Landlord “Nit-Picking” to Keep Bonds from Tenants

“Trust no one” -- Karen Brown’s tenants, probably

A lost kitchen sink plug, dirty chairs, blown light bulbs, and a missing oven knob were among the reasons a Dunedin landlord claimed her tenants should not get their bond back. 

Since August 2016, Karen Brown has appeared in 31 orders from the Tenancy Tribunal and one District Court case about her properties in Dunedin. Critic spoke to five groups of her tenants from 2017-2019. Each of the groups had to appear in the Tenancy Tribunal because Karen made a list of small claims against their bond. Karen has been awarded thousands of dollars from her tenants’ bonds over the past two years. 

Karen denies all of the claims in this article. “ALL  allegations of yours,  ERIN GOURLEY,  and [the tenants’ full names] are  100% lies. P. O,” she said in an email. The subject line read “100% of allegations are Lies about Bond Refunds”.

Rob*, one of her tenants from Hyde Street in 2018, claims that “there’s no fucking way she should be a landlord”. In his opinion, by withholding her tenants’ bonds until they go to the Tribunal, “she’s a scumbag landlord who plays the system to manipulate and extort money from her student tenants”. Jane*, one of the tenants from Queen Street in 2018, described the landlord as “the definition of a nightmare really”. Karen denies all of these claims.

The Tribunal found that Karen harassed Michaela*, one of her tenants from 2019. Michaela was allowed to leave her flat two months early, on 3 November 2019. The Tribunal found that “the emails provided by the landlord support that the landlord has committed an unlawful act by harassing the tenant” and that the “tone of the emails and language used points to a pattern of behaviour designed to intimidate the tenant”.

In some of those emails, screenshots provided by Michaela show that Karen wrote: “GOOD GET USED TO ME TELLING YOU TO SHUT THE FUCK UP AND ANY YELLING IS DUE TO YOUR BULLSHIT FALSELY ACCUSING ME SO YOUR OWN FAULT.”  

“YOUR FILTHY DISGUST BAD MOUTH BAD MESSAGES ARE PUTRID DISGUSTING LIKE YOUR FILTHY ACTS. EVEN IF IT IS YOUR RIGHT. I WILL TELL YOU TO STFU IF U WANT TO B A DISGUSTING FILTHY BAD TENANT AGAIN.”

“It was so much unnecessary stress and I was just so over it towards the end of the year, like no one should be treated with so much disrespect,” Michaela said. “I feel like she was just either really desperate to get her way or wanted to create as much trouble for me as possible.”

“[The Tribunal case] was really stressful with exams either side of it and of course I had no clue with the law and all that,” Michaela said, “so I had to spend heaps of time reading up on it and preparing.”

The finding of harassment by the Tribunal did not mean that Michaela was done with her landlord. Karen Brown still had her bond and she tried to claim it. 

“I wasn't really surprised at all, in fact it would be unlike her to return the bond without putting up a fuss,” Michaela said. “By the looks of things she probably tries to cheat all her tenants out of their bond.”

“She said I peed on the mattress and left stains,” Michaela said. “I didn't take photos of the mattress at the start of the year so I couldn't prove that the stain on the underside of the mattress was there already.” 

Wanting everything to be over, Michaela agreed to pay $200 for the mattress because she didn’t have the evidence that the stain was there when she arrived. Karen had photos and provided a cleaner’s receipt for the mattress to the Tribunal.

Karen also claimed that Michaela had damaged the “window screws” in the property. The Tribunal found that this was normal wear and tear, so the tenant did not have to pay for it.

“Some of our most important advice [in these situations] is to always take photos, this should be done as soon as they arrive to show the condition of the property at the beginning and take photos again at the end of the tenancy,” said Sage Burke, OUSA’s Student Support Manager. “It is also important to complete entry and exit inspections (at the beginning and end of the Tenancy) using the appropriate form.” Sage recommends that if tenants find themselves in the situations described in this article, they should contact Student Support.

