Grand Theft Security Deposit
I volunteer for the San Francisco Tenants Union two days a week. Each shift runs about two hours. I have been doing this for several years. Every time I’m there, without exception, I speak to at least one tenant who moved out of his or her apartment and the landlord kept the security deposit—sometimes part of it, but most of the time, the whole freaking thing! I see the photos, the carpet cleaning bills and the polite requests for refunds. But the landlord had some remodeling he wanted to do at the tenant’s expense.
I’ve been keeping an informal tally of the money landlords retained in bad faith—that’s lawyerese for pinched, ripped off, stolen. I estimate that I see an average of about $3,000 each time I volunteer. That’s $300,000 per year that just one guy listening to tenants four hours a week knows about. And that’s just from the small percentage of tenants in San Francisco who find their way to the Tenants Union to find out about their rights. A jury in Oakland recently awarded tenants $5.5 million in punitive damages for a landlord’s theft of security deposits. My guess, based on personal experience, is that hundreds of millions of dollars have been pilfered…I mean retained…by landlords statewide!
What can you do as a tenant to stop it? Get familiar with California Civil Code §1950.5. The law provides that you should be able to get your deposit back if you leave the unit in substantially the same condition as you found it absent normal wear and tear. So how do you prove that?
• Take photos of the place before you move in.
• Inspect the unit with your landlord and fill out a move-in checklist delineating the condition of the unit like the kind you initial before you rent a car.
• Clean the oven. Landlords are drawn to ovens like Sylvia Plath, but for different reasons. Greasy, grimy ovens make great incriminating photos.
• Clean the refrigerator.
• Don’t leave garbage piled up around the garbage cans or leave a pile of trash in the street because you think someone might take it .
• Patch nail holes. Use light-weight spackle available in all paint and hardware stores and apply it with your finger not a putty knife. Putty knives leave big square swaths of material that emphasize the patch rather than minimizing it.
• Touch up the patches. Find some matching paint in the garage to touch up the patches. If you can’t find any, take a 2”x 2” sample from a low place in the wall and have the local paint store match the color.
• Inspect the unit with your landlord using a move-out checklist.
• Always, always take photos just before you leave the last time. I suggest that tenants take an establishing shot of each room and then take any detail shots. That way a third party can see things in perspective. Take lots of photos.
Civil Code §1950.5 provides for a move-out inspection to assess items to be cleaned or repaired to justify return of a tenant’s security deposit. I attended one the other day. Of course the landlord was okay with the peeling paint and mold in the shower because that was a condition in the unit when my client moved in, but when she pointed out some dust on the louvered closet doors and tisk tiskingly wagged her bony finger, I about hit the roof.
Yes, there will always be justifications for keeping your money. The landlord who charged $100 per hour to clean the unit or the guy who found the pubic hair on the hardwood floor, took a photo and blew it up as an 8 ½ by 11 for a trial—the ol’ Clarence Thomas defense.
A landlord is required by law to provide you copies of invoices from people who did repairs or cleaning in the unit. If the landlord provides receipts, call the vendors and ask them if they did the work. Sometimes the answer is, no that was just an estimate. Sometime it was work performed in other units.
What do you do when the landlord refuses to refund your security deposit? YOU SUE.
Civil Code §1950.5 also provides statutory penalties for two times the entire security deposit plus the money withheld in bad faith. Write the landlord a letter demanding your money and remind him that he could be liable for treble the amount he kept. Give him few days to pay. If he doesn’t pay, gather up your photos and other evidence and march down to court. Because it is likely you’ll be suing in small claims court, pick up a copy of Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court in California, by Ralph Warner for Nolo Press.
I’m usually not one to gin tenants up to sue. It’s a pain in the ass. But this is important.