QMy husband and I were landlords briefly when we bought our first home and there were tenants living there. The tenants recently vacated, allowing us to move in, but they left the house riddled with fleas. They had a cat and numerous kittens that were allowed to go outside and inside as they pleased.

We deducted $215 from their security deposit -- that was $135 for an exterminator and $80 for flea bombs and spray. The exterminators told us that we would need to use a flea bomb and spray repeatedly to attempt to kill any hatching fleas before they could lay eggs.

The tenants are now threatening to take us to court for the $215, saying that they are not responsible because the house has a "flea problem."

We think we should stay firm on this issue. They left us with a huge problem and as a result, we have spent numerous hours mopping, vacuuming and doing laundry, not to mention the fact that we have been bitten repeatedly. I would like your advice. I never wanted to be a landlord and am glad to basically be done with it.

AProperty manager

Griswold replies:

The lawyers can battle over the legal issues, but as a property manager I would advise you to stay firm. Of course, be prepared to document all your facts and be sure to keep copies of all invoices. I would also suggest that you get an opinion letter from your exterminator on his letterhead stationery.

With additional experience as a landlord, you will begin to develop a sense of when disputes may arise and you should have any independent service providers write detailed information right on the original receipt.

This information could prevent a misunderstanding or at least provide clear rationale for your actions if you find yourself challenged in small-claims court.

Landlords' attorney Smith replies:

I know it wasn't your first choice, but I want to thank you for taking your short and exciting plunge into landlording. This situation must have been a baptism of fire for you, but you will soon find that tenant allegations like this come with regularity.

You need to be able to show the small-claims court that you have documented the condition extensively and that your repair efforts and expenses started modestly but, based on the seriousness of the problem, more extreme measures were required. You may need your carpet or flea expert to back you up with testimony.

If small-claims court is still possible, consider filing a cross-complaint back to the tenant for aggravation and damage on the flea bites.

Either way, make sure you document everything carefully and present an organized case. This will give you your best shot in small-claims court.

Tenants' attorney Kellman replies:

I would agree with Ted that if these tenants caused the flea problem, they should pay to take care of it. The problem is that it is unclear who caused the flea infestation.

Because you bought the house already rented, you may not be able to say with certainty that these tenants caused the problem. In fact, they could have inherited the flea infestation from previous tenants. We do not know if, for example, your tenants kept quiet about the fleas out of fear that they would be blamed and face eviction.

Thus, be sure of your facts before going to court. It seems clear you will prove there was a flea problem that required those expenses. What is not so clear is the evidence of who or what caused the flea problem.

We rent an apartment in a small triplex that has three narrow garages off a public alley. The narrow garage and driveway combined with the size of our car require us to back into our garage at an angle.

Up until recently everything was fine. Now we have a new neighbor who lets his friends park in front of his garage so that we cannot easily get into our garage without honking the horn and waiting for someone to move one or more vehicles. Our neighbor's friends also frequently hang out in the driveway working on their cars and disrupting our formerly quiet community.

We have asked the owner to post signs prohibiting parking in front of the garages, but he is not willing to do this. Because he lives off site, he cannot see firsthand what we are faced with. We are on a budget and cannot afford to move. What do you suggest?

Landlords' attorney Smith replies:

I see a couple of reasons to have the car or cars towed away. If a vehicle is positioned on the public alley, often you may be able to have it towed for that reason alone. Police can be contacted and the vehicle towed in accordance with your state or local laws.

If it turns out that the car is off the alley and on private property, then turn to your landlord. He has the right to have the car towed because it is not authorized on his private property. Most cities require that proper tow-away signs be posted in conspicuous locations. These signs can be purchased.

Once the car is towed, the vehicle owner will have to pay storage fees to get it back. The landlord will have to initiate the call to the tow-truck company. Try to get his assistance.

This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold and San Diego lawyers Steven R. Kellman, director of the Tenant's Legal Center, and Ted Smith, principal in a firm representing landlords. E-mail your questions to Griswold at rgriswold.inman@retodayradio.com. Questions should be brief and cannot be answered individually.

{copy} 2003 Inman News Features

Distributed by Inman News Features