Q. My landlord is not returning my security deposit. I live in California and I leased my apartment from a landlord that uses a very unprofessional property management company. Here is my situation:
When I first moved in I signed a one-year lease. I paid a pretty hefty security deposit. When I moved out, I received a letter from the landlord’s property management company stating that they had deducted nearly all of my security deposit for making repairs and for cleaning the apartment and that my refund would be $23.00, which they included by check in the letter to me. The property management company claimed there were cracks in the walls (it’s a very old apartment!) that needed to be repaired and that the bedroom carpet needed to be replaced. I am livid about the situation and want to know my legal rights.
A. Unfortunately, your predicament is a familiar one in landlord tenant law. Most disputes arise out of the tenant’s right to receive her security deposit back less the cost of reasonable repairs for damages actually caused by the tenant during her tenancy and which was not the result of normal wear and tear.
In many jurisdictions, including California, a landlord is legally justified to use a tenant’s security deposit for the following reasons: for unpaid rent and for cleaning and repair of the apartment for the purpose of bringing the apartment back to the state of cleanliness it was when the tenant first took possession of the unit – save and except for damage caused by normal wear and tear that would be reasonably expected during the subject lease term.
Under your specific circumstances, the management company, representing the landlord, can only deduct from the security deposit those amounts that were reasonably necessary to make the repairs and for the cleaning of the apartment (above and beyond normal wear and tear) – but no more. Also, you are entitled to receive a full explanation of all cleaning and repair fees deducted from your security deposit and it must include for your records copies of the actual receipts for the cleaning and repair services rendered on your specific unit.
Cracks In The Walls
Unless you specifically created the cracks in the walls, the landlord is prohibited from using your security deposit for the repair of defects including normal settling of the structure and the natural cracking of the walls it can cause. Further, the natural settling of a structure is almost always considered as a form of normal wear and tear and should not be the subject of a security deposit deduction. If you did not cause it, you are not responsible for paying for the repair.
Unless you stained the carpet beyond repair (and this rarely occurs) the management company has no legal right to deduct from your security deposit the cost of new carpet.
If you left the carpet in a condition that was worse then when you first took possession of it, the most you are responsible for is a carpet cleaning deduction. However, under certain circumstances, such as permanent damage that may have been caused by a pet, the management company may be within its rights to replace the portion of the carpet that had been damaged, leaving, if possible, the rest of the carpet intact.
Under California law and in many other jurisdictions, there is what is known as the “useful –life” rule. The rule states that normal wear and tear to carpets and drapes, as well as other types of furnishings, cannot be charged back to the tenant where the change in its condition has been caused by normal wear and tear including natural aging, normal dirt and blotching of the carpet and drapes.
How To Avoid These Situations
Your situation might have been avoided if there had been a thorough pre-occupant walk-through of your unit which included photographs and a written itemization of the apartments pre-existing condition.
Small Claims Court Option
If you believe you have been cheated by the landlord or the landlords property management company, and after trying to resolve the dispute informally but without satisfaction, your best option would be to take your case to small claims court to recover your security deposit.