For something as important as buying or leasing a house, it is important to understand the implications of the contracts you’ll sign. The Fort Belvoir Legal Assistance Office offers free legal advice and consultation to Service members and their families, including buying a home, reviewing lease agreements, and unresolved housing disputes.

Christopher Rydelek, Fort Belvoir’s chief of Legal Assistance Division, Office of the Staff Judge Advocate, offered some guidance on several housing questions submitted by the Belvoir Eagle:

If a Soldier has disagreements with a landlord, what should they do?

The Soldier should try to negotiate with the landlord. Frequently, disagreements can be resolved by discussing the issue with the landlord. If not, the next best option is to come to the Fort Belvoir Legal Assistance Office. We can help guide clients through their legal options.

Can the Legal Assistance Office provide advice on military privatized housing? How far can that advice extend before Legal Assistance refers the resident to seek an attorney?

We can provide in-office advice to clients who have issues involving on-post housing.

At this point, litigation support is not routinely provided, but we are assessing that issue.

What are some of the most common housing issues the Legal Assistance office handles?

We frequently see cases involving handling of security deposits, and early termination of leases by military members due to PCS, TDY or receipt of orders to government housing. We also see cases involving HVAC or mold issues that may render the premises uninhabitable.

Is there a tenant’s Bill of Rights? Does it vary significantly from Virginia, D.C. or Maryland?

Virginia, D.C. and Maryland all have laws that govern the landlord-tenant relationship. They do vary but, for the most part, they require landlords to perform certain duties to ensure residences are habitable. It is important Soldiers read and discuss a lease’s contents before it is signed, as the lease creates legal obligations between the parties that can be enforced in court. We can advise clients on the impact of such terms and conditions before the lease is actually signed.

If a tenant feels normal wear-and-tear is being charged as ‘damage,’ is there recourse?

Virginia law does not permit a landlord to charge a tenant for normal wear and tear to the premises. If the lease does not otherwise require the tenant to complete specific cleaning or other move-out requirements, the tenant is only responsible for damage to the property that exceeds ordinary use. Of course, there are many other costs the tenant may be responsible to pay, like unpaid rent and utilities.

If the landlord and tenant disagree on the treatment of the security deposit, they can go to court to have the matter resolved by a judge.

It is vital tenants document the condition of the property at the beginning and end of the tenancy. This can be done with photographs, and with joint inspections performed by the landlord and tenant. A careful documentation of the residence’s condition goes a long way to protecting the tenant upon termination of the tenancy, and resolving questions about the security deposit return.

Appointments with the Legal Assistance Office are available Monday – Thursday 8 a.m.-3 p.m.

Walk-in visits are available from 9 a.m.-2 p.m., Fridays. The Staff Judge Advocate offices are at 9990 Belvoir Drive, Bldg. 257. Contact the Legal Assistance Office at 703-805-2856.