state."

The Utah Apartment Association is an association of landlords and property managers that represent around 160,000 rental units in Utah.

When it comes to the current market, Smith said landlords are barely making any profit.

“Producer prices are increasing dramatically. Eleven percent March-to-March,” he said. “So when landlords raise the rents 12 to 15 percent a year, they’re barely covering their prices.”

As for the Wilsons, they said they’re happier at their new property under a private landlord.

“We can text him and talk to him and we feel like we have a level of communication with him at this point,” he said.

He said they have still not paid the $3,000 and have retained an attorney to contest the charges.

“It’s a burden all the time right now,” he said. “We just have no idea what’s going to happen with this.”

If you are looking for help or resources, visit the Utah Courts website. Under the "Self-Help" tab, click on "Self-Help Resources" and scroll down to the "Housing" category. There, you will find helpful links and information on evictions, deposit refunds, and more for both tenants and landlords.