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Creating a Paper Trail Could Save Your Security Deposit


Question: We are from out of state and recently rented a townhouse and paid a $1,000 deposit to the owner. What is the California law on disposition of a renter's security deposit? Must it be deposited in an interest-bearing account until returned to the renter? I know that several Southern California communities have rent control, but we live in a community without rent control.

Attorney Ted Smith replies:

Absent rent control, California law is quite clear on rental security deposits. The landlord has the right to keep the money, and it can be commingled with the rental owner's other cash.

California continues to debate whether its landlords should be required to pay interest on residential security deposits, but at this point, there is no law requiring landlords to do so.

When you move, you will be entitled to return of your $1,000, but nothing more. From your deposit, the owner will have the right to deduct for three things: damages above ordinary wear and tear, reasonable cleaning expenses and any unpaid rent you may owe to the date of your termination.

Attorney Steven R. Kellman replies:

Smith is right about the fundamentals of the deposit law. What he hasn't told you is that the deposit law is abused by some landlords, who see this money as an additional source of income.

If a landlord with a 200-unit complex keeps an additional $300 of the deposit from each unit per year, he or she gets an additional $60,000 per year over and above the rent.

Because there is no requirement to hold the money in a separate account, landlords simply deposit the money into their own accounts. Once done, it is hard to undo, and landlords do not want to part with the money that was held (or spent) by them.

We've seen many instances in which landlords come up with any and all excuses to keep the money with suspicious claims of damages and cleaning charges. To protect yourself, do a thorough move-in inspection, noting all defects in writing. Have your unit professionally cleaned upon move-out with receipts to prove it.

No Settled Rule Defines Normal Wear and Tear

Q: I recently moved from my apartment after more than two years. The apartment was left in good shape and there is no excessive damage beyond ordinary wear and tear. The landlord called and said he will return my deposit minus the costs for cleaning and painting. A friend of mine claims that it is illegal to be charged for cleaning and painting because we rented for longer than two years. Is this true?

Kellman replies:

No. There is no such standard that shifts the burden of cleaning and painting to the landlord after a specific tenancy period. The general rule is that the longer you live in a place, the more it is expected that the landlords will have to paint at their own expense.

Two years is a reasonable period to expect the landlord to paint at his expense, but it is not a specific law. Some landlords use a sliding scale and prorate the expenses based on the length of the tenancy.

It is tough to get around the obligation of basic cleaning. Dirt knows no calendar. You should clean the place before moving out.

If something is stained because of age, wear or normal use, you should not be responsible for it. Some worn-out items just cannot be made to look new. Repair or replacement of the worn item should be paid for by the landlord if the wear was caused by normal use.

Property manager Robert Griswold replies:

Kellman is correct about the lack of any objective standard to determine exactly what constitutes damage beyond normal wear and tear. However, unless the quality of paint used in your rental unit is substandard, I disagree with Kellman about the reasonableness of having the landlord paint at his expense after only two years.

If your rental unit was completely painted upon your move-in and good quality materials and labor were used, the paint should last three to five years or even longer. And during your tenancy, even if the paint doesn't hold up well, remember that the owner is required to address only health and safety or habitability items, not cosmetic repairs.

Generally, paint is considered to be cosmetic. To determine the proper charge for your security deposit refund, the condition of the paint upon move-in, the length of your tenancy and the number of occupants are all factors that must be considered by the owner.

Condo Renter Harassed by Lower Unit's Owner

Q: I signed a one-year lease for a rental condo several months ago. From the first day I moved in, the neighbor who rents the unit below me has harassed and threatened me for making too much noise. I am almost never at home, so I don't understand where these alleged noises could be coming from. He has slipped threatening letters under my door and even called security.

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