What Kind of Mischief Is This? Unethical Property Rental Management in Murfreesboro, Tennessee

I haven’t been involved in Murfreesboro’s rental market since 1990, when I was a newly divorced single mom renting a small apartment in a complex across the street from my son’s grammar school. Since then, Middle Tennessee has become one of the fastest-growing regions in the country, and in the last five years or so (I’m guessing), the need for rental property (driven not just by MTSU students anymore) has apparently far outstripped the available properties.

Perhaps that explains the experience we (meaning my family, comprised of my son Jesse and his wife Katie, and my husband Gerry and I) had with Stones River Property Management (SRPM). Jesse and Katie had graduated from Tennessee Tech with master’s degrees in education in May 2017 (and had gotten engaged the next week), and when Katie obtained a position at Oakland High School (assistant band director) in early August, she moved in with Gerry and I in Murfreesboro and began searching for a place to live.

This, we quickly learned, was a dog-eat-dog market. Homes were rented out from under her, for example. They had to apply to be a renter with various property management companies, and pay for the privilege ($50 to $100) of doing so. Nonrefundable! It was all very rush-rush, high pressure. School was about to start, and we felt pressed to find a place quickly.

Finally, Katie found a little home on Sherborne Court (in the Evergreen Farms subdivision) managed by Stones River Property Management. It had apparently sold for $168K just a couple months before (see Zillow).

It wasn’t ideal, but it would do. They moved in on 18 August 2017, discovering right away that the carpet hadn’t been cleaned, nor had the home been painted. There were nail holes all over the walls, even though the lease specified no nails were to be used. The walls were clearly marked by the furniture of the previous tenants. It was a mess.

But they needed a place.

There Were Little Problems

From the beginning, SRPM was not easy to get along with. If a call was made to them, it was not returned until several other calls had been made. An early problem: a double rent payment was deducted from their checking account (it had been set up as auto-pay) and when this was brought to SRPM’s attention, they balked at refunding the second payment. This was a young couple setting up housekeeping; they did not have the cash flow to front SRPM an extra $1200. After repeated demands, the money was refunded.

Katie and Jesse quickly learned that if they took a shower upstairs, it set off the smoke alarm positioned just outside the bathroom. This was reported to SPRM, but got no response. We assumed SPRM was aware of this issue since there were two smoke alarms a couple feet apart in the hall (one electric and original to the house, one battery-operated installed later, perhaps due to the shower/smoke problem). Like previous tenants (we assume), they simply disabled the alarm that was set off by steam.

Yes, I am rolling my eyes.

In April of 2018—after Jesse had left for 9 weeks of Navy boot camp—the air conditioning unit quit working. It was not comfortable in the house. Katie made calls to SPRM and was finally put in touch with the owner of the home directly to solve the problem (which makes me wonder what the point of paying a property management company is). The owner made arrangements to have a repairman come out. Because Katie was in school, Gerry and I met this gentleman at the Sherborne Court home. He quickly determined that the unit was in such bad shape it would have to be replaced, saying to me, “This unit looks like it’s never been maintenanced.” (House was built in 2003.) Indeed it did. So Katie did without a/c for another couple days while the owner was consulted and a new unit procured. During that time, SPRM scolded Katie, telling her it was probably her fault that the unit had to be replaced … but no, I saw it, it was rusted out.

A few weeks later, a light bulb in the upstairs bathroom began smoking (yes, smoking!), and though Katie called SPRM three times, those calls were never returned. She removed the faulty bulb from the socket strip of four bulbs but gave up trying to contact them.

Then, the Move

Jesse and Katie had let SPRM know Jesse had accepted a position with the US Navy. They thought they’d be moving out when Jesse finished boot camp; but as it turns out they ended up fulfilling the entire 12-month lease. However, the last six weeks of it, the house was unoccupied. The Navy came and loaded the furniture on 13 July (the tractor trailer didn’t move until Monday or Tuesday).

The lease was up on 31 July, so I got busy and hired a service to clean the house. They came on Wednesday, 25 July. They have experience with move-out cleaning in Middle Tennessee; when they were finished and we did the walk-through, they pointed out one overhead fixture that had a bulb out. We talked about how much work the oven had been and about how the hard water in Middle Tennessee makes cleaning sinks and toilets difficult. They even took before-and-after photos of the sinks and toilets. They reminded me that in the rental business, “normal wear and tear” is expected. The house looked good.

