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Bounced Checks Change Rules


Question: I have been renting the same apartment for about five years and am usually on good terms with my owner. Though current on my rent, I am guilty of bouncing several rent checks during the last year.

Although I have paid all bank fees incurred by management, I have been told that my personal checks will no longer be accepted for payment of rent. I must pay with a certified check or money order.

Can a landlord arbitrarily determine what forms of payment will be accepted on a tenant-by-tenant basis? Is there a time limit?

Answer: You ask whether the landlord can "arbitrarily" determine the form of rent payment. Those several bounced checks make the landlord's choice of certified check or money order anything but arbitrary.

Ultimately, a landlord is allowed to determine the method of payment of rent on a tenant-by-tenant basis. And remember, if you had not given him the bad rent checks in the first place, this would not have come up.

In a month-to-month tenancy, a landlord can change the terms of a tenancy with a 30-day written notice. Under rent control, certain significant terms of a tenancy, like the "term" defining the amount of rent, cannot always be changed. Even without rent control, it is generally more difficult to change the terms of a lease, but it can be done if the proper language is included in the lease.

For instance, both the month-to-month and long-term lease agreements of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles contain a sentence that says, "If renter's check is returned 'NSF,' [for insufficient funds], renter shall pay a returned check charge, and owner may demand that future rent payments be made by cashier's check or money order." If you have such a lease, the owner can easily change the term governing the method of payment as outlined in the lease.

Even if your lease does not have that language, the landlord could add it to your lease at renewal time. There is no time limit on how long you can be required to pay the rent by money order or cashier's check, however, if you pay it on time for a year or so, the landlord might be inclined to reconsider his position.

Rent Control Requires 2% Interest on Deposit

Q: I moved into my L.A. city apartment in 1998. The rent was $600 a month with a $600 security fee. Now the rent is $827 a month. Is there a limit to the rent on my apartment? Should I be getting interest on my security deposit?

A: Your letter says you were charged a $600 "security fee." I hope that's not true because security fees are illegal. A fee is a nonrefundable charge that you pay. You probably were charged a $600 refundable security deposit. If not, you should talk to the landlord about it.

You also ask if you should be receiving interest on your security "deposit," which I presume to be the same $600 security fee. You are entitled to interest (currently 2% annual simple interest with a one-year minimum tenancy required to qualify) on your security deposit if you live in a rent-controlled apartment unit.

Many apartments are exempt from rent control if they are classified as new construction or luxury units or have had major renovation work.Finally, you ask if there is a limit on the amount of your rent. Although it's probably not what you have in mind, there is a limit on the amount of any rent, or price, that can be charged for any product or service. If your apartment is worth $1,200, it probably will eventually rent for that amount. If it is only worth $827, what you pay now, the rent probably won't go up.

People, Not Possessions, Determine Crowding

Q: I live in Culver City. Can displacing a tenant's belongings to conduct necessary work make a unit legally uninhabitable as a result of crowding because the tenant has an unusual number of belongings in the unit? Also, do I understand correctly that tenants are entitled to recover only unused rent for a period of time that the premises are not legally habitable and that the landlord is not responsible to reimburse their costs of staying elsewhere during this time?

A: The standard used to determine crowding in apartments is not affected by a tenant's belongings. Rather, it is based upon the square footage of the apartment and the number of tenants occupying that square footage. Belongings don't come into play at all.

Landlords who use leases and rental agreements that specify that they are liable only for the unused rent during uninhabitable times of repairs or renovations owe only the unused rent amounts. For instance, if the rent is $900 a month ($30 a day), and the apartment is uninhabitable of five days, the rent credit is $150 ($30 a day times five days).


Kevin Postema is the editor of Apartment Age magazine, a publication of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles, an apartment owners' service group, and the 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 questions or comments to AAGLA, care of Kevin Postema, 12012 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles CA 90025, or send e-mail to

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