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List of charges

This itemized list of cleaning charges is provided in each of Richard Schermerhorn's leases.

Landlords cannot dip into the security deposits of tenants who fail to perfectly clean their apartments when they leave, said Stuart Kaufman, a senior attorney with Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York.

The issue came up in response to reports that local landlord Richard Schermerhorn seizes the deposit when a tenant dies, then also charges the family for any items not cleaned thoroughly.

He has a list, in each of his leases, showing the charge for failing to clean each item. Failing to wipe down doors will cost the tenant $50 per door, for example, as will failure to clear each air vent. An unclean oven costs $90.

According to his lease, the cleaning fees will be levied as “additional rent” after the tenant moves out. He takes the fees out of what he calls the “resident reserve account,” which is described as a “deposit” required when the lease is signed. It is intended as “a security to assure your full, faithful performance of the terms of this lease,” according to the lease.

But taking cleaning fees out of the security deposit is not allowed, Kaufman said.

“Generally, the security deposit is to be used to cover damages that are beyond normal wear and tear,” he said. “The cleaning is below that level.”

Following the law

In July, a new law went into effect that clarified the situation, Kaufman said.

“The entire amount of the deposit or advance shall be refundable to the tenant upon the tenant’s vacating of the premises, except for an amount lawfully retained for the reasonable and itemized costs due to nonpayment of rent, damage caused by the tenant beyond normal wear and tear, nonpayment of utility charges payable directly to the landlord under the terms of the lease or tenancy, and moving and storage of the tenant’s belongings. The landlord may not retain any amount of the deposit for costs relating to ordinary wear and tear of occupancy or damage caused by a prior tenant,” the law reads.

He thinks Schermerhorn’s fees are too high and are not for actual damages, Kaufman said.

“That sounds like normal use of the apartment. $50 to empty a drawer? That seems exorbitant,” he said.

But the burden is on the tenant to go to small claims court and insist that the charges are excessive.

“The judge has to determine, is it damage beyond normal wear and tear and is that cost reasonable?” he said. “The landlord is supposed to prove what his costs are.”

If actual damages amounted to more than the security deposit, the landlord would be within his rights to charge the additional costs to the former tenant, he said.

Money lost

Multiple families of former tenants at Schermerhorn properties have contacted The Post-Star to say they didn’t get their security deposits back because of what they considered excessive cleaning requirements.

One man described being charged $50 to have an oven drawer “professionally cleaned,” because he accidentally left a clean oven pan in the drawer. Others said they had to pay for carpet replacement even after they got the carpet professionally cleaned, as required in the cleaning list.

Barbara Zuccaro was charged to have all the carpeting in her father’s unit replaced after he died. Theodore Young, 92, had lived in the apartment for nine years and six days; his estate ended up having to pay Schermerhorn Holdings for the entire 10th year of the lease, because there were too many vacancies at Willow Brook to get his apartment rented.

Zuccaro acknowledged the carpet was worn in three locations, where her father’s chairs had been placed in the living room, bedroom and study. But when she was charged the entire security deposit plus $581 for the carpet replacement, she took it to small claims court.

According to IRS calculations, a carpet fully depreciates in five to nine years, she discovered. She argued that, by the 10th year, the carpet should be replaced by the landlord — it’s no longer the tenant’s cost. In mediation, she got the $581 bill dropped and got a “small amount” of her father’s security deposit back.

She was frustrated by the result, partly because she had spent a month cleaning the apartment.

“We toothbrushed the windowsills,” she said.

Posthumous rent

Her father and his friends knew that they would be charged for the rest of their lease when they died, she added. They had seen it happen; there were six other apartments vacant when Young died.

One of Young’s neighbors has now switched to six-month leases to lessen the financial impact. Others discussed how they could get out of their leases by going to a nursing home, assisted living center or to live with their children, which, under current law, would release them from their leases. But Young loved the apartment complex.

“And until this occurred, I thought it was a lovely apartment,” Zuccaro said. “They have a community room. The residents held breakfast there once a month, there were always four or six of them playing cards in the evenings. They had rocking chairs outside. I think it was a great place for Dad.”

But she wants the law changed so that, when those residents die, they don’t have to pay rent for the rest of the year.

Schermerhorn said he would respond to a request for comment by Thursday, but did not do so by deadline.

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You can reach Kathleen Moore at 742-3247 or kmoore@poststar.com. Follow her on Twitter @ByKathleenMoore or at her blog on www.poststar.com.

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