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Ex-Tenant Wants Deposit Refunded


QUESTION: In 1988, I rented a Hollywood apartment with a move-in cost of first and last month's rent and a security deposit equal to one month's rent. The total was more than $3,000.

In 1996, a new owner converted my unit to condos. I moved out with one month's notice on Jan. 31, 1997. So far I have been unable to get a deposit refund.

What should I do now? Also, can I receive interest on both the last month's rent and security deposit?

ANSWER: First, "last month's rent" is defined as a security deposit by state law. The owner owes you interest on the last month's rent if he owes you interest on the deposits.

The building or unit may be exempted from the Los Angeles rent control law due to renovations, luxury rents or new construction, though.

You may verify registration of a rental unit by phoning L.A.'s Rent Stabilization Division (RSD) at (213) 847-7490.

If you qualify for the interest payment, your next step is to write a letter to the owner or his agent regarding the deposit refund and interest payment. (I am assuming that you already have called and talked to them about the refund.)

In your letter, remind them that they are required to return deposit money, or an accounting of how it was used, within 21 days after you terminate the tenancy. Remind them, too, that the statutory penalty for wrongful withholding of a security deposit refund is up to $600.

As always, the owner may deduct money from the deposit and interest to pay for cleaning, damages above and beyond "normal wear and tear" and unpaid rent.

If your letter fails to produce results, your last option to collect the money is through a lawsuit in Small Claims Court. For more information, call (213) 974-6131.

Broken Mailboxes a Problem for Tenants

Q: I have lived in my Los Angeles apartment for the past 27 years and I would like to know where to report a defective mail receptacle. There have been times when the mail carrier will not leave the mail because some of the locks are broken.

The post office has left two notices to fix the locks. The landlord, who does not live on the property, has replaced them with inferior locks that break away very easily. He refuses to replace the mail receptacle with a new one.

I have talked to the post office and they tell me that they cannot force the landlord to repair or replace it. They are, they say, not required to leave mail in an unlocked mailbox, however.

As it stands, we tenants have to pick up our mail at the post office. Is there anything we can do to solve this dilemma?

A: The United States Postal Service cannot require the owner to fix the problem, according to Edna Reynolds, a Postal Service senior delivery and retail analyst.

"There is nothing that we can legally do to force the owner to comply," Reynold said. "We can notify both the tenants and owner of the problem and hold the mail at the post office for 30 days.

"That's what we do because if we send it back it's the tenants who suffer and that isn't fair.

"We'll give the owner that length of time to fix the problem. We also allow the tenants to pick up the mail at the postal station, although we don't advocate that everybody should do that.

"If all else fails and the owner won't fix it, we recommend that the tenants get a postal box."

Also, if the unit is rent controlled by the city of Los Angeles, you are allowed to reduce rents by the value of the reduced service. This can be a great motivator for getting things done. See the answer to the first question in this month's column to find out whether your unit is controlled.

If it is, the owner and you should mutually agree to the amount of any rent reduction, which may be the cost of renting a postal box.

Getting Their Feet Wet in Rental Waters

Q: We are considering renting out our Newport Beach home when we move to a new one in the near future. We are not sure how to go about this. Any advice or information would be appreciated. For instance, where do we get rental applications or contracts? What other considerations are there?

A: There are several keys to unlocking the mysteries of successful landlording, which is what you'll be doing. Even though describing all of them is beyond the scope of this column, here are a few primary considerations:

Tenant screening is a must. Up-to-date, legally enforceable contracts, like leases and notice to quit or pay the rent, will enable you to enforce agreements and win in court, should you ever have to. Also critical is knowing how, and when, to serve forms.

As a beginner, there is no way to keep abreast of all these nuances and legalities without help. You should join an apartment association. For nominal annual dues you will be able to screen tenants and get free legal forms.

Postema is the editor of Apartment Age magazine, a publication of AAGLA, an apartment owners' service group, and manager of public affairs for the California Apartment Law Information Foundation, which disseminates information about landlord/tenant law to renters and owners in California. Mail your questions on any aspect of apartment living to AAGLA, 12012 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025.

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