Bruce McNutt, a math teacher at Wayne Hills High School, also coaches a Police Athletic Club (PAL) girls lacrosse team.
In trying to rent an indoor winter practice space for his players, he made some mistakes, and he learned a lesson about contracts, deposits and business practices.
His experience is a refresher course from which we can all benefit.
For this winter, McNutt planned an optional training clinic so his players could get in shape for the spring season. Twenty-two of his 45 players — mostly seventh and eighth graders — signed on.
McNutt said for that number of players, he needed a full indoor turf space measuring 100 ft. by 156 ft. The players’ parents would chip in the cash to cover the cost.
In mid-October, McNutt started calling facilities to compare prices and field sizes, and he took notes on his conversations.
One of his calls was to Coastal Sports in Fairfield.
He spoke to facility manager David Vargo, who McNutt said quoted a fee for the full-sized field.
McNutt decided to rent the space for Sunday practices, and he visited the facility on Friday, Oct. 16 to pay the $624 deposit.
When he was there, he said he told the staff member the field looked smaller than he expected.
“I was confused by the field size but they have two facilities and I just assumed our field must be at the other facility,” McNutt said.
Still, he gave the deposit said he’d contact Vargo on Monday to figure it out.
On Monday, McNutt emailed Vargo to confirm the team would have the full field space in the other facility, records show.
Vargo responded the next day, saying the other facility only has basketball courts so McNutt’s rental would be the space he saw.
The two emailed back and forth, and Vargo clarified the size of the field. McNutt said he didn’t think they could use a smaller space.
“Please let me know if this can accommodate your team, as it is in high demand for rental and I have a few teams that are on hold for that space,” Vargo responded.
McNutt said the size wouldn’t work, and he requested the deposit be mailed to his home.
Vargo’s response surprised McNutt.
“Unfortunately, as it states in the Winter Contract Agreement, the deposit is nonrefundable. Would you still want to keep the space?” Vargo said in the email.
McNutt wasn’t happy, and he said so in his emailed response to Vargo. He reminded Vargo that on the telephone — a call for which McNutt took notes — Vargo said the field was a full size.
McNutt wrote that when he came to drop the check “in good faith,” he told the staff member that the field seemed small, but that he said he’d talk to Vargo about it.
“At the time, I guess I should have held onto my check but I figured that if I reached out to you the following Monday you too would act in good faith,” McNutt said. “Clearly that does not seem to be the case.
“Your response to my email told me that I needed to let you know whether we were going to use the field because you have others waiting on it, and now you’re telling me that you’re going to keep the deposit and then I can only imagine rent it to one of the groups that’s waiting on the field,” McNutt said. “This seems incredibly dishonest, especially based on the fact that you misrepresented the field dimensions in the first place.”
Vargo responded, saying the staff member could have gone over the field dimensions when McNutt was at the facility, but he would check with the owner about a refund.
A week later, McNutt said, he still hadn’t heard back from the facility, and he said Vargo was no longer returning his emails.
That’s when he reached out to Bamboozled.
GETTING A REFUND?
We reviewed the contract, McNutt’s notes from his phone calls and the emails between McNutt and Vargo.
The documents, and McNutt’s reported experience, bring up a few interesting points.
The contract clearly states that the deposit was not refundable. That’s not in question.
Plus, McNutt admits he shouldn’t have signed the contract or handed over the deposit check without first confirming that the space was what his team needed. So that’s not in question, either.
What is in question is whether or not keeping the deposit is a good business decision.
It’s common to pay non-refundable deposits when renting any kind of space, whether it’s for a catering hall, a kid birthday party or an indoor sports facility.
But most businesses will return a non-refundable deposit if they’re able to re-rent the space for the time you had reserved it.
When you leave a deposit, that money is holding that space for you. The facility is unable to rent the space to anyone else. If you decide to drop out, the facility in theory could have turned away other business while it was holding the spot for you. So it’s very reasonable for a facility to keep a deposit if you cancel a contract.
But, if the facility is able to re-rent the space, handing back the non-refundable deposit is just a good business practice. The facility will be paid by the new renter, so it isn’t losing any business because you backed out.
In this case, it’s clear that McNutt should have waited before signing the contract and giving the deposit. But he did keep his notes, which indicate he was told he could have the full field. We didn’t hear the conversation, so let’s chalk it up to a misunderstanding.
We wanted to know if Coastal Sports was able to re-rent the space to another party, and therefore, not lose money if McNutt broke the contract.
We reached out to Kevin Wilson, the owner of Coastal Sports.
He apologized for not getting back to McNutt, saying Vargo did give him the message but Wilson was busy.
“He’s getting a refund,” Wilson said.
Wilson said Coastal has rented half of the space that McNutt thought he was getting, and the half is the only remaining slot open for winter Sundays.
He said the field sizes are clearly marked on the facility’s web site, and the company tells renters they should see the fields in person before making a decision.
Wilson said though deposits are non-refundable, Coastal will generally return the deposit as long as the space is re-rented.
He said McNutt should receive a check by the end of the month.
McNutt was happy to hear the news, but he still maintains that the field size was misrepresented to him.
And, he said, even though he signed the contract, “I reached out them the very next business day,” so it “should have been enough to return my deposit without all this effort. I didn’t book the facility knowing it was too small and sign over a check for the purpose of cancelling a day later. That makes no sense.”
McNutt said he looks forward to sharing this lesson with his math students and his lacrosse team.
“I like to think I’m a pretty smart guy who learns from his mistakes, and in hindsight I shouldn’t have given him the deposit when there were any questions about the field, but I’m glad I can learn the lesson without having to spend $624,” he said. “Hopefully my students will read the story, laugh at my stupidity and learn something from it.”
Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.