Another group of Karen’s tenants lived on Hyde Street last year. Karen reportedly became angry when the tenants moved a sideboard that was left in the hallway of the flat to a different location. “The only time that cabinet was moved was when we got a moving company to shift it out from one of the bedrooms to the lounge,” said Emma*.

“AS YOU BREACHED CONTRACT BY DAMAGING MY SIDE BOARD AND IGNORE EMAILS ABOUT IT. PLUS LIED AND FALSELY ACCUSED ME THIS SHOULD BE SORTED FIRST. YOU SHOWN YOU ARE INCOMPETENT, ETC.” Karen wrote about the cabinet. That cabinet is one of her claims against the bond in the Tribunal. 

“We are currently in the process of sorting out our bond from last year as she’s claiming an excessive amount for some damages to her flat that we never caused,” said Emma. “Our hearing was supposed to be a couple weeks ago but she never showed up to court so it’s been rescheduled for next month.”

Emma agreed to pay $10 for smoke alarm batteries, but she will still have to face Karen in the Tribunal again next month for a claim of $591.59 against the bond. 

Karen is claiming “1 DAY RENT” at $63.86, “DAMAGED CHAIR, stools, WALL UNIT” at $193, “cleaning, rubbish removal, put handle back on mower” at $250, “remove couches and make wall unit as safe as possible as left dangerous without connecting piece” at $74.38, and the two smoke alarm batteries for $10.35. 

The email listing the damage concludes: “Either pay it now or sign and return refund form and after that i will get it refunded.”

Tenants from both Karen’s Queen Street and Hyde Street properties in 2018 had to wait until July this year to have the dispute over their 2018 bonds resolved in the Tenancy Tribunal. 

The Queen Street tenancy with Karen did not begin well. “When we got in the place was a filthy mess with mold, food on the benches and a dry moldy smell in the rooms,” said Dave*. 

Callum* said that there were “black bags of rubbish lying around, as well as some rubbishy shelves”. He described this as “something you would find at the dump shop”. The tenants moved the bags, which they assumed were rubbish, out to the front of the property. 

“Someone must have thought it was junk and taken it,” said one of the tenants. The rubbish bags were gone from the front of their property. Karen reportedly noticed the bags were missing and yelled at them about it over the phone - after accusing the tenants of stealing and selling the “rubbish”, the tenants were asked to pay for what was missing.

The group noticed that the landlord had not lodged their bond within 23 days, as required. They sent her a notice to remedy (a legal request to lodge the bond) and she lodged the bond.

About two weeks later, Karen replied to their request and said “YOU ARE FALSE ACCUSER” because she had now lodged the bond. “GET YR FACTS STRAIGHT B4 FALSELY ACCUSING ME,” she said. 

“Please stop using all caps in your emails, by convention that is shouting, and I prefer not to be shouted at,” Dave replied in his email.

“NO NO NO AS STATED IT IS TO DISTINGUISH AND AND I AM REALLY SICK OF YOUR FALSE ACCUSATIONS AND YR LITTLE NAZI ATTITUDE TO ME, UNLIKE MOST OTHER TENANTS !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” said Karen.

The Queen Street tenants ended up in the Tribunal, too. Karen disputed almost the entire bond. The case for their 2018 bond was originally scheduled to go ahead in 2019. According to the tenants, Karen told the judge it had been “on the backburner” so she hadn’t prepared documents or photos for the trial. 

The case was deferred, and further deferred because of Covid-19, and it finally went ahead with two hearings in January and July 2020. Dave said the second hearing was originally scheduled when all of the tenants had exams, and getting the hearing rescheduled was complicated. He described this as “some panic in the middle of my study”.

Karen asked for $684.87 from their bond for “burn marks on a carpet, damage to a rimu door, glue on a bedroom wall, repair of a toilet cistern and replacement of a kitchen sink plug”. She also asked for $804.58 “cleaning, rubbish removal, replacement of missing chattels, and light bulb”. 

