The permanent change of station season is upon us, meaning many of us will be packing our bags and moving to the next assignment. Relocating can be an expensive process, so every little bit of cash helps. One source of cash you might be expecting is that large security deposit you put down when first moving in to your old apartment. It’s a great feeling when you receive a full security deposit back. On the other hand, it’s a terrible feeling when your landlord returns only a fraction of the deposit. What can the landlord legally charge from your security deposit? What can you do to get the most back from your deposit? We turned to the California Department of Consumer Affairs for guidance.
According to the DCA, California law specifically allows the landlord to use your security deposit for cleaning and repairing if you cause damage to the apartment or leave it less clean than when you first moved in. The landlord may also deduct from the security deposit any unpaid rent. Does this mean the landlord can charge you for everything? Far from it. A landlord can withhold from the security deposit only those amounts that are reasonably necessary for the above purposes. The security deposit cannot be used for repairing defects that existed before you moved in, for conditions caused by normal wear and tear while you were living there, or for cleaning your apartment if you leave it as clean as when you first moved in.
Unfortunately, the terms “reasonably necessary” and “normal wear and tear” are vague and mean different things to different people. Therefore, the following suggestions are offered by the DCA as practical guides when dealing with security deposit issues:
A landlord may properly deduct from your security deposit to make the apartment as clean as it was when you moved in. A landlord cannot simply charge you for cleaning carpets, drapes, walls, or windows in order to prepare the apartment for the next renter. Instead, the landlord must look at how well you cleaned the apartment, and may charge cleaning costs only if you leave the apartment less clean than when you first moved in.
Normal wear and tear to carpets, drapes and other furnishings cannot be charged against your deposit. “Normal wear and tear” includes simple wearing down of carpet and drapes because of normal use or aging, and includes moderate dirt or spotting. In contrast, large rips or stains justify a deduction from your deposit for repairing the carpet or drapes, or replacing them if that is reasonably necessary.
One common method of calculating the deduction for