If you are about to move out of your apartment, you're probably wondering whether you'll ever see again the security deposit you gave your landlord when you signed your lease.
You're a little late. You should have worried about the security deposit when you moved in.
When you first sign a lease or rental agreement, it is a good idea to ask for a written receipt for all money paid, with the amounts for such things as security deposit, rent and cleaning fee separately identified.
You might also consider taking some snapshots of your apartment when you first move in. That way, if there is ever a dispute about the condition of the place before and after your occupancy, you will have some concrete proof to back up your claims. Be sure to take photos of any serious deficiencies in the premises, so that you can later prove in small claims court that the yellowed wallpaper, the holes in the wall or the broken refrigerator-door handle were already there when you moved in.
If there are any problems that can't be shown with photographic evidence--say, a wall heater that doesn't work or the shower door that doesn't slide--you should have the landlord acknowledge the problems in writing.
Specific laws about security deposits have been enacted in more than two-thirds of the states. The law in California is fairly typical. If you want to read it yourself, you'll find it in the California Civil Code, Section 1950.5. (You can find the Civil Code in any law library.)
By law, your landlord is limited to a maximum amount for security or cleaning deposits. The maximum for an unfurnished apartment is two months rent. If the place is furnished, a landlord is allowed to require up to three months rent as a deposit.
Some landlords may ask for a "non-refundable" cleaning fee, but this is strictly prohibited by state law. The landlord may only refuse to refund that portion of the "fee" that is actually needed to pay for cleaning the premises. So if you leave the place absolutely spotless, you are probably entitled to the refund of that "non-refundable" fee.
Landlords are required to refund security deposits within two weeks after a tenant's departure and furnish an itemized, written statement of any deductions from the original deposit.
Possibility of Penalty
If a landlord keeps the security deposit, in bad faith, without reasonable cause, he faces the possibility of a $200 penalty imposed by a court in addition to any actual injury sustained by the tenant.
A landlord may keep all or some of the security deposit to cover unpaid rent, to clean the apartment or to make repairs for damage caused by the tenant.
However, a landlord may not withhold money from the security deposit for ordinary wear and tear. It's one thing if the wall has a few scratches where the couch rubbed against it; it's quite another if a door has been kicked in.
Most important, under California law, the landlord has the burden to prove that his deductions are reasonable.
If you are about to vacate your apartment, be sure to notify the landlord in writing in advance. (Check your lease to see how far in advance you must notify him.) Try to discuss with the landlord any repairs or cleaning that he thinks are necessary; perhaps you can do some of the work yourself.
If you foresee any problem in the refund of your security deposit, take some more photos of the place when you leave, so you can offer evidence of the condition of the premises upon your departure.
To find out more information about your rights as a tenant, send a self-addressed, business-size, stamped envelope to State Bar Pamphlets, Communications Division, 555 Franklin St., San Francisco 94102. Ask for a copy of the pamphlet entitled "What Should I Know Before I Rent?"
Attorney Jeffrey S. Klein, a member of The Times' corporate legal staff, cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about the law. Do not telephone. Write to Legal View, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.