I’ve had many landlords. From tanned old men in Hawaiian shirts to eccentric would-be screenwriters to my good buddy Steve. I paid on time and they fixed the air conditioner. We made life easier for each other. I thought this was how the world worked until four years ago, when I moved into Ridgewood Apartments in Lexington, Kentucky.
My first red flag should have been that this complex is owned not by the kindly private individuals of my yesteryear but by a large company, Elon Property Management. But at the time, I was in a hurry to move out of Wilmore and due diligence eluded me. The property manager was a sweet lady named Misty that knocked $15 off a studio apartment for me. Two months later, she was replaced by another nice-enough lady named Francine. (At this point, I’ll stop using real names because Misty is one of only two staff of which I can say anything positive.) After a year, I got married and we needed a larger space so I informed Francine that we would be moving out at the end of our lease.
This is what we should have done.
“Is there anything we can do to get you to stay?” asked Francine.
I politely said no.
“We’ve got some one-bedroom units that haven’t been renovated yet. I can offer a lower rent on one since they’re not updated,” she said.
“Okay,” I looked at my wife, “We’ll have a look.”
We were charmed by Unit 62. Situated in the back corner of the lot, surrounded by trees, it had a sense of seclusion and privacy. And moving just up the hill sure beat moving across town. We agreed to take it, and we renewed our lease with Ridgewood.
A year passed and we had no plans to move, so I went down to the office to sign the papers to renew our lease. Francine was not in that day. Filling in was a stern-faced lady with a tan. She informed me that my rent would increase by $75, her explanation being that it was “just our policy.” Something to do with the cost of living. What about my cost of living? This was the second red flag. I should have said, “Wait a minute, my rent is low because you haven’t renovated the unit. Renovate the unit and we’ll talk.” But I didn’t.
“Okay…” I said, and signed the lease.
A year later, Francine was long gone, I never saw the tanned stern-faced lady again, and there was a new property manager, a young guy named Justin. We liked Justin. He smiled and engaged us in conversation whenever we stopped by the office. When it came time to renew our lease again, he was there to help. As we looked over the documents, an angry tenant burst in, fuming and threatening to sue Ridgewood. Justin remained calm and took a look at the guy’s account. Turned out everything was in order. The tenant wasn’t happy, but he seemed satisfied enough to drop it and leave.
“You handled that well,” I told Justin.
Our rent was to increase again. I felt comfortable enough with Justin, so I addressed it.
“May I ask why the rent is going up again? We originally got a lower rate because the unit had not been renovated,” I said.
“Yeah… It showed up in our records that you weren’t actually up to what we charge for one-bedrooms. You were paying way less,” he said.
Yeah, because that was the deal. I didn’t know what to say. I’d just told him five seconds ago why we were paying way less.
He continued, “But now that you’re up to this amount, you shouldn’t have any more increases. If it goes up again next year, it should only be a few dollars.” He smiled.
“Okay…” was all I could think to say and I signed the lease. They fooled me twice. Shame on me. Red flag number three.
Winter came and went and so did Justin. The time had also come for us to finally move away to Yangon, Myanmar. We began looking into their policy on vacating early, which required 60 days’ notice. No problem. We could totally afford to pay two more months’ rent even if I went ahead and left the country. I filled out the necessary paperwork with [let’s call her] Regina and sent scanned copies to my wife who was already in Yangon. Everything checked out by our reckoning, but I had a feeling, a nagging feeling. All the surprises and red flags of the past few years had me on edge. I wanted to make sure I was proceeding correctly. So when I went back down to the office to turn in our notice to vacate, I pressed record on my Voice Memos app and slipped my phone into my shorts pocket.
“Just so I’ve got it straight, even if we vacate early and turn in the key, we’re still paying through July 22.” (60 days hence.)
“That’s correct,” said Regina.
A lie. It’s right there in the recording.
My friends Andy and Josiah came to Lexington to help me load the U-Haul. I closed the back hatch and made one last walk down to the Ridgewood office, glad to be free. Regina was there and I handed her the keys. She looked confused, but didn’t say anything.
When I logged into the online rent payment service a month later to pay my final bill for July, which I expected to be around $485 for July 1-22, I was taken aback…
Early Termination Fee - $674.92 Electric Penalty Charge - $50.00 Insufficient Notice Fee - $625.00 Total - $1,349.92
Surely there was some mistake. I emailed Regina about the discrepancy. She unapologetically asserted that we’d failed to fulfill the requirements of the documents we submitted by turning in the key early. I reminded her that she’d said turning in the key early was no problem, but she wouldn’t budge. With no further recourse, I sent Regina the recording of her telling me that I was “correct.” A day went by and she replied that she would talk to accounting and let me know when to send my payment of $485. It seemed that my recording had saved us $864.92!
Mom sent me a message that a bill had come from Ridgewood. It was still the incorrect amount, so I told Mom to file it away as I was currently awaiting a new bill from Regina.
I never heard from Regina again. Months went by. I figured she’d been fired for incompetence. I imagined her boss chewing her out: “What were you thinking, telling him everything was correct?! Do you realize you cost us $864!!! Pack up your office!” This made me feel bad. Regina was no ray of sunshine, but I had no intention of getting her fired. I also supposed from their silence that Ridgewood was slightly embarrassed by this mishap and had let the whole thing slide. Looks like I’d save my $485, too!
That is until Mom messaged me that I’d received a notice from a debt collector for the amount of $1,349.92.
We called Regina. Regina deflected everything, assumed no responsibility, and told us to call the debt collectors.
We’d been had.
After some research, we learned that in the state of Kentucky, landlords can legally charge tenants through the end of their lease regardless of whatever early vacating policies they may have. In the case of Elon Property Management, it is not in their interest to make sure I or any tenant fully understand the documents we’re signing. It also seems that any agreement or statement that individual property managers make with tenants is nullified by corporate. Ridgewood never intended to honor their word, even when presented with recorded evidence of their word.
I can overlook the rent hikes, the frequently out of order laundry facilities, the dog poop everywhere, the mice, the ants, the random ripping up and caution-taping off of my front step for two days, the curiously high staff turnover, the unreliable office hours, the $13 processing fee they pass on to tenants for paying online, and the outdated unit. I can even accept responsibility for my own past ignorance and piss-poor negotiating skills. Fair enough. But what I can’t abide is the lie.
I can only surmise, but I imagine the business ethic of Elon Property Management and Ridgewood Apartments as thus:
Mistakes make money.
Ignorance is income.
Confusion creates cashflow.
Deception is policy.
P.S. – Now come on. Do I seriously believe Elon Property Management is this sinister company with a boardroom full of conniving and conspiring bureaucrats instructing all their employees (even the nice ones) to take advantage of honest average people?
Yes. Yes I do.
Featured image from the time Ridgewood ripped up and caution-taped off my front step for no apparent reason. Regina merely said we’d been notified.