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Law Educator, Esq.
Law Educator, Esq., Lawyer
Category: Real Estate Law
Satisfied Customers: 118789
Experience:  Licensed attorney practicing landlord-tenant, land use and other real estate law and litigation.
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I am a landlord and I leased a house to a young woman with

Customer Question

Hi, I am a landlord and I leased a house to a young woman with one child in August 2013. At some point during her tenure, she moved her parolled boyfriend in and never disclosed this, in violation of the lease. In August of 2015, tenant contacted me to inform me there was a leak in kitchen ceiling, claiming it had just occurred, however, upon arrival, the shattered remains of the old cast iron sewer stack were on the porch with demolition debris, and inside my plumber and I found that tenant, at some point, attempted a hack repair to the stack pipe, and massive water damage through the kitchen down to the finished basement, which was full of mold and completely destroyed, along with the electrical system, the furnace, and bathroom above, where all fixtures were clogged and tiles missing from shower, as well as other random vandalism throughout house. Total renovation costs are estimated at $62K. The homeowner's policy, with Travelers, refused to pay, stating water damage more than 14 days old, and I am now left with trying to recover from the tenant, a single mom whose ex-con boyfriend is now back in jail, as he was dealing crack, which we found in the house, and police are saying I have no grounds for a criminal complaint against her, as it is a landlord tenant matter.
First question is have you ever seen anyone take on an insurance company around a water damage claim over 14 days and win? Tenant claims she repaired the stack (without my knowledge or permission) within a week of discovering it was leaking about a month before the secondary leak occurred, which she claims she reported to me asap. It appears that second leak turned out to be due to the stack being clogged, due to the faulty work.
Since there was evidence of vandalism throughout the house--holes in the walls, writing on walls, kicked in doors, ripped out alarm system, ripped out railings, I envision a scenario where the boyfriend trashed the house (it appears she stopped living there for several weeks at some point, according to neighbors) and the stack and water damage could easily have been intentionally done, with her coming in and trying to repair it after he vacated back to jail.
She is not cooperating and refused to discuss details with me or insurance investigators.
Is suing her for damages my only recourse? She has no money, of course, but does have a job. Can I have her wages garnished in PA?
What else can I do to try to get the insurance company to pay?
Submitted: 1 year ago.
Category: Real Estate Law
Customer: replied 1 year ago.
The generalist lawyer I contacted refused to write a letter to the insurance company, saying he doesn't feel I have a case. I wanted to argue the unauthorized "repair" constitutes vandalism, as it was intentional damage to my property, without my permission, causing serious destruction, regardless of the intent. The fact that there is evidence of other vandalism throughout the house seemed to support the possibility that the original damage was intentional, and that my lessee attempted to repair it herself, rather than notify me, to hide what her unauthorized guest had done. She had also started repairing the holes in the walls, too, which supports this theory. Since she isn't talking, I can't corroborate any of this.Also, since she insists she repaired the original leak within 10 days of the occurrence, how can the insurance company refuse coverage? Clearly the mold damage suggests water present for more than 14 days in the basement (the endpoint of the water) but from what I have researched, just a few days of active leak in a sealed dark basement in summertime can cause significant mold growth. Plus, I found some legal precedent that an insurance company can't deny coverage for a second incident, simply because a prior incident's damage had not been completed.What about the 14 day water issue? As a landlord, I am left with either believing my tenant, or performing inspections every 13 days to check for unreported leaks, which impinges on tenant's rights to privacy and enjoyment. Travelers cited aging/wear and tear on the sewer stack as original cause of occurrence, but we have no evidence of that, other than the fact that someone attempted a repair. Given the neighbors' reports of my tenant's absence and later return, I feel it is just as likely the boyfriend intentionally damaged the pipes to be vindictive, which constitutes vandalism, and my tenant was attempting to repair vandalized areas of the house. Why wouldn't a lawyer want to at least write a strong letter alleging these possible facts to the insurance company to compel payment? Other than that it might get expensive to actually litigate, if brought to court.
Customer: replied 1 year ago.
I would have liked to formally evict her, so that there would be a record of her eviction to impact her ability to rent in the future, but the eviction service I contacted told me I could not evict in Philadelphia because, due to the now uninhabitable condition of the house, she could not technically live there. Is this correct? I couldn't evict her because she created so much damage to the house that she couldn't live there? As part of the water and mold remediation, which took place within two days of her reporting the "leak", the entire kitchen had to be removed, and the electricity was non-functional, as well as no running water for several days until all new plumbing could be installed, so it was, at that point, not habitable.
Still no way to get the incident on her rental record, except a civil judgment against her for damages?
Expert:  Law Educator, Esq. replied 1 year ago.
Thank you for your question. I look forward to working with you to provide you the information you are seeking for educational purposes only.
I am afraid that if your policy required the claim within 14 days and she made the repair on her own, even negligently, and did not report it to you, SHE is the one liable for damages to you. I believe based on everything you said above, you have a great case against the tenant for damages, but the insurance company I am sorry to say would not have to provide coverage for the water damages if it is not within the policy terms of your policy requirements.
You are going to have to sue her for your damages and get a judgment against her. Of course, as you are suspecting she likely has no money you will recover the $62K judgment from, but she is the liable party and not the insurer, since you did not get notice from the tenant and that is the tenant's fault not the insurer's fault.
Customer: replied 1 year ago.
Is it possible to garnish wages to recover once I've had a judgment entered against her in Philadelpia, PA? How hard is it to compel payment?
Expert:  Law Educator, Esq. replied 1 year ago.
Thank you for your reply.
Unfortunately, PA law does not permit wage garnishment unless it is for child support or government debt or unpaid rent and garnishment is limited to 10% of the employee's pay. It is fairly tough in PA to force payment unless they own property you can seize to sell to get your judgement paid.