Is Extra ‘Non-Refundable’ Deposit Legal?

Special to The Times; <i> This column is prepared by Project Sentinel, a rental housing mediation service in Sunnyvale, Calif</i>

QUESTION: My landlady finally agreed to my request to remove the wall-to-wall carpet and uncover the beautiful hardwood floor in my apartment. In return, she asked for a non-refundable deposit of $100, in addition to the deposit I paid when I moved in. She wants this extra money to cover what she calls “inevitable scratches and other damages to the floor.” Since this money was not included in our original agreement, does she have the right to charge me this fee?

ANSWER: A security deposit may be increased during a month-to-month tenancy, provided that a 30-day notice is given or that there is a mutual agreement and provided that the total amount does not exceed two months of rent at the current rate. However, according to California Civil Code, Section 1950.5, no part of the deposit can be considered as non-refundable. Landlords are permitted to deduct money from a security deposit at the end of a tenancy only for the following reasons: damages caused by tenants that are beyond normal wear and tear, unpaid rent and necessary cleaning. If none of these conditions applies, the tenant is entitled to a full refund of all money on deposit.

This may become an issue only when you move out and the landlady must deal with the refund of the deposit. If you do scratch or damage the floors, she’s entitled to charge you for the damages. If not, you will be entitled to a full refund, including the additional $100 added to your deposit.

Tenants Fear Having Disabled Neighbors


Q: I have decided to rent an apartment in my complex to three people with mental disabilities. The neighbors object to these new tenants because they fear for their own safety. I know the law states that I cannot discriminate against people with disabilities, but I am afraid I am going to lose good, longtime tenants if I ignore their complaints. What should I do?

A: The established tenants in your building who complain about the possibility of having disabled neighbors represent a part of the NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) Syndrome. These individuals believe that the neighborhood, or in this case, the apartment complex, will decline in respectability and take on an element of danger if people with mental disabilities move in. You may need to remind your established tenants that, as an owner, you are obligated to uphold state and federal law by renting to a diverse population of qualified renters, and that you are correct in welcoming these new tenants. It may help all involved to realize that, although people initially express concern, they usually adjust to the new circumstances after they have had a chance to know their new neighbors.

Some Suggestions for Apartment Sharing

Q: Although I prefer to live alone, I now need to get a roommate to help pay the rent. Do you have any suggestions about sharing an apartment?


A: First, you need to get your landlord’s approval, preferably in writing. If having a roommate is acceptable, your landlord may want to add the new person to your current rental agreement as an additional occupant or to create a new agreement naming both of you as tenants. Your landlord may also give you the option to sublet the apartment and assume all the responsibilities of a landlord for your new roommate. This means you and your roommate will have a separate rental agreement, your roommate will pay you rent, and you will pay the full monthly rent to the landlord. If you become your roommate’s landlord, you have certain responsibilities including providing proper notices for all rental agreement changes and respecting your roommate’s right to privacy. Be sure to do a credit check and collect a security deposit, even if the person is a friend.

Whether you are a landlord and tenant, or just roommates, it is important to lay down some basic ground rules. Establish a clear understanding about sharing food and utility expenses, overnight guests, parking, laundry, housecleaning rules and most importantly, agree in advance about which of you will move out if the agreement is not successful. These agreements should be in writing for everyone’s protection and will establish a business-like foundation for your new relationship.

Diverse Tenants Are a Challenge to Manage

Q: Tenants in the complex I manage come from all over the world. As a result, I have had to try to resolve misunderstandings over everything from cooking odors and child-rearing practices to the appropriateness of performing various rituals on site.

Although I really enjoy working with such a diverse group of people, sometimes I feel that it was easier to be a manager when my tenants were more alike. I also worry that someone may accuse me of discrimination if I am not absolutely fair to everyone. Do you have any suggestions?

A: It sounds as if you are trying your best to be a fair and thoughtful manager. Continue to maintain your neutrality and encourage your tenants to identify why it is that other tenants’ lifestyles or cultural practices annoy or inconvenience them so that they may begin to work toward some resolution of specific problems instead of complaining about “differences” in general.

Cooperation and compromise are necessary ingredients in any community and you as a manager can be responsible for only part of this process. You have to deal with noise and parking complaints and other problems affecting the well being of the complex and its residents, but some of the issues you describe might well be referred to a community mediation or dispute resolution service. Encourage your tenants to use these services when they are unable to resolve a “neighbor to neighbor” problem for themselves.

For more complete information about good management practices as they specifically relate to discrimination in housing, contact your local fair housing agency.