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Sunday, October 4, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Your Landlord Can't Evict For Messiness Only

Seattle Times Staff Columnist

Q: Recently my landlord came into my (Seattle) apartment to do a repair. Afterward he sent me a note saying I was too messy and if I didn't keep my apartment neater he'd evict me. Can he really kick me out for this?

A: Neither state law nor Seattle's rental ordinance gives a landlord the legal right to boot a tenant solely for being messy, says Scott Winn, community-education coordinator with the Tenants Union. However, state law does say tenants must keep their premises "as clean and sanitary as conditions of the premises permit" and must dispose of garbage regularly. But as Winn notes, "clean and sanitary" isn't defined. Absent a "be a slob and you're out" law, Winn suspects the only ways simple messiness could get you the boot would be if your housekeeping constituted a fire hazard or if there's a neatness clause in your lease. The latter is unlikely, but check anyway. "If a rule isn't written in a contract, a landlord can't enforce a rule that doesn't exist," Winn notes.

In any case, he says your landlord cannot kick you out based simply on a written note. To evict, he must begin by issuing you a 10-day notice to comply with a specific rule or vacate. If you don't comply in that time, the landlord can move to evict you, but Winn suspects if you fought it you would win.

So how should you deal with this landlord's demand? If you think he has no legal leg to stand on, Winn advises either to ignore him or send him a letter. Tell him that your apartment is kept comfortably neat for you, you're not breaking any rules and you keep your apartment safe.

Q: We bought a home in August of 1997. In October our mortgage lender took $800 out of our escrow account to pay our property taxes. In March this lender sold our loan to another bank. The second bank says our escrow company also took money out of our account last October to pay our taxes. As a result, our account is short. I've phoned our original lender, but have gotten nowhere. What should we do now?

A: Forget the phone routine and go into letter-writing mode, advises Chuck Cross, supervisor of the investigation/enforcement section of the state Department of Financial Institutions. Write to both lenders telling them you're making a "qualified written-request pursuant to Section 3500.21 (e) of Regulation X" and requesting a written history of your escrow account during the time it was held by that institution.

If you include that "qualified written request" language, Cross says by law the lenders must respond within 20 days and take any necessary action within 60. He advises you to include the fact that you want a response within 20 days to ensure you do get one. You must also include your name, address, and loan account number. Tell the lenders why you want this information: You believe there may be an error in your escrow account.

You should also call your escrow company to see if it did disperse the second half of your 1997 taxes either to the county or to your title company. If you find proof that the taxes were overpaid (vs. having the money simply disappear somehow), then Cross says you should take your proof to the county and ask for a repayment.

Q: The previous owner of our newly purchased home left the windows or doors open constantly and now we know why: heavy cigarette smoke. Because we couldn't get the smell out, we've had to get rid of carpets and drapes, and we've had to prime walls before painting or the smoke would bleed through. We've owned three previous homes and never seen anything like this. Do we have any recourse against the seller?

A: Recourse is possible if the seller knowingly concealed or lied about a material defect in the home, such as a faulty foundation. However, it's unlikely that a court would rule that smoking creates a material defect, says Keith Nelson, designated broker with Executive Real Estate in Bellevue. Even if you did have a case, there's no cost-free way to get satisfaction from the previous owner. Rather, you'd have to sue, and legal fees likely would be as much or more than you're spending to redecorate, Nelson says. His advice: just paint it and let it go. And next time you buy a house, let your nose be your guide. Home Forum answers readers' questions every Sunday in the Home/Real Estate section. Send questions to Home Forum, Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, or call 206-464-8510 to leave your questions on Home Forum's recorded line. The e-mail address is erhodes@seattletimes.com.

Sorry, no personal replies.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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