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Landlord Drags Feet as Mildew Grows


Question: We are a family with two small children and we are renting a two-bedroom apartment in Pasadena. So far we are pretty unhappy with the place and the management. There are things that we requested to be fixed several times over the last three months, but we still have problems in the apartment.

To make matters worse, we recently found a big water puddle in one of our bedrooms resulting from the leaking of a cracked wall and water overflowing from the exterior rain gutter. We now have mold and mildew in the children's bedroom. The landlord finally sent someone to try to dry it up but still has not fixed the cracks. We can hardly sleep in that room because of the bad odor.

We want to get out of the lease and find a better place for our family. We would like to forfeit this month's rent but want to get our security deposit back. But the management says we have to pay rent for the three months remaining on our lease. What is your advice?

Property manager Robert Griswold replies:

Breaking a lease is always very risky. The landlord must be given reasonable opportunities to correct the problems. The civil code allows up to 30 days for some repairs, except for health and safety items.

I would interpret your mold-mildew problem as being a health risk requiring immediate attention. Unfortunately, it seems that you may be in for a long and frustrating battle based on the landlord's apparent lack of response. If you were to leave, the landlord can collect rent only until the unit is re-rented or the end of your lease (whichever comes first), and he must make reasonable efforts to re-rent the unit at the same or similar terms. In this tight rental market, you may be in good shape. But if the unit does not rent for any reason, you may have to resort to Small Claims Court to get your money back. Here is what I would suggest:

* Send a demand letter listing all of the problems and giving reasonable but short deadlines for the proper repair of each item.

* Indicate in the letter that failure to correct the items will lead you to seek cancellation of the remaining term of the lease based on breach of habitability.

* Indicate that even if the repairs are made, you will not be extending your lease.

* Take pictures and keep a brief diary in case legal action is required.

* Contact the local code enforcement or health department and/or your city councilman. Pasadena is fairly aggressive in this area, and the landlord will not want the city inspectors on his back.

Short-Term Renter Charged for Repainting

Q: I recently moved from an apartment complex in Glendale. The landlord sent my deposit refund and a "move-out report and refund statement."

I lived in this apartment for about four months. I was charged $157.49 for painting. I don't believe this is legitimate. I left that apartment cleaner than when I moved in, and the only thing that was wrong was some nail holes from pictures.

What can I do?

Attorney Steven R. Kellman replies:

I agree that being charged for painting after only four months is not right unless you caused excessive wear on the walls. Some nail holes should be expected.

A guideline suggested by some public housing agencies is that after three years of living in the unit, painting is a normal maintenance expense born by the landlord. For less than three years, the expense should be prorated for necessary painting.

If the unit truly needed painting (other than for some nail holes) after only four months, you may be responsible. If not, you may be the victim of an unfair business practice.

Some landlords use the deposit to improve the rental unit, instead of deducting only for legitimate cleaning, damages or painting. Landlords know that deducting extra money from a deposit can be very lucrative. If you did not cause the need for painting with excessive wear, you should demand the return of your money. If you are unable to resolve the matter informally, you can take the landlord to Small Claims Court.

Attorney Ted Smith replies:

Hold on, Kellman, what about those nail holes? You've also ignored the fact that the $157.49 certainly represents a prorate for a partial paint only.

As a landlord's attorney, I am not persuaded that nail holes in the walls should be "ordinary" wear and tear to be absorbed by the landlord. I believe the $157.49 charge against the deposit to be reasonable.


This column is written by property manager Robert Griswold, host of "Real Estate Today!" (KSDO-AM [1130], 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays), and attorneys Steven R. Kellman, director of the Tenants Legal Center, and Ted Smith, principal in a law firm representing landlords.

If you have a question, send it to Rental Roundtable, Real Estate section, L.A. Times, 202 W. 1st St., L.A., CA 90012. Or you may e-mail them at rgriswold.latimes@retoday Questions should be brief and to the point and cannot be answered individually.

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