Jeff Rockwell thought he was doing a friend a favor last fall when he invited him to spend a couple of weeks at his South Portland home while the friend looked for a place to live.
Anyone of us might do the same.
The spare bedroom was unfinished and not heated, Rockwell explained to his friend, but he could sleep on the couch and have a roof over his head until he found his own place.
“I told him I didn’t want to rent to him. He didn’t pay any rent. I told him he could just toss in some money now and then for the extra utilities and such,” he said.
Soon after the man moved in, Rockwell and his partner found themselves facing a legal predicament that made them wonder whether they had stepped onto the set of the 1990 suspense movie “Pacific Heights”
In that movie a man played by Michael Keaton moved into an apartment downstairs from the property owners and immediately began creating havoc, tossing the landlords into a nightmarish world pitting landlords’ rights against those of the tenant.
“I should have been tipped off right away when he showed up with two truckloads of belongings, including his bed, which I didn’t think he needed for a few weeks stay,” Rockwell said this week.
That was in August. By November, Rockwell and his partner had grown very uncomfortable with the house guest who Rockwell said acted strangely and made odd demands, like telling them not to cook at night.
The tenant also called the police to the house on one occasion saying the couple was being too noisy.
The couple of course thought their problem could be solved by simply telling their guest it was time to leave.
It was then they learned that under Maine law they were not simply a nice couple trying to help out a fellow in need, but landlords of a “tenant at will.”
And Rockwell said he also learned that his so-called house guest knew exactly how to play the game that the couple was now caught up in.
“You can’t just make them leave,” Rockwell explained. “If you invite them to stay at your house, even for a little while, they become a tenant at will and they have very specific rights and when he refused to leave, my only recourse was to hire an attorney.”
Aware that he was on precarious legal ground, Rockwell said he presented his guest with a letter on Nov. 5, requesting that he leave the property by Dec. 15, giving him 40 days to make other arrangements.
“He told me he would stay as long as he wanted and that he knew how to work the system. Turns out he did,” Rockwell said.
Rockwell’s attorney, Michael Vaillancourt of Portland, prepared a Notice of Termination and Notice to Quit which were presented to the guest on Nov. 9, according to court documents.
The notice demanded the guest leave by Dec. 14, 2012.
By Jan. 1 the living situation in the house had disintegrated to the point that Rockwell and his girlfriend felt they needed to move out of their own home.
“He was very threatening and (Rockwell’s partner) was quite afraid that I would be driven to something foolish, like physically tossing him and his belongings out the door and end up being charged with assault or being hit with a civil suit,” Rockwell explained.
They moved down the street to a relative’s home while the legal proceedings to get the guest out of their home continued.
“Of course we had to continue to pay for all of the house utilities because it is against the law for me to not provide a ‘tenant at will’ with heat and water,” Rockwell stated.
Finally, at an eviction hearing on Jan. 3, the parties went into mediation and Rockwell’s house guest agreed to waive any further appeals if he could remain in the home until Feb. 1.
He left on that date, and Rockwell and his partner returned to the house.
In the end it cost Rockwell $2,300 in legal fees, months of aggravation and a month out of his home.
“I admit I was caught off guard by the whole situation and you can bet it won’t happen to us ever again. If I hadn’t hired an attorney this would have dragged on for much, much longer. Come to find out this is not an uncommon occurrence, and I think people need to be aware and be awfully careful when inviting anyone to stay at their home for a while,” Rockwell said.
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