The Consumer Protection Division of the Maryland attorney general's office has published a guide to the state's consumer protection laws. The following article is taken from the guide and is the last of several published by The Maryland Weekly.

Renting Apartments and Houses

Although many of the counties and Baltimore city have different laws regarding tenant-landlord agreements, certain laws prevail throughout the state. Uniquely, Maryland's residential lease laws allow a tenant to recover not only his losses, but penalties and attorneys' fees if his landlord violates the law.

If you are required to pay an application fee, and the fee exceeds $25, the landlord must return the fee no later than 15 days following occupancy or after the receipt of a letter from you or the landlord stating that the rental won't occur.

Can the landlord keep your application fee? Yes. But only that portion of the fee, up to $25, spent on a credit check or in other direct expenses arising out of the application.

If you decide less than 15 days before you sign the lease or are scheduled to occupy the property that you are going to terminate the lease, the landlord also may keep that portion of the application fee that makes up for his loss of rent.

This rule does not apply to seasonal or condominium rentals or to landlords offering less than four units for rent at one location.

Until you sign the lease or occupy the apartment, any money you pay to the landlord is an application fee, even if the landlord refers to it as a "security deposit."

Should a landlord fail to follow these rules, he is liable for two times the amount of the fees you were charged.

Security Deposits

Landlords may require security deposits, but the deposit may not be more than two months' rent or $50, whichever is greater.

If you are overcharged, you have the right, up to two years from the time the lease has ended, to try and collect up to three times the excess amount of the deposit and reasonable attorney's fees.

You must receive a receipt for the security deposit. The receipt can be included in your rental agreement.

There is a $25 penalty for landlords who fail to observe this provision of the law.

Condition of the Apartment

If you ask for it, you are entitled to a written list of existing damages within 15 days of the date you move in. This list protects you in case of a dispute over the unit's condition when the lease ends.

If the landlord doesn't comply with this rule, you may be entitled to three times the security deposit, less any damages or unpaid rent.

You have the right to be present when the landlord inspects the rental property for damages at the end of your lease, provided that you have notified him by certified mail, at least 15 days prior to moving, of your intention to move and of your new address and of your wish to be present at the inspection.

The landlord must inform you of this right in writing at the time you give him a security deposit.

If you are not informed of your right to be present during this final inspection, the landlord may not keep any of your security deposit.

The landlord must place your deposit in an interest-bearing savings account and return the deposit, plus simple interest of 4 percent per year, within 45 days from the date you vacate the premises.

If any portion of the security deposit is withheld for damages, the landlord must notify you by certified mail within 30 days after you leave the property, giving you a written list of damages claimed and a statement showing the cost of repairs.

The landlord can keep all or part of your deposit if:

* You leave owing unpaid rent.

* You damage the property beyond normal wear and tear.

Breaking the Lease

If you break the lease, the landlord can take money from your security deposit to cover damage or loss of rental income that he suffers. However, the landlord is obligated to re-rent the unit. If the landlord re-rents the unit for more money than you were paying, then he must credit you with the difference between your rental rate and the new rate.

A landlord may not charge you a fee for breaking the lease. If you break the lease, or you are evicted, you may be able to recover all or part of your security deposit if you give the landlord written notice within 45 days after you move and give him your new address.

The landlord must send you a written list of damages within 30 days of your request for one and a statement showing his actual repair costs. He may subtract the actual repair costs or lost rent from your security deposit, but he must return the rest of the money due you within 45 days with 4 percent interest.

If a landlord fails to send you the written damages list within 30 days of your move, he must return all of your security deposit. If he does not return all of your security deposit, you may be entitled to up to three times the amount of the deposit and reasonable attorney's fees.

Rent Escrow

If a landlord fails to repair serious or dangerous defects in a rental unit, under Maryland law you have the right to pay your rent into an escrow account established by the local district court. But the law is very specific about the conditions under which rent may be placed in escrow. You must give the landlord proper notice and adequate time to make the repairs before you have the right to place rent in escrow. The escrow account only can be set up by the court.

The serious or dangerous conditions include, but are not limited to:

* Lack of heat, light, electricity and hot or cold running water, unless you are responsible for the utilities and the utilities were shut off because you didn't pay the bill.