The Tribunal refused to award Karen the money from the bond because she had not proved that the tenants intentionally broke anything. Karen was awarded $173.57 in rent, because some of the tenants did not provide bank records that showed they paid the first week of rent when they signed the lease.

The Hyde Street tenants from 2018 were less successful. The Tenancy Tribunal awarded Karen $1,284.26 from her tenants’ bonds. 

“Karen made it so difficult to claim our bond back, the tribunal hearing was a few weeks ago for our property that was during the year of 2018,” said Mark*, one of the tenants. “I don’t think the outcome was fair,” said George*.

On 4 December, before their lease ended, the tenants asked Karen how they should pay rent at the end of the year. “Would love to come to a fair agreement on this before the lease ends :-),” the tenants’ email concluded. 

They forwarded the email to Karen when she claimed that they had not paid the correct rent at the end of the year. 

She replied: “i have replied to this below already so your ongoing harassment and resending is without good reason is harassment (supplied your parents with my ph and email to harassme. Also  they posted on facebook to   harass abuse me=disgusting) is unacceptable.”

She then claimed to one of the tenants that they owed her $4000 for burns to the carpet. 

“I find it laughable that you are claiming that we have burnt a hole in the carpet,” one of the tenants replied to this claim. “In disbelief I have replayed the video I took of the house when I left and was unable to see any trace of any burn mark.”

“DUE TO  YOUR  DISGUSTING EMAIL BELOW AND OTHER DISGUSTING ACTS, BEST IF THERE IS FURTHER ACTION  IF  LATER  YOU  DO   NOT AGREE TO  CLAIMS,” Karen replied. In an email later that day, she said “$4000 WAS WRONG AND JUST AN ESTIMATE.. The correct amount is about $ 5542.” She said that the amount would be reduced if the tenants signed their bond over to her “by 9pm today”.

“As far as I know the property was left in better state than we found it and she claimed for roughly $900 worth of cleaning,” said George.

Karen “was very difficult to deal with, she blamed us for any problem that occurred with the flat and she got more difficult and unresponsive as time the tenancy went on,” said Mark.

The Hyde Street tenants from 2017 faced similar claims from Karen. Two weeks after the 2017 lease ended, they asked what was happening. 

Karen said she hadn’t finished looking into the bond. Weeks went by, and they asked again. She said “I just have to get prices for stuff”. When asked, the tenants found that ‘stuff’ included a missing knob on the oven.

“I am not answering any more of your 1000000000000000000000000000 questions till I get

a final [inspection of the flat],” Karen replied. 

When a tenant then sent her an ultimatum requesting the bond (almost six weeks after the end of the lease), Karen replied that the request was “unacceptable”. She then wrote: “As  you cannot wait and demand  bond  back in full. -then estimate is $5000” and sent her bank account number for the payment.

“The purpose of a bond is to provide a mechanism to resolve disputes involving damage, unpaid rent etc. so it seems strange that a landlord would ask for a cash payment in exchange for a bond refund,” said Sage Burke, OUSA Student Support Manager. “Students should consult OUSA Student Support in this situation.”

He noted that “at the end of the tenancy the tenants are required to leave the property in a reasonably clean and tidy condition. This includes the chattels that were provided in the Tenancy agreement. Tenants are also responsible for replacing the batteries in smoke alarms and standard light bulbs.”

“I would like to see some sort of accountability. Say if a landlord takes their tenants to the Tribunal repeatedly, over minor or false claims, they should lose the privilege of being a landlord,” said Dave, one of the tenants from Queen Street. “We should not have to mount such a defence against someone who didn't even try to communicate their perceived damages.”

He and the other tenants found the Tribunal process stressful and outdated. “I want people to know how difficult the justice system is to deal with.”

“Dealing with tenancy services and the courts certainly takes a lot of time and effort, something I think, generally speaking, landlords are more likely to go to the bother of,” said Dave. He said he had “a very bad taste in my mouth from my experience with Karen”. 

*Tenants’ names have been changed. 

This article first appeared in Issue 14, 2020.
Posted 10:36pm Thursday 6th August 2020 by Erin Gourley.