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RENTAL SAVVY

Walk-throughs help prevent arguments at move-out time

August 24, 2003|H. May Spitz | Special to The Times

Moving in and moving on are occasions to use written walk-through or inspection forms.

Why both? Like any rental item being returned after use, a record of "before" condition can help prevent "after" arguments.

While initial walk-throughs are not required by law, the lack of them can lead to landlord-tenant disagreements at move-out and deposit-disbursement time.

Walk-through forms have been around for a long time, but their use was voluntary. California state law altered that somewhat in January, when Civil Code Section 1950.5 (f) was enacted. As a result, departing tenants can exercise a walk-through option two weeks before they move out. The landlord is required to inform a departing tenant in writing of the right to this 14-day pre-move-out inspection.

Security deposits cannot be used for repairing defects that existed in the unit before the renter moved in, for conditions due to wear and tear or previous tenancies, or for cleaning a unit beyond the condition accepted at move-in, according to the code. The problem is: Who remembers the condition of a place at move-in?

Complicating matters, wear and tear is not defined by law. Landlords and tenants often clash over the condition of the unit and resulting charges at move-out.

Some tips to help reduce friction and protect yourself from overcharges:

* Start at the beginning. Do an inventory at move-in or as soon as possible when taking possession of the place. If possible, do the initial walk-through with whoever will one day be refunding the deposit, such as the manager or owner.

* Get a pen ready. The inspection should be in writing, using an inventory checklist, such as the one available from the California Department of Consumer Affairs (www.dca.ca.gov/legal/landlordbook/checklist.pdf).

* Take it from the top. Included in the list are such basics as kitchen, living room and bedrooms, with their paint, floor coverings and fixtures among the many items to note. Start from the ceiling condition and work your way down to the floor covering.

* Be specific. For example, a scale of 1 to 10 may be helpful in classifying the condition of items subject to wear-and-tear dispute, such as carpets and paint. New paint would rank a 10 (as in 100% perfect), while a paint job half-worn would rank a 5.

* Don't be shy. Ask the landlord what items he or she most commonly deducts for in security deposits. Some owners don't care about paint condition, while others may charge for any nick or scratch. Get their opinion of "normal wear and tear" when you move in and avoid the argument at move-out time. Defining and determining priorities is always a good idea.

* Take note: Since it is not legally required, some landlords won't do an initial walk-through. If the landlord does not agree to participate, do the inventory with a witness, and take photographs for your file.

* Don't let repairs break you. Repairs found at move-in (or anytime) should be written out and given to the landlord, along with a polite request and range of times best for repairs. Keep a copy to document if the rental was taken with any defect or repair. Taking the blame for a broken window at move-out is frustrating if the window was cracked at the start and never repaired.

* Ask what's new. Check to see if any items are brand-new, including floor coverings or appliances. New items may need special care.

* Compare notes. Two weeks before moving, pull out the initial inventory and compare items with the landlord. Remember that cracked window? Torn linoleum? Be sure the owner has a copy of the initial walk-through at move-out inspection time.

* Didn't fill out an initial walk-through? Existing tenants should fill out an inventory as soon as possible and file it away with the lease.

* Can't find the lease? The law allows annual requests. Kindly ask for a replacement copy from your landlord.

Common sense and fairness should prevail for both sides. Just taking a few minutes of your time may make a difference when it is time to get your deposit back.

H. May Spitz can be reached at hmayspitz@aol.com. No attachments please.

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