Take these steps to make sure opportunists don’t get the best of you when hiring someone to provide a service. Lee Rood/The Register
Lost in their basement flooding were several boxes of clothes, throw rugs, wooden toys, home-school supplies andÂ a mattress.
The water in Heather and Jose Vitteriâ€™s Beaverdale rental the night of June 30 rose high enough to cover their shoes.
Like other central Iowans, the Vitteris hauled carpet to the trash, borrowed a second dehumidifier from friendsÂ and reached out to their landlord to help with the soggy drywall, ruined carpet squares and baseboards.
But the couple, who just had their seventh child, say their landlords, Don and Mary Adler of Altoona,Â blamed them for clogged gutters that led to the water damage and were slow to make repairs.
“When my husband emphatically insisted it was (the landlord’s) job to repair the flood damage, (Don Adler) accused my husband of threatening him and claimed he didn’t know what to do next,” Heather Vitteri told Reader’s Watchdog.
Afterward, the Adlers servedÂ the couple legal notice to move out in 30 days, saying they wanted to sell the newly remodeled rental across from Samuelson Elementary, Vitteri said.
Scant complaints of contractor scams made their way to the Consumer Protection Division of the Iowa Attorney Generalâ€™s Office after this summer’s floodingÂ â€” a rarity, officials said.
Price-gouging and false promises by those looking to make a fast buck often follow disasters such as floods and tornadoes.
But Watchdog did receive several complaints from families who contended that landlords and property management companies did not adequately repair or mitigate flood damage or mold.
Hundreds of low-income Iowans also lost vehicles because of water damage, making them vulnerable to used-car dealers who deal in high interest and rigid contract terms, according to local nonprofits.
Anne Bacon, executive director of IMPACT Community Action Partnership in Des Moines, a United Way agency that provides disaster relief to Iowans, said more than 1,100 families contacted the organization after the June 30 storms.
They needed help with everything from rental assistance, buying replacement furniture and appliances, hotel stays and down payments for vehicles.
“We definitely heard from several people with landlord concerns,” she said.
The Vitteris flood dispute with the Adlers came after protracted back-and-forths about broken appliances and maintenance, including a mice infestation in the home.
The VitterisÂ were hoping to stay in the home until they could buildÂ one of their own, perhaps as soon as next year. ButÂ after a job move, the couple have a rental of their own in Oklahoma that they would like to sell first.
A rental inspection this spring of the Beaverdale house revealed more problemsÂ that needed fixing.
After the flooding, the Vitteris contacted Don Adler, urging him to hire a handyman to fix the basement. The repairs were more urgent since they were hoping to have their baby girl delivered at home.
Don Adler said he did hire a handyman of the Vietteris’Â choosing to make repairs, spending $6,500 to $7,000 for new drywall, carpet and baseboards.Â
But the Adlers said their first experience owning and maintaining a rental has been a poor one.
They said the Vitteris were a nice family with well-behaved kids who always paid rent on time. But the Adlers spent thousands repairing everything from the deck to the furnace to the flood damage.
Before the flooding, they said, downspouts hooked up to the gutters had just disappeared.Â
After the repairs, the Adlers sent the VitterisÂ a notice of termination, saying they wanted to sell. TheyÂ gave the familyÂ until Aug. 26 to move.
That notice sent the family in a tailspin, trying to find an affordable three- or four-bedroom rental.Â
â€śI now have a newborn child, other children who are starting school, and a tired, sore, postpartum body that will either suffer an eviction trial or homelessness, as we are unable and unwilling to cause further physical harm to ourselves and kids by packing when I should be recovering,â€ť Heather Vitteri toldÂ Watchdog.
The renters also chose not to sign a new lease agreement in March because of unresolved maintenance issues. They were renting month-to-month, hoping to stay when the flooding happened.
â€śOther landlords have turned us away, saying our family is too big for the homes we are trying to rent,â€ť she said.
Mary and Don Adler said they’ve been trying to work with the couple, sending them a second notice that allows the Vitteris to vacate at the end of September.Â
“Or, we would love to sell it to them for fair market value,” Don Adler said.Â
“We don’t want to put them out because of their family condition,” Mary Adler said. “They have lots of little ones. But they also are not responding.”
Both sides have options, however.
Ben Bellus, a lawyer experienced in Iowa housing law at the attorney generalâ€™s office, said tenants can try to compel landlords to fix flood damage, or withhold rent and hire a contractor to fix the damage, under Iowa’s Landlord-Tenant Act.
