Ind. laws favor landlords, expert says

Be careful when moving in to your new apartment this fall. Indiana’s rental laws are much more favorable to landlords than they are to tenants.

While the City of Bloomington has fairly strong codes protecting tenants, there’s only so much that a city government can do when state law favors landlords.

It was only in 2002, for example, that Indiana passed a law stating landlords have to give back the security deposit for an apartment or house within 45 days of the lease ending.

Before that, landlords could wait an indefinite amount of time to give it back.
Technically, the 45-day countdown doesn’t even start until the tenant provides the landlord with a written statement, including a physical address.

This is a remarkably different situation than what exists in other states, Randall Frykberg, director of IU Student Legal Services, said. States like California, New York and Wisconsin have stronger laws that require landlords to have a good reason to keep a tenant’s security deposit.

In Minnesota, landlords have to pay interest on withheld security deposits and can be sued for money above the security deposit if they withheld it for the wrong reasons.
This strongly deters landlords from holding on to a deposit “for bullshit reasons, for lack of a better word,” Frykberg said.

In Indiana, if the security deposit is withheld past the 45-day due date, the law states the landlord can only be sued for the deposit and any “reasonable legal fees” incurred by the tenant, nothing more.

And when landlords in Indiana charge a tenant for damages to an apartment, the landlord has absolutely no obligation to use the money to fix the damage they charged the tenant for. Frykberg said he gets lots of complaints about this part of the law.

“We have students come in and say, ‘I went to a party in my old apartment where I lived two years ago and saw the gouge in the wall that they charged me for is still there. Can they still keep the security deposit?’ And in Indiana they can,” Frykberg said.

Frykberg said any money paid by a tenant from the security deposit is simply to compensate the landlord for the fact that the damage is still there, not to actually fix the problem.

Jurisdictions in some states will police leases to make sure they’re not too one-sided and fundamentally fair. But under Indiana law, “if you put your name on it, you are presumed to have understood it and to have intended for that to be enforced against you,” Frykberg said.

Bloomington does have some basic protections against tenants being taken advantage of, like stipulating that all exterior doors’ locks must be functioning and that the temperature must be able to reach 65 degrees inside.

One place that tenants can fight claims by their landlord is after move out when a landlord claims something is damaged but may actually just be ordinary wear and tear.

“Wear and tear, as defined by the law, is the degradation of something due to time, use or the elements. If you’re playing corn hole in your toilet, that’s not wear and tear. If your carpet wears out because people walk on it, that’s wear and tear,”
Frykberg said.

Frykberg said after move out, landlords will often make bold claims about damage to an apartment hoping to capitalize on tenants’ — in Bloomington, often students’ — ignorance of the fact they can fight it.

“The fact of the matter is, why landlords probably make broad claims is that students won’t fight them on that. They won’t take the time or bother with the hassle of making a written response, or better yet, having us write one,” Frykberg said, referring to Student Legal Services.

Tenants can have a discussion with their landlord about whether or not something is normal wear and tear or is legitimate damage.

“Certainly landlords can say when you spilled Four Loko on your shag carpeting, well, that’s damage. But if your carpet is starting to show wear because you’re walking on it, or just bleaches from the sun, that to me is not damage. That’s just wear,” Frykberg said.

— Zach Ammerman

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