* Lack of adequate sewage disposal.

* Rodent infestation in two or more units.

* Lead paint on walls or ceiling.

* The existence of any structural defect which presents a serious threat to your physical safety.

* The existence of any condition which presents a serious fire or health hazard.

In order to withhold the rent, you must notify the landlord of the defects by certified mail, getting a return receipt, or the landlord must receive notification of a violation from the appropriate government agency.

You must give the landlord a reasonable amount of time after he receives the notice to make the repairs. More than 30 days is considered unreasonable. In some cases, depending on the severity of the problem, judges may find that even less time is acceptable.

You may also withhold your rent without establishing an escrow account. One drawback to this option is that the landlord may try to evict you and you will have to prove the existence of a serious or dangerous condition.

The Consumer Protection Guide contains details on what happens in court when you try to establish a rent escrow account.

Evictions

A landlord cannot evict you, increase your rent, or fail to provide you with the usual services because you have filed a complaint or lawsuit against him or have joined a tenants' organization.

The lease may not give the landlord the right to take back the property or take any of your personal possessions without due process of law.

The Consumer Protection Guide also contains information and advice about consumer products guarantees, a variety of credit problems, laws regarding door-to-door sales, layaway sales, mail orders, work-at-home schemes and deceptive advertising.

Other Places To Go For Help

Many professionals and the companies which they operate are licensed by Maryland's Department of Licensing and Regulation. The department's licensing boards can be useful in mediation complaints about their licensees. Most of these boards are located at 1 S. Calvert St. in Baltimore. For those which are not, the addresses are listed. The following telephone numbers are for the Baltimore metropolitan area, area code 301.

Accountants, 659-6322; Architects, 659-6322; Attorney Grievance Commission, 269-2791; Banking, 130 Blautein Building, 1 N. Charles St., Baltimore, Md., 21201, 659-6262 (The Maryland board licenses and regulates all banks except national banks. For federal banks, call 1-202-447-1600); Barbers, 659-6320; Building Savings and Loan Associations, 659-6330; Cosmetologists, 659-6320; Credit, 659-6340 (This board licenses debt collection agencies and enforces laws regarding fair credit reporting. It also licenses loan companies.); Electricians, 659-6322; Employment Agencies and Employment Safety, 203 E. Baltimore St., Baltimore, Md. 21202.

The following categories are regulated by the Division of Labor and Industry:

Employment Agencies, 659-4211; Wages and Hours, 659-4188; Occupational Safety, 649-4197; Engineers, 659-6322; Hearing Aid Dealers, 659-6322; Home Improvement, 659-6309; Insurance, 659-6300 (The Insurance Division licenses and regulates insurance companies, agents, brokers and examines companies for solvency. The division approves all policies and rates for all types of insurance offered in the state.); Plumbers, 659-6322; Postal Inspectors, 962-4580; Real Estate Commission, 659-6230.

Health professionals are licensed by the state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Most of the licensing boards are located at 201 W. Preston St. in Baltimore. Other locations are noted. These boards may be helpful should you have a question or complaint:

Chiropractors, Board of Chiropractic Examiners, c/o Dr. James Brownfield, 8003 Flower Ave., Takoma Park, Md. 20012, 589-2121; Dentists and Dental Hygienists, 383-7534; Electrologists, 383-7024; Funeral Directors and Embalmers, Old Armory Building, Suite 101, Bladen Street, Annapolis, Md. 21401, 269-3921; Nurses, 383-2084; Nursing Home Administrators, 383-2547; Optometrists, 383-6461; Pharmacists, 383-7245; Physicians: Licensing--383-2020, Medical Discipline--383-7058, Physical Therapists--383-3248, Podiatrists--383-6461, Psychologists--383-7535, Social Workers--383-7247, Speech Pathologists--383-6461.

Copies of the Maryland Consumer Protection Guide can be obtained from the Consumer Protection Division, 26 S. Calvert St., Baltimore, 21202, (301) 659-4300. TTY for the deaf, (301) 383-7555. The guide is free to individuals and costs 65 cents per copy for orders of 10 or more.