Repair costs can be deducted from rent, he said. (The amount is limited to one monthâ€™s rent payment, however.)
A landlord is required by law to maintain a rental in a safe and habitable condition.
A tenant is legally required to keep the home in clean and safe condition, and not destroy, damage or remove any part of the premises.
Tenants do have the option under Iowa Code 562A.25 to cancel a lease if a home is uninhabitable.
â€śThe landlord canâ€™t sit on repairs for a month or two and not do anything about it,â€ť Bellus said.
In the year after a tenant makes a complaint about a landlord, the law also gives some protection from rent hikes or eviction.
If a landlord tries to evict a tenant after a complaint, the burden is on the landlord to show thereâ€™s good cause for terminating the contract, Bellus said.
â€śThe tenant may recover from the landlord the actual damages sustained by the tenant and reasonable attorney feesÂ and has a defense in action against the landlord for possession,â€ť the landlord-tenant act states.
Renters having trouble with landlords over flood damage that still hasn’t been repairedÂ should get in touch with local housing code enforcement inspectors, he said.
People such as the Vitteris who are renting month-to-month still have options under their leases, Bellus said.
Families who end up in civil court with landlords want to have receipts for repair costs and be prepared to pay back rent owed a landlord if a judge orders it.
Bellus said heÂ also encouragesÂ families who withhold rent because of needed repairs to put that money in an escrow account to demonstrate they werenâ€™t just trying to get out of paying.
â€śThe court can order you right there to deliver the money if it doesnâ€™t agree with your calculation,â€ť he said.
Lee Rood’s Reader’s Watchdog column helps Iowans get answers and accountability from public officials, the justice system, businesses and nonprofits. Contact her at email@example.com, 515-284-8549, on Twitter @leerood, or at facebook.com/readerswatchdog.
John Miller, 57, of Des Moines says he lost his 2005 Mercury Sable driving from Des Moinesâ€™ west side to the east side the night of the cityâ€™s flash flooding and storms.
â€śI just couldnâ€™t believe it was gone in the blink of an eye,â€ť said Miller, who needs oxygen to walk and lives on Social Security disability.
Candace Nelson, a single mother of four, lost her 2004 Chevy Malibu driving her 19-year-old son to work to Wal-Mart in Ankeny the night of the storm.
The 39-year-old said her car flooded when another driver braked in front of her. It quickly rose from her knees to her waist.
â€śIt was a very scary situation. I almost got swept away by the water,â€ť she said.
Unemployed since February because of seizures, Nelson said she doesnâ€™t have money right now to buy another car.
â€śBut theyâ€™ve got me on medication now, and hopefully I can get back to work,” she said.
Like hundreds of central Iowans, Miller and Nelson must scrape together money for a down payment on a new used car afterward.
Used car sales spike dramatically sometimes after disasters â€” and with them complaints about exploitative deals.
Consumer protection officials urge Iowans to have an independent mechanic look at used cars before the car purchase. Sometimes, they can wind up with vehicles that also sustained flood damage.
1. If the dwelling unit or premises are damaged or destroyed by fire or casualty (flooding) to an extent that enjoyment of the dwelling unit is substantially impaired, the tenant may:
2. If the rental agreement is terminated, the landlord shall return all prepaid rent and security recoverable under section 562A.12. Accounting for rent in the event of termination or apportionment is to occur as of the date of the casualty.
Iowa Code section 562A.21. (Noncompliance by the landlord â€” in general)
1. Except as provided in this chapter, if there is a material noncompliance by the landlord with the rental agreement or a noncompliance with section 562A.15 materially affecting health and safety, the tenant may elect to commence an action under this section and shall deliver a written notice to the landlord specifying the acts and omissions constituting the breach and that the rental agreement will terminate upon a date not less than seven days after receipt of the notice if the breach is not remedied in seven days, and the rental agreement shall terminate and the tenant shall surrender as provided in the notice subject to the following:
2. Except as provided in this chapter, the tenant may recover damages and obtain injunctive relief for any noncompliance by the landlord with the rental agreement or section 562A.15 unless the landlord demonstrates affirmatively that the landlord has exercised due diligence and effort to remedy any noncompliance, and that any failure by the landlord to remedy any noncompliance was due to circumstances reasonably beyond the control of the landlord. If the landlordâ€™s noncompliance is willful the tenant may recover reasonable attorney fees.
