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Deposit Can Be Used for Cleaning

November 03, 1996|KEVIN POSTEMA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Postema is the editor of Apartment Age magazine, a publication of AAGLA, an apartment owners' service group

QUESTION: I recently moved from the Woodland Hills apartment where I lived for eight years. The apartment was left clean, and the resident manager acknowledged that fact. Now I'm being told that a portion of the security deposit was kept because of a clause in the lease.

The clause says, "After surrender of the possession of the premises, lessee agrees that the security deposit will be applied by lessor, if necessary to: (a) Clean the apartment, including the carpets and drapes. . . ."

My contention is that the manager is saying that even though I was a good tenant and the place was left clean, it is company policy to keep a portion of the deposit for cleaning. Is this right?

ANSWER: Over the last month, I have received a few letters from readers who went to Small Claims Court and got decisions from judges who said that cleaning of apartments is "normal wear and tear" and cannot be deducted from security deposits.

Nevertheless, California state law specifically allows landlords to deduct money from security deposits for cleaning. It says that if you don't leave the apartment when you move out as it was when you moved into it, a landlord can deduct the actual costs of cleaning to get it back to that condition.

If your property manager paid money to have the unit cleaned when you moved out to get it back to its original condition, the cleaning costs are legal.

If the manager deducted the cleaning costs from your deposit merely because the lease says that the company "may" do so, and no money was paid to anyone to clean the unit, you got a dirty deal on cleaning.

Proving Landlord at Fault May Be Difficult Q: I recently was awakened at 5:30 a.m. by the sound of the smoke alarm in the Malibu condo (now condemned) I formerly rented. My 16-year-old daughter and I ran out the door of the smoke-filled condo and then saw 10-foot flames coming from the window of the condo next door, where the fire started.

By the time the Fire Department put the fire out, all four condos in the building were burned out, and no one was allowed to return except under strict supervision to remove a few personal belongings.

When I moved in, I was told that I should not use the lower oven because it overheated. The fire was determined to have been caused by faulty wiring in the lower oven of the unit next-door to mine. Fire damage was estimated at more than $1 million.

I wrote to the landlady to ask for relocation expenses and for money to clean the extensive smoke damage to my antique furnishings, couches and rugs. Her insurance company replied saying that they were not liable. I believe that the homeowners were negligent because they knew that there were problems with the ovens and made no attempt to rectify them.

I have spoken to a couple of lawyers, but they say that we have no cause unless we were injured. I cannot believe that the law requires me to accept this as bad luck. Is there anything that I can do?

A: It is true that you can sometimes successfully sue someone for damages occurring from a problem about which they had advance knowledge and did not act to correct. Unfortunately, the best way to find out whether you can successfully sue is to "talk to a couple of lawyers."

Even though you have already talked to a couple of lawyers, you might try talking to a couple more. If the owner or occupant of the adjoining unit had knowledge of an oven defect, the Fire Department report would seem to support your claim of negligence against them.

Beyond that, if no lawyer will take your case, you can sue in court in pro per, acting as your own lawyer.

I would not recommend that in any forum except Small Claims Court, where, as you can tell from the previous question, judges sometimes interpret the laws differently than the state Legislature or other courts do.

For future reference, you should buy a renter's insurance policy to protect your personal property. They are inexpensive, usually unaround $300 a year, and would have provided the needed fire insurance to pay for your damages.

Proving Landlord Is at Fault--Scene II Q: I live in an apartment complex in Pasadena, and recently there has been a leak from the ceiling directly above my assigned parking space. This leak causes serious water stains on my car that are not removed via ordinary washing.

I have already sent a letter to the management company seeking to either have the leak repaired or my parking space reassigned, but my question concerns the bill for the polishing of these stains. If I send them a bill, do they have to pay?

A: Probably not, unless they had advance knowledge that the pipe might leak and did nothing about it. (See previous question.) However, they may pay the bill (it shouldn't be a lot of money for car polishing) in the interests of good customer relations. Send the bill and see what happens.

Otherwise, as I recommended to the previous reader, your best chance at recovering anything would be to sue in Small Claims Court.


Postema is the editor of Apartment Age magazine, a publication of AAGLA, 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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