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Landlord May Not Be Liable for Fire


QUESTION: I rent an apartment in Sherman Oaks. A couple of weeks ago, we had a fire in the carport of our 12-unit apartment complex. According to the Fire Department, one of the cars ignited, eventually burning down the small five-car carport and the storage area with all of its contents.

Inside my locked storage closet, I had a new mountain bike and camping and scuba equipment that cost me several hundred dollars. My landlord says he is not liable for the damage because it falls under the renters' insurance policy that I don't have.

The car fire was someone else's fault, not mine, and the landlord never checked the contents of the other storage closets that were full of flammable materials: old records, books, feathers and newspapers. The Fire Department reprimanded him for neglect.

Is he liable for creating a "fire nest" like that and for any of the damage that he caused?

ANSWER: According to Trevor Grimm, general counsel to the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles, "Your landlord's liability, if any, would have to be based on negligence. It means a breach (failure to act prudently) of the duty of responsible care owed by the landlord to the tenants, coupled with foreseeable damage resulting from the breach.

"Your landlord's duties include the duty not to create or allow, after given notice of one, a 'fire nest' in the garage.

"However, the facts you pose do not show that the owner created or knew of any fire nest, or that he started the fire. The Fire Department's admonition after the fact is not evidence of prior knowledge. He does not appear to be liable for damages."

I'm not sure what the Fire Department wants the owner to do in the future. The owner does not have the duty, or right, to inspect your apartment or storage unit. Also, who knows when old records or books are OK to store and when they become fire hazards, if ever?

If the Fire Department reprimanded your landlord for the negligence of your fellow tenants (the real culprits), you probably have no claim. If the owner was cited for a code violation, you may have claim.

Some Security Deposits Can Earn Interest

Q: I manage an apartment building in Van Nuys, and I would like some information about the laws affecting security deposits and interest on them. Do apartment owners in Los Angeles have to pay interest on security deposits? If so, how much and how often?

A: There is an L.A. city law requiring landlords of rent-controlled properties to pay interest to their renters on their security deposits, which include last-month's-rent deposits.

The law does not affect any properties that are not in the city (Van Nuys is within the city limits) or any properties that are not rent controlled.

These exempted properties include "luxury" rental housing (as defined by the city), new construction (first certificate of occupancy issued after Oct. 1, 1978) or rental housing buildings or units exempted from the ordinance for other reasons.

To find out whether the property in which you live is rent controlled, you can call the city's rent-control registration office at (213) 847-749O.

If the property is rent controlled, the owner must pay you 5% interest on your deposits after a minimum of 12 months' residency. If you live in the unit for less than 12 months, the owner is not required to pay you any interest on your deposits.

If the owner owes you any interest payments, he is not required to make them until you move out of the unit or after five years of occupancy. The owner can, at his option, pay you annually or credit your rent in lieu of payment.

Renters Should Ask About Noise in Area

Q: I recently sold my house in Florida and rented a condominium here in Los Angeles. I paid first and last month's rent and one month's security deposit and signed a lease form. I recently received a copy of the lease and found out that I took over a former tenant's lease.

There is an auto shop nearby with a loud public address system that is very annoying. There also is a school with bells ringing and children screaming all day.

I think they should have told me about all of the noise before I moved in. I told them that I want to leave because of the noise, but they say they will sue me for the balance of the lease.

Can I get out of the lease since she didn't tell me about the noise? How can she allow the former tenant to break the lease and not me?

A: Had the owner or manager misinformed you about the noise, you might be able to break the lease. It sounds as if the subject didn't come up, so they didn't make any misrepresentation about it to you.

It is your responsibility to ask about something, such as noise, if it is important to you. You probably cannot break the lease because of the noise issue.

As for her allowing the former tenant to break the lease, she didn't. She allowed the former tenant to sublease the condo, which is required by state law. You too have the right to sublet the condo, but only to someone who meets the owner's criteria for renting, usually based upon their income and credit-worthiness.


Kevin 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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