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Act with care to spare your security deposit

October 13, 2002|H. May Spitz | Special to The Times

People worry about the refunding of their security deposit. Will the deposit be returned in full or will there be controversy over its disbursement? Will it arrive at all and for what amount?

Topping the list of deposit deductions is damage. The law allows for tenant "wear and tear" but does not define it. Most agree wear and tear is usually gradual and comes from normal residential use. Damage is inflicted.

For example, a worn-out walk pattern on the kitchen floor may be normal wear and tear. Burn marks, rips or furniture scrapes are damage. A door removed and carefully stored may be acceptable. A door missing is not.

Missing fixtures are usually considered damage. One resident removed all the new screens to brighten up the unit. At move-out the screens were nowhere to be found, and the cost of replacement was deducted from her deposit. Older screens could be pro-rated.

Original blinds, carpets, light fixtures -- even if replaced with something nicer and then only with permission -- should be safely stored if removed.

One tenant wanted to redecorate and replaced the cabinet handles to match his modern decor. The problem? When asked to put back the original handles at move-out, the tenant sheepishly admitted they were tossed out. Damage deduction? Yes. The old handles were gone, the new handles were installed with the wrong-sized screws and soon fell out.

Worn-out keys? Not usually a tenant's fault. Broken key inside the lock because you twisted the device too hard? Your fault.

Carpet worn out after several years is normal. Permanent stains, such as juice or burns, are not.

One tenant asked for all new drapes at move-in. While not legally required, window coverings are a nice touch. A year later, the tenant and her pet cat moved out. The drapes now sported small pinholes.

Wear and tear, or damage? Damage, since the 1-year-old drapes weren't worn out, they were clawed. Sun damage would have been acceptable; pet damage was not.

Most leases prohibit changes or alterations, such as painting, unless approved in writing. Some tenants paint anyway, figuring that it's OK if they put the color back to the original when they move out.

But before you pick up a paint brush, pick up a pen and get written, specific approval from the landlord. Getting permission from the final party who writes deposit checks is the best insurance.

Permission isn't always enough. Beautiful designer colors graced a once dull kitchen and bath, thanks to the tenant's great taste. The problem? Besides requiring several coats to cover, the new paint, though lovely, was water-based. Water-based paint is made to cover water-based surfaces. Kitchens, bathrooms and woodwork are usually painted with oil-based paint to repel moisture.

Apply water-based paint over oil-based and you get damage. The paint won't stay on for long. Amateur paint jobs may need professional help, not only to restore original color, but also original condition as well.

Original paint that has cracked or faded over time is usually normal, while crayon or pen marks are obvious damage. What about nail holes or sun patterns under a painting? Publications suggest life spans for carpet, paint and drapes run anywhere between two and seven years. Basically, the longer you've lived in a place, the more likely items will be considered "worn."

My advice? Document wear and tear, taking pictures at move-in and move-out. Think of them as "before" and "after" pictures -- before there's any problem. If you want to decorate, make it portable. Area rugs, paintings and designer sheets are yours to buy and keep.

If you damage something, come clean. Ask the landlord if you should fix it and what to do to repair the damage. Respect the property and try to keep wear and tear from damaging your deposit.


H. May Spitz is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. Reader comments may be sent to

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