3. The remedy provided in subsection 2 is in addition to any right of the tenant arising under subsection 1.
4. If the rental agreement is terminated, the landlord shall return all prepaid rent and security recoverable by the tenant under section 562A.12.
Iowa Code section 562A.24. (Landlordâ€™s noncompliance as defense to action for possession or rent)
1. In an action for possession based upon nonpayment of the rent or in an action for rent where the tenant is in possession, the tenant may counterclaim for an amount which the tenant may recover under the rental agreement or this chapter. In that event the court from time to time may order the tenant to pay into court all or part of the rent accrued and thereafter accruing, and shall determine the amount due to each party. The party to whom a net amount is owed shall be paid first from the money paid into court, and the balance by the other party. If rent does not remain due after application of this section, judgment shall be entered for the tenant in the action for possession. If the defense or counterclaim by the tenant is without merit and is not raised in good faith the landlord may recover reasonable attorney fees.
2. In an action for rent where the tenant is not in possession, the tenant may counterclaim as provided in subsection 1, but the tenant is not required to pay any rent into court.
Iowa Code section 562A.27. (Noncompliance with rental agreement â€” failure to pay rentÂ â€”Â violation of federal regulation)
1. Except as provided in this chapter, if there is a material noncompliance by the tenant with the rental agreement or a noncompliance with section 562A.17 materially affecting health and safety, the landlord may deliver a written notice to the tenant specifying the acts and omissions constituting the breach and that the rental agreement will terminate upon a date not less than seven days after receipt of the notice if the breach is not remedied in seven days, and the rental agreement shall terminate as provided in the notice subject to the provisions of this section. If the breach is remediable by repairs or the payment of damages or otherwise and the tenant adequately remedies the breach prior to the date specified in the notice, the rental agreement shall not terminate. If substantially the same act or omission which constituted a prior noncompliance of which notice was given recurs within six months, the landlord may terminate the rental agreement upon at least seven daysâ€™ written notice specifying the breach and the date of termination of the rental agreement.
2. If rent is unpaid when due and the tenant fails to pay rent within three days after written notice by the landlord of nonpayment and the landlordâ€™s intention to terminate the rental agreement if the rent is not paid within that period of time, the landlord may terminate the rental agreement.
3. Except as provided in this chapter, the landlord may recover damages and obtain injunctive relief for noncompliance by the tenant with the rental agreement or section 562A.17 unless the tenant demonstrates affirmatively that the tenant has exercised due diligence and effort to remedy any noncompliance, and that the tenantâ€™s failure to remedy any noncompliance was due to circumstances beyond the tenantâ€™s control. If the tenantâ€™s noncompliance is willful, the landlord may recover reasonable attorney fees.
4. In any action by a landlord for possession based upon nonpayment of rent, proof by the tenant of the following shall be a defense to any action or claim for possession by the landlord, and the amounts expended by the claimant in correcting the deficiencies shall be deducted from the amount claimed by the landlord as unpaid rent:
5. Notwithstanding any other provisions of this chapter, a municipal housing agency established pursuant to chapter 403A may issue a thirty-day notice of lease termination for a violation of a rental agreement by the tenant when the violation is a violation of a federal regulation governing the tenantâ€™s eligibility for or continued participation in a public housing program. The municipal housing agency shall not be required to provide the tenant with a right or opportunity to remedy the violation or to give any notice that the tenant has such a right or opportunity when the notice cites the federal regulation as authority.
Iowa Code section 562A.36. (Retaliatory conduct prohibited)
1. Except as provided in this section, a landlord may not retaliate by increasing rent or decreasing services or by bringing or threatening to bring an action for possession after:
2. If the landlord acts in violation of subsection 1 of this section, the tenant may recover from the landlord the actual damages sustained by the tenant and reasonable attorney fees, and has a defense in action against the landlord for possession. In an action by or against the tenant, evidence of a good-faith complaint within one year prior to the alleged act of retaliation creates a presumption that the landlordâ€™s conduct was in retaliation. The presumption does not arise if the tenant made the complaint after notice of a proposed rent increase or diminution of services. Evidence by the landlord that legitimate costs and charges of owning, maintaining or operating a dwelling unit have increased shall be a defense against the presumption of retaliation when a rent increase is commensurate with the increase in costs and charges.
3. Notwithstanding subsections 1 and 2 of this section, a landlord may bring an action for possession if:
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