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Tenant Should Pay the Rent, Then Await Refund


QUESTION: After 17 years in my Los Angeles apartment, I will be moving. I will leave the apartment with no holes in the walls or need for the landlord to paint it, and in just about the same condition it was when I got it, with one obvious exception.

The linoleum in the kitchen will have to be replaced. Mopping the floor over the years has caused it to wear through and warp, primarily around the stove and refrigerator.

Will I be required to pay to replace the linoleum floor in this apartment?

Also, when I moved into the apartment the rent was $180 a month. I paid first and last month's rent with a security deposit. Now, the rent is $450 a month.

Assuming that I will give the landlord a 30-day notice when I move, will I make out a check for $270 instead of $450 for the last month's rent?

ANSWER: Although there is some debate about the definition of "normal wear and tear," I would be floored if anyone didn't agree that this 17-year-old linoleum flooring is due to be replaced because of normal wear and tear. Clearly, it has outlived its useful life, and you cannot be charged to replace it.

As for the last month's rent, here is an opinion from Trevor A. Grimm, general counsel to the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles:

Effective Jan. 1, 1978 [about one year before your tenancy began], California law provided that any ". . . payment, fee, deposit or charge, including but not limited to an advance payment of rent," is defined as "security" deposit.

Therefore, under the law the full deposit, without deduction for other security, may be used by the owner for cleaning, damage repair or payment of unpaid rent.

Within 21 days of your vacating the apartment, the owner must account to you for the use of your total deposit, the deposit you made plus the "last month's rent." In other words, the designation of a last month's rent does not mean that is what it must be used for.

You should pay your full rent for the last month of your tenancy and then wait for your refund, unless the owner can be persuaded that you need the money to move and will allow you to use it toward the last month's rent.

Lease Protects Tenant From Early Rent Hike

Q: I signed a one-year lease for my Los Angeles apartment on March 1, 1996. My question: Can the owners of the property legally raise my rent by 3% on July 1, 1996, or are they precluded by the L.A. rent-control law from raising it until March 1, 1997?

A: The owners cannot raise your rent until March 1, 1997, but not because of the L.A. rent-control law. The one-year lease is the document that precludes them from raising the rent for one year.

Ex-Tenant Has Right to 'Bad Faith' Money

Q: After trying unsuccessfully to get my full security deposit refund check from my former Sherman Oaks landlord, I decided to write to you for advice. I moved out of the building and gave the proper 30-day's notice, and I had a spotless walk-through with the manager, who said the unit looked perfect.

Nevertheless, I received only a $500 refund, which represents only half of the deposit. I wrote a letter seeking a refund of the other half but was refused.

Next, I tried to sue the owner in Small Claims Court, but when I tried to have the owner served with legal papers, the address I had turned out to be a post office box. Since the building manager would not give me any information to help me find the owner, I had the marshal's office serve him.

By this time (six months later) the manager told the marshals that the building was no longer owned by the owner I was serving. I decided to cut my losses and cash the $500 check, but I was told that the account is closed. The bank that issued it will not give me any other information about the owner.

Is there anything I can do to get my deposit back? I think that the name of the company that owns the building is still the same, even though the former owner sold it. Can I file suit on the new building owner?

A: Again according to Grimm, under California Civil Code section 1561, if the manager signed the agreement for the owner without disclosing the name and street address of the owner, the manager is liable to perform the owner's obligations. That means that you may make your claim against the manager directly. If your agreement was oral, the manager must give you the above information, in writing, on written demand by you.

This section also is enforceable against any succeeding owner or manager, meaning that the successor owner must give the name and address of the former owner or he, too, may be liable to perform his obligations.

In your case, it appears that you have the right to a refund of your deposit plus a $600 penalty for "bad faith" withholding of your refund, at the discretion of a Small Claims Court judge, in addition to any actual damages you sustain because of the wrongful withholding.

Kevin Postema is the editor of Apartment Age magazine, a publication of Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles, an apartment owners' service group. Mail your questions on any aspect of apartment living to AAGLA, 12012 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025.

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