LURLINE R. JOHNSON (R), ABR, CRB, CRS, GRI, RMP
Q. My tenant planned a move out while I was off-island so I had to do my inspection when I returned home. I found that there was some additional cleaning that needed to be done so I called a cleaning company to give me a price. They scheduled the job and sent over an invoice in anticipation of doing the work. It ended up that I couldn’t use them after all and used my friend’s daughter to do the job. Since the price was the same I didn’t think anything of it and sent the invoice from the first company along with the security deposit refund statement.
The tenants felt they shouldn’t have been charged for additional cleaning and called the first company to find out what they cleaned.
Of course they told the tenants that they never did the job. So now the tenants are upset with me and took me to Small Claims Court. The judge found in favor of the tenants saying that I willfully and wrongly held the money. I had to pay the tenant three times the amount of the cleaning! I don’t understand what I did wrong.
A. Wow that is quite a story. The mistake you made was to include an invoice for work that wasn’t done. That is what caused the judge to rule against you. The part of the Landlord Tenant Code that the judge referred to is (Haw. Rev. Stat. 521-44)(g)(1) which states – If “the landlord wrongfully and willfully retained a security deposit or part of a security deposit, the court may award the tenant damages in an amount equal to three times the amount of the security deposit, or part thereof, wrongfully and willfully retained and the cost of the suit.” You should have included an estimate for the work and then, once the actual work was done, sent a revised statement from the company (or whoever) did the work. You may have still have had an issue with the tenants but you wouldn’t have had to pay three times the amount back to them. Disputes commonly arise regarding the amounts that are charged by the landlord against the security deposit. The tenants complain that the cleaning, etc. could not have cost as much as it did or that it could have been done for less. There are no provisions that regulate the amount that a landlord can pay another to provide services to return the unit to as “fit a condition as it was in” when the tenant took possession of the dwelling unit. If the landlord does the job themselves – or, as in this case, hires the daughter of a friend – then the actual costs of cleaning are allowed. There is no established answer as to whether the landlord can charge for their own time or the time of a non-professional to clean. A court may agree with either side.
At the very least, the landlord should have estimates of the amounts that others would charge. Professional rates are probably not applicable in a situation like this where non-professionals do the work. Additionally, there is a requirement that the parties act in “good faith” as per (Haw. Rev. Stat. 521-10) which means being just and fair in the disposition of the security deposit funds. The tenant would have been within his rights to go to Small Claims Court and take action for the recovery of the security deposit held by the landlord if this was done within one year of the termination of the rental agreement (Haw. Rev. Stat. 521-44c). After the one-year tim