Steamed Up Over an Off-the-Wall Clerk

Times Staff Writer

Question: I recently had the need of a wallpaper steamer, so I went to the Pasadena U-Haul Rental Center and picked one up for a one-day rental of $15. Initially I was asked if I wanted damage waiver on the steamer, which comes to 10% of the rental, or $1.50. But then when the rental contract was filled out, the clerk said the damage waiver was "mandatory," that the brochure (which said nothing about it) was "out of date" and that the "computer kicks it out if the 10% charge" isn't included.

It didn't seem worthwhile to make a Federal case over $1.50, so I paid it when I returned the steamer. But I've been brooding about it. Can a rental company demand this sort of insurance to protect its own property? I don't know how much a wallpaper steamer costs, but it seems to me that it wouldn't take too many rental days before the insurance, alone, would pay for a new one.--M.Z.

Answer: For whatever comfort you can take in it--like none--you shouldn't have been nicked for the $1.50 damage waiver if you didn't want it. All of the U-Haul rental centers are owned and operated by the parent U-Haul International out of Phoenix and, according to Fred Wilkening, the California-based vice president of the firm, "we have no companywide policy making the coverage mandatory; although, of course, we strongly recommend it."

Technically, a damage waiver isn't really "insurance," Wilkening adds, although, sure enough, it looks, walks and quacks like insurance. "It relieves the customer of virtually any sort of damage that the equipment might suffer while it's in his possession--short of not returning it at all, of course, or possibly throwing it out the open window of a car into the middle of the freeway."

The one exception to this, Wilkening continues, "is something like a motor home. Here, we're talking about a $45,000 coach and insurance is required since we're acting as agent for the owner in many cases. We own some of them ourselves, of course, but not all of them. I suspect that what happened with the wallpaper steamer was that someone simply misinterpreted the company's policy."

Which, indeed, according to Mike Connors, manager of the Pasadena U-Haul Rental Center, is exactly what happened. "I had an employee who, for a little while, was simply adding the damage waiver on, automatically. When it was called to my attention I emphasized to him that it was not mandatory and that the customer should definitely have the opportunity to accept or decline the coverage."

Because the cost of the wallpaper steamer to U-Haul is "about $120," Connors confirms, you're right in your math when you said "it wouldn't take too many rental days" before the insurance, alone, would pay for a complete replacement--80 rental days to be exact.

Q: In California cities where there are no rent-control laws, is it legal for a landlord to raise a tenant's rent verbally, or must this done in writing? If the tenant, against his will, accepts the verbal raise and did not demand it in writing--because he did not want to be threatened with a higher increase, or worse--does the tenant have any recourse against the landlord?--W.J.

A: "Or worse"? Such as setting fire to your draperies? You paint a rather formidable picture of your landlord.

Unfortunately, according to Frank Foster, assistant to the executive vice president of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles, California law is, charitably, fuzzy on the matter of what must be (or even should be) in writing in agreements between landlords and tenants. General contractual law, however, stipulates that agreements for goods and services extending beyond one year must be in writing but, alas, it doesn't apply to landlord-tenant relationships, Foster says. (In many states, however, leases longer than two years--or, in some instances, longer than one year--must be in writing and, therefore, any material changes in the terms must be in writing and, of course, can go into effect only when the lease is up for renewal.)

In the absence of anything in the law covering your situation, then, it has to be assumed that the landlord does, indeed, have the right to raise your rent verbally. However, Foster notes, by virtue of the fact that the law tiptoes all the way around this issue, it does open the way for you to challenge him in court. And, traditionally, California courts tend to be more sympathetic to tenants than to landlords.

That's one side of the coin. The other is that it can be expensive and bothersome unless you handle the matter in small claims court, and it's also pretty safe to say this is not exactly going to make you the apple of your landlord's eye.

Law or no law, Foster adds, the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles takes the position that any rental agreement, whether for a specific time period or open-ended, should definitely be in writing for the protection of both parties. Ideally, this should not only spell out what every standard lease spells out--rent and who is responsible for what--but it should also spell out how much notice of any rent increase the landlord must give.

Ideals are one thing. Life is another.

Don G. Campbell cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to consumer questions of general interest. Write to Consumer VIEWS, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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