Question: I rent a unit at a small apartment complex. I paid an $800 security deposit, and my monthly rent is $600. I will be vacating my apartment soon and have become aware that the owner has a poor reputation for the handling of security deposits.
There are unpaid court judgments from vendors and suppliers, plus unpaid judgments owed to tenants for bad-faith retention of security deposits. I am concerned that I will not get my security deposit. What can I do?
Property manager Robert Griswold replies:
This is something all renters should consider before moving out regardless of the reputation of the owner.
I would suggest that you contact the owner in writing about your concerns. Ask that a representative either walk through the unit a couple of weeks before your scheduled move or at least provide you with written requirements to receive your security deposit back.
Of course, these requirements must conform to California Civil Code 1950.5, whereby you are responsible for repairing any damage beyond ordinary wear and tear, plus any cleaning necessary. Also, you must have paid your rent and any other legally allowed charges in full.
You should also request in writing a final walk-through of the unit upon move-out and have the owner give you an opportunity to correct any potential deductions.
Though not legally required to do a walk-through, most reputable owners either routinely do this or will upon request. As a precaution, I would also suggest that you take pictures and have witnesses.
You should have a written statement as to the condition of the rental unit upon your move-in. This can be important to rebut any damage claims by the owner.
Helping Your Landlord Fool the Bank Is Fraud
Q: I have recently rented a condo and have been approached by my landlord with this situation: My landlord must refinance the condo and will receive better terms if she gets an "owner-occupied" loan. To assist her, she has asked me to transfer the utility bills back into her name so that she can use them as proof to the lender that she is living at the condo. What liability, if any, will I incur if I go along with this proposition?
Ted Smith, principal in a law firm representing landlords, replies:
You don't want to be a part of this scheme. But try to remain neutral. That way, you may be able to stay on good terms with your landlord even though you're not willing to lie for her.
Steven R. Kellman, director of the Tenants' Legal Center in San Diego, replies:
The act of lying to a bank to obtain a lower interest rate is illegal. What the landlord is attempting to do is commit a fraud upon her lender (the bank).
This action may result in civil and even criminal penalties. If the tenant knowingly takes part in this action to "assist" the landlord, the tenant may be equally guilty in the eyes of the law.
The biggest favor the tenant can do for the landlord here is to advise the landlord to simply tell the bank the truth and avoid the risk of some potentially serious penalties.
The landlord may become angry at a tenant's refusal to participate in such a scheme and retaliate by trying to evict the tenant. This would be an illegal eviction based on unlawful retaliation against the tenant.
Manager Can't Hold Property Toward Rent
Q: I rented an apartment and fell behind on my rent. I was served the three-day notice and then an unlawful detainer complaint. I filed an answer, and a hearing date was set.
Unfortunately, I got into some trouble with the law (my manager called the police) and I am now in jail, so I missed the hearing. I had my mother go by the apartment and she indicates that the unit was empty.
I don't know where my personal property was taken, as the manager is apparently in custody of my possessions and has not told me where they are. Can they do that?
First, the good news. You have the right to get your possessions from the apartment manager. You might owe the manager back rent, but the manager may not hold your personal property as "ransom" until you pay it off.
The law requires her to follow a certain procedure in handling your personal property after she recovers possession of the premises. If she fails to follow the procedure and just throws your property away, you could go to court to win a judgment for the value of your personal property.
In all likelihood, the court entered a judgment against you granting the landlord possession of the premises and back rent.
You should make immediate arrangements to take care of this judgment so it doesn't go on your credit report. If there was no damage to the unit, your security deposit will be credited against the amount owed in the judgment.
This column is written by property manager Robert Griswold, host of "Real Estate Today!" (KSDO-AM , 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays), and attorneys Steven R. Kellman, director of the Tenants' Legal Center, and Ted Smith, principal in a law firm representing landlords. For questions, write to Rental Roundtable, Real Estate section, L.A. Times, Times Mirror Square, L.A., CA 90053. Or you may e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org.