Fleeing fleas and paying the fees

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A sage subletter of mine once said, “Doing things the cheap way will always cost more in the end.”

To me, that sounded like some pretty crap advice. I thought the whole point of doing things the cheap way was to do things, well, cheaply. But I’m telling you, I should have heeded that subletter’s words of wisdom — it would have saved me 600 bucks.

Last summer, I interned in the sprawling paradise that is Corpus Christi, Texas. After deciding that creepy guys’ “room for rent” listings on Craigslist lacked a certain je ne sais quoi, I found a college student subletting her room for the summer.

“Unless you want to pay over 2,000 to get the lease in your name,” she texted me, “my apartment very recently changed their policy on subleasing without informing me, so the cheapest way to do it is to keep it all in my name.”

I was surprised she thought I would mind living such a seedy existence. Since when had anyone in Berkeley notified their landlord about a summer subletter? I gladly paid her $620 for the first month’s rent and was pleased to find the apartment spacious and well furnished. It seemed like such a steal that I was willing to ignore the itchy bites on my ankles.

I first realized the severity of the problem when one of the other girls living in the apartment with me asked where I was getting the bites: “Inside or outside?”

“Inside,” I answered.

“Oh, there are fleas in here.”

“I’m sorry, what?

Apparently, a few people had brought pets into the apartment from time to time. I began to put the horrific pieces together. I had seen a couple of insects on my arm while relaxing on the couch, but I had assumed they were harmless, as I had never owned a cat or dog.

The next day, I called the front desk of the apartment complex. I could get a short-term lease in my name for no more than $800 per month. That hadn’t been advertised on their website, but whatever. Determined to move out, I signed a lease, even though I would have to pay for a whole month despite moving in halfway through. I spent the next several days washing everything I owned in hot water, and then I moved out.

Then came the hard part: How would I recoup money from a forbidden, under-the-table agreement? First, I tried the nice way.

“Hi, I had to move out of your apartment because there were fleas, and you didn’t tell me about them before I agreed to rent from you. Can I have my money back?”

Her answer was no. So I tried the not-so-nice way.

“Please give me back the money or I’ll tell the management you illegitimately sublet your apartment.”

“Go ahead,” she said. “They’ll just evict you for trespassing.”

She was right. The management would have put me out on the street. I also didn’t want to put my new rental contract in jeopardy. Seeing my options narrow before my eyes, I made one last, feeble attempt to recover some of the money I had squandered.

“All I ask is that you pay me back for half of the June rent,” I texted her. “You can take your time with it. I’m just happy to be moving out, and I think you should let the management know about the fleas since (extermination) seems to be covered in the tenant’s contract.”

“OK,” she finally responded. I thought it was an agreement. She told me she would come back in July to get her keys.

After accidentally breaking one of her keys and incurring $7 in electricity charges in the short time I had lived in her apartment, I now owed her a whopping $22. In July, she asked me to pay her.

“I can just deduct it from the $310,” I offered.

But she refused to pay me — apparently, she never meant to imply that she would. She told me that I lacked common sense, that the fleas were not her cat’s fault, that she hadn’t seen even one flea when she came back in July. In response, I withheld the $22, which further infuriated her.

“That sounds like something only your type of typical liberal California girl would do,” she texted me, I kid you not. “Honestly good luck in life because it’s about to be a hell of a rough time if you think you can pout your way out of everything.”

I came to terms with the facts that her scathing message had some validity. Indeed, I had tried to pout my way out of renting illegally from a complete stranger, who turned out to be merciless. If I had proceeded with caution, maybe I would have signed a legitimate contract sooner. Maybe I wouldn’t have lost my money. Maybe I never would have unknowingly lived with fleas.

Many people in Berkeley who rent illegally will not have problems, so assuming the risk is up to you. But if something does go awry, you may pay for it so heavily that you incur losses for taking the risk. That adage about “the cheap way” sure came back to bite me in the ass — or, rather, on the ankles.

Contact Andrea Platten at [email protected].

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