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Vt. landlord says she survived rental nightmare - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Vt. landlord says she survived rental nightmare

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PLAINFIELD, Vt. -

"I want my house back," Laurie Veatch said.

Veatch has been living a landlord's nightmare for more than a year. In December 2013, she rented her Plainfield home to Don and Debbi Fountain. The tenants moved in midmonth, paid half of first month's rent and a security deposit. Then Veatch says the cash stopped, forcing the 75-year-old to get two jobs to pay her mortgage and property taxes, while someone else lived in her home for free.

"It has squeezed me very much," she said.

Veatch hired a property manager to help with the upkeep. He tried to inspect the property at least a dozen times, giving the Fountains the required 48-hours' notice, but could never get inside.

"I would arrive. There would be somebody in the home, but nobody would come to the door and unlock it," said Greg Wright, the property manager. "And they had changed the locks."

In Vermont, that's illegal.

Then in December, 12 months after the Fountains moved in, it appeared they abandoned the house on Gore Road.

"He had left stuff behind and had been doing what we refer to as sort of the slow move-out," said Angela Zaikowski, Veatch's lawyer.

Vermont law says landlords can reclaim their property and change the locks if:

  • It appears to the average person that no one is living there full time
  • Rent is not current
  • The property owner has made a reasonable effort to figure out the tenants' intentions
  • And the landlord agrees to store the tenants' belongings for 60 days

Veatch sent the Fountains emails acknowledging their abandonment. She also noted they owed $5,700 in back rent and had various violations of the rental agreement, like failing to throw out garbage, changing the locks, not mowing the lawn or keeping up with minimum oil heat requirements.

"They're just taking advantage of probably mostly out-of-state landlords who are not here to defend ourselves, but we're still paying property taxes and many of us love Vermont," Veatch said.

Veatch decided to move back in, and says that's when the terror began.

"A few nights later this former tenant came after dark," she said.

She says she spotted his teenage son outside her door, hammer in hand.

"The son was holding up a hammer like he was about to smash my door to bits," Veatch said. "The constable said, 'You break that door and you're going to jail.'"

Town Constable George Cushing did not want to go on camera, but confirmed Veatch's story, adding the tenants then rammed her door for about an hour before police arrived.

Don Fountain went to court and filed an emergency motion to stop illegal eviction. It was granted by Judge Mary Miles Teachout, giving him temporary possession of Veatch's house. She was flabbergasted and homeless.

"I like to protect people, but I think Vermont tenants are overprotected and landlords are underprotected," Veatch said.

"There are a lot of myths and a lot of misconceptions," said Pam Favreau, the director of Vermont Tenants.

Favreau is a tenant advocate. She says Vermont needs small landlords to prevent a rise in homelessness.

"There are great landlords; there are not so great landlords. And it's the same with tenants," Favreau said.

Favreau says most tenants don't realize there are laws to protect them and laws governing their responsibilities.

Tenants must:

  • Pay rent on time
  • Take care of the property
  • Promptly report maintenance issues
  • Give proper notice when they plan to move out
  • Avoid code violations and permanent changes to the rental

She and landlord advocates agree the biggest mistake most property owners make is waiting too long to start the eviction process.

"Landlords want to do the right thing. They want to give people the benefit of the doubt," Zaikowski said. "Maybe if more of them treated it like a business and said, 'You haven't paid me, that's it. I'm sorry, I'm giving you this notice. We're not going to mess around with this,' there would be a little less issues."

"I made the mistake of falling into what later appeared to be a trap," Veatch said.

And she's not the only victim. WCAX News discovered the Fountains were involved at least six similar eviction cases in Chittenden County alone, dating back to 2001. In three of the most recent cases, the Fountains owed their landlords thousands in back rent.

"A landlord can get a judgment order," Zaikowski said.

It's a court ruling outlining how much the tenant owes. Eviction lawyer Angela Zaikowski says collecting is close to impossible.

"I have a drawer full of these," she said. "It can be very difficult for landlords to try to collect. About the only way is if the tenant has a job."

Over the weekend, the Fountains rented a U-Haul and started moving out of Veatch's house. But she still had to face a judge to fight for her home. Tuesday, the tenants failed to show up. So Vermont Superior Court Judge Mary Miles Teachout tossed their claim of illegal eviction.

"That motion is granted and that does complete the case," the judge said.

Fourteen months after her ordeal began, Veatch can legally return to her home. But she has little hope of recouping her losses. It's a lesson she'll never forget.

"I think it's important for anybody who's thinking about renting their house to know that under the current laws they have to be extraordinarily careful about who they rent to," Veatch advised.

Don Fountain did get back to us late Thursday afternoon, but chose not to comment on the record. We're also waiting to hear back from the Vermont State Police who responded to the home.

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