I let Katie know the house was clean, she let SRPM know, and a date (Monday, 30 July 2018) was set for the official move-out walk-through, during which we would turn over the keys. Katie and I both had a copy of SPRM’s “Tenant Move-Out Instructions.” Here’s their list, verbatim, of “items you should thoroughly clean before moving”:

  • Floors-
    sweep wood floors
    vacuum carpets and rugs (shampoo of necessary)
    mop kitchen and bathroom floors
  • Dust and clean: walls, baseboards, closets, ceilings and built-in shelves
  • PLEASE DO NOT PUTTY NAIL AND SCREW HOLES.
  • Kitchen cabinets, counter tops and sink, range, and oven (inside and out)
  • Refrigerator- clean inside and out. Make sure no food is left behind!
  • Bathtubs, showers, toilets, sinks and plumbing fixtures
  • Doors, windows, and window coverings
  • Yard-Make sure grass is cut and weeding done.
  • Replace A/C filters, light bulbs, smoke detector batteries, etc.

(Since their lease agreement clearly states that no nails are to be put into the walls, that item in ALL CAPS seems odd. But whatever. Jesse and Katie used stick-on plastic hooks to hang a few things; when they moved out, they left them, as they interpreted the move-out instructions to indicate the owner preferred to deal with the wall.)

The instructions also contain comments in bold regarding the move-out inspection:

All move-out inspections will take place during normal business hours and will be scheduled by the landlord. Inspections will not be scheduled until we the home [sic] is completely empty and you are ready to turn over keys. You have a right to be present during this inspection. You must call our office a week in advance to coordinate with our inspector. If you do not request to be present at the inspection, we will conduct it within 4 days of move-out and mail you the results. REMINDER: Your failure to attend a mutually agreed upon move-out inspection waives the tenant’s right to contest any damages found by the landlord upon inspection.

Katie had informed SRPM that Gerry and I would be present at the walk-through and would turn over the keys at that time. The gentleman who handles the walk-through inspections for SPRM called me the morning of Friday, 27 July 2018, to confirm for Monday at 10:00am; he gave me his name and phone number. (All of these dates and times are in my daybook, because they were things I was handling.)

On Sunday, 29 July 2018, Gerry and I drove by the house with batteries and light bulbs to do our own walk-through. This is when we discovered that two of the three smoke alarms are electric; we tested the battery in the third alarm, and it was operational. The burned-out light bulb that had been pointed out to us was, it turns out, just loose; tightened, it worked just fine. We flipped on all the other lights and no bulbs were burned out. The socket in the upstairs bathroom that had smoked was empty; but SRPM had been informed of that, and hiring an electrician is not a part of the tenant’s duty.

But when I went out to the garage to get the package of return air filters—oops! I’d forgotten that the housecleaners didn’t do garages. There was a random rag, three or four half-empty container of garage-y things like windshield-wiper fluid, and an old broom … and the thing needed to be swept. All the “stuff” went into the trash can, and I swept, leaving the pile of dirt in the center of the garage; when we came back for the walk-through, we’d come early and finish up. And then, after sweeping, I took the package of extra return-air filters (three of them) into the house and propped it against the wall at the foot of the stairs (the vent is in the stairwell), as a gesture of neighborliness: See? We’ve left you three brand-new filters!

Walk-Through Day

On Monday, 30 July 2018, we arrived around 8:30am. We’d brought a dustpan and a big push broom to give the garage one more going over. Then we pulled weeds.

The walk-through guy arrived with his camera just before 10am; he was cordial. As we approached the house, we told him that we’d hired a cleaning service, that we’d done a walk-through with them and again ourselves, that we were satisfied that the house was in good condition. When we went in, his first words were, “Oh, yeah, this looks great, this is good.” He moved rapidly around the house, opening the oven, the fridge, turning on lights, all the while saying, “This is good.”

I pointed out to him that when Jesse and Katie took possession of the house, it was obvious to us that the house had not been painted. Closets had crayon marks in them, and there were nails and nail holes all over. I showed him the furniture marks in the downstairs bedroom; I told him Jesse had taken photos of all these things when they took possession. He said he didn’t doubt this.

He pulled out some paperwork, got our names, asked where we would like the check sent (we gave him our address), asked us to sign that we’d been present at the walk-through. Then—and I didn’t pick it up at the time, because I tend to believe in the good in people—he said, “I’m just going to take some photos, you all can go on.” In other words, he dismissed us; he didn’t want us around for the photography. And I still don’t have a copy of the document I signed for him.

Preliminary Security Deposit Statement

It’s dated 31 July 2018, and arrived at our home on Friday, 3 August 2018. It itemized what SRPM was going to deduct from the $1195 deposit:

$142.56 for maid service
$50.00 to remove stick-on hooks
$50.00 to replace 5 bulbs (!)
$115.00 for carpet cleaning
$30.00 to paint a bedroom door

This made me so ineffably angry that I set the thing aside; I would have to calm down before I could discuss it with SRPM. (The walk-through guy had told us to expect to—ahem—discuss this statement with the office.)

To calm myself, I took a look at the lease Jesse and Katie had signed. This is what it says about the deposit:

SECURITY DEPOSIT: Lessee agrees to deposit $1195 with Lessor as security for Lessee’s fulfillment of the conditions of this agreement. Said deposit will be held by Lessor in a separate escrow account at Franklin Synergy Bank. Deposit will be returned to Lessee within a reasonable time after the premises is vacated if:

  1. a) Rental premises is not damaged and is left in original condition, normal wear and tear expected [sic]; and
  2. b) Lease term or any automatic extension has expired or agreement has been terminated by both parties; and
  3. c) All monies due Lessor by Lessee have been paid

Deposit may be applied by Lessor to satisfy all or part of Lessee’s obligations and such act shall not prevent Lessor from claiming damages in excess of the deposit. Lessee agrees not to apply the deposit to any rent payment, and also agrees to pay $150 for re-keying locks if all keys are not returned.

Lessee has the right to be present with Lessor or Lessor’s representative at a scheduled move-out inspection during normal business hours to determine if there are any damages above and beyond normal wear and tear. Lessee further has the right to request a time for this mutual move-out inspection. The time of the move-out inspection will be set by Lessor and said inspection will occur on the day Lessee has completely vacated the premises, given up possession of the premises, and has returned all means of access to the premises; or within (4) days after doing the aforementioned. Lessee’s failure to attend a mutually agreed upon scheduled move-out inspection constitutes as Lessee’s waiver of the right to contest any damages found as a result of Lessor’s move-out inspection. (Emphasis mine.)

So. It appeared to me that Jesse and Katie had done everything required. This was clearly noted to be a security deposit to cover any damages to the property. It was not a cleaning deposit. Cleaning after each tenant and making the house attractive to the next tenant is simply a cost of doing business. A business expense.

On Tuesday, 7 August 2018 I called the office at 9:48am and left a message. It was not returned. Instead, they texted Katie and told her that they wouldn’t talk to me. Never mind that I had been at the walk-through. Now they were standing on ceremony. Jesse took over.

Oh, My Blood Pressure

That afternoon (the 7th), Jesse called and—you guessed it—left a message. He left messages the next day. He finally received a call back on the 9th around midmorning. SRPM was asking for the invoice showing we’d paid a cleaning service. Jesse requested that they provide the photos taken on the day of the walk-through. The young woman handling the call said she’d have to ask her boss if she could do so. She also told Jesse that the sinks still had hard water spots and the oven was still dirty. But I had seen those things with my own eyes during the walk-through, and they were clean.

Additionally, of course, anyone who does business in this county knows how hard the water is. Within the first month of moving in to our home, we installed a water softener—but there was no water softener at Sherborne Court. So the results of hard water buildup (again, the house having been built in 2003) is, to my mind, normal wear and tear. And we had those before-and-after photos to show how much work had been done on them. Jesse sent them to SRPM. They were continuing to stall on sending him the photos.

A lawyer friend had told us that we should simply file a claim in general sessions court. It would cost us $45 to file and we could appear without a lawyer—but as an LLC, SRPM would have to hire counsel. “They’ll roll over,” he said. I’d looked at the SRPM page on Yelp—one-star review across the board. Jesse and I discussed it.

Three days went by with no response from SRPM. On the 12th I asked Jesse if he’d heard anything. Nada. He left his contact at SRPM a voice message saying he was prepared to take legal action. Still nothing.

On the 14th, Jesse got an email with a couple dozen photos SRPM said were taken at the walk-through. He forwarded them to me, beginning his email with “I guess the garage didn’t get cleaned?” I was puzzled until I looked at the photos. Because tucked among those photos—most of which showed nothing I hadn’t already seen—was a photo of the garage with the rags and the half-empty bottles! This was a photo taken several days before the walk-through. Perhaps even taken before the house had been cleaned—there were a couple other photos I strongly questioned—but I’d stand up and testify in a court of law about the garage photo.

SRPM was trying to defraud us for a lousy $387.56.

Seriously. I was so mad I was shaking. Jesse was mad too.

Not With a Bang But a Whimper

But then something happened. The next morning—after receipt of the photos but before Jesse had responded with the news that we knew they were trying to pull a fast one—his contact from SRPM called and said that the company had just magically, inexplicably decided to refund the full amount.

So the story’s over. I am grateful we don’t have to go to court over this but I feel we were poorly used. The runaround that we were put through feels like something that is well-practiced at SRPM. I wonder how often they’ve taken advantage of people checking out of one of their properties. As noted previously, this is a big college town with lots of students renting apartments, condos, and homes in the community, and SRPM has a significant foothold here.

That’s why I’m telling this story. I’m posting it on Facebook and I’m posting it on my personal blog. I’m going to talk about it on Twitter. I’m considering talking to the folks at Housing & Residential Life at MTSU, to see if they are interested in knowing about unethical landlords in Murfreesboro. I don’t want this to happen to anyone else.

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