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Can Deposit Be Kept for Quake Damage?

January 23, 1994|Special to The Times; This column is prepared by Project Sentinel, a rental housing mediation service in Sunnyvale, Calif

Editor's Note: The following two questions are from an earlier "Rent W atch" column, but may be helpful to victims of last Monday's earthquake.

QUESTION: The apartment in which I have lived for several years received heavy damage during the earthquake. Since it may be a long time before the building becomes habitable and because I rent on a monthly basis, the landlord and I have agreed to terminate my tenancy. I'm worried about my deposit. Can he use it for repairs, or am I entitled to get it back?

ANSWER: Yes, you are entitled to a refund of your deposit. A security deposit cannot be used to repair damage caused by a natural disaster. Unless you owe the landlord rent, you should receive your deposit in full, because cleaning costs have obviously become irrelevant, and any property owner who attempts to deduct cleaning costs will be hard pressed to justify them. Be sure that you notify your landlord in writing of your new address so that the check can reach you. California Civil Code, Section 1950.5, which regulates the return of rental deposits, remains valid in these circumstances and requires the landlord to refund your deposit within 14 days.

Is Owner Responsible for Tenants' Property?

Q: Several units in an apartment building I own suffered damage in the earthquake. I have managed to make arrangements for repairs and to control the major problems, but two of my tenants feel that I should reimburse them for broken dishes, damaged furniture and food spoiled during the power outage after the quake. My expenses are already very high. Am I also liable for damage to their personal property?

A: Probably not. You can only be held liable for damage to tenants' property if the tenants can prove that your negligent maintenance of the building caused the damage. Otherwise, the tenants must pay to repair or replace their own damaged possessions. If your tenants have renter's insurance policies, they should file claims to see what compensation they are eligible to receive.

Manager Keeps Pet Deposit as Punishment

Q: According to my rental agreement, I was allowed to keep one cat inside my apartment, and I even paid an additional pet deposit. When I found an abandoned cat on a cold rainy day, I felt I had to take it in, but I did not tell my landlord of adopting this second pet. By pure happenstance, right before I moved out, the manager discovered that I had a second cat, and refused to refund my pet deposit. Although my pets did not create any damage, the manager decided to keep my $200 pet deposit because I was in violation of the rental agreement. Can I do anything to get back my money, or should I just write it off?

A: You were wrong in knowingly violating your rental agreement, and by doing so you jeopardized your tenancy. The manager could have asked you through a written notice to either move out or get rid of your second pet within three days, had he discovered sooner that you acquired a second cat.

However, if you left the apartment in good and clean condition, and your cats did not cause any damage, the manager cannot charge you a punitive fee. All deposits on rental property must be refundable, and they can be used only for due rent, necessary cleaning or damages beyond normal wear and tear caused by the tenant. Deposits cannot be used as fines for agreement violations.

Explain to your manager that according to California Civil Code Section 1950.5 he cannot use the deposit to punish you for violating the agreement. If he continues to withhold your deposit, you may contact your local mediation group for assistance. You may have to file an action in Small Claims Court to obtain a refund of your deposit.

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