Damage Costs Tenants’ Deposit

Damaged landscaping was the focus of Preston Hollow tenant lawsuit. (Courtesy photo)

Dr. Craig Schwimmer, founder of the Snoring Center, and his wife, Shanon, expected to get back much of the $16,000 security deposit they paid before moving into a million-dollar Preston Hollow rental. They didn’t.

After fulfilling their lease term and giving a 30-day notice to vacate the property, the Schwimmers moved out and waited for the homeowner to refund their deposit, half of which covered their pets.

Instead, the homeowners claimed excessive damage to the property and returned about 30 percent to the couple. So the Schwimmers hired an attorney.

Nearly two years and tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees later, a judge has ruled against the Schwimmers in a case that could offer lessons for renters and landlords alike.

The judge found the Schwimmers didn’t live up to their obligations to maintain the estate’s landscaping or address the piles of dog feces left in the yard.

Catherine Keith, an attorney with Darrell W. Cook & Associates who specializes in landlord-tenant litigation and represented the homeowner in the above case, said she cannot stress enough to clients the importance of communication and documentation.

Keith suggests both the tenant and the landlord walk through the premises prior to signing the lease and note the condition of the home on a checklist and take photographs of the property that can be emailed to the respective party — and then repeat when moving out.

“An email is a great tool, and it is a definite time stamp that everyone agrees is valid and legal,” Keith said.

Preston Hollow homeowners Olayinka and Akinola Ogundipe used photographic evidence in the courtroom to defend their right to a portion of the deposit they withheld from their tenants. The pictures and specific clauses in their lease agreements helped them win a complete defense victory, including their attorney’s fees.

Their photographs detailed extensive damage to woodwork near windows likely due to an animal clawing or jumping on them, and neglected and overgrown landscaping that cost thousands of dollars to repair.

While the renter’s lawyer argued normal wear and tear for both issues and called the damages paltry, a judge ultimately sided with the landlord because the lease clearly outlined the tenants’ obligation to upkeep the landscaping and pool, and it included a pet addendum.

Experts agree that having such documented provisions that go beyond a standard lease are an important tool landlords need to use.

For example, to avoid having a tenant call in frivolous repairs, it is suggested that a lease provision is added that requires renters to pay a deductible first. Experts also say a worthy investment any landlord can make is conducting a background check that includes looking to see if an applicant has been sued in small claims court.

For the renter, Keith suggested getting in writing what a landlord considers to be outside normal wear and tear, and how much he would charge for damages as small as burned-out light bulbs or holes in the wall from hanging pictures, up to extensive carpet damage or broken doors and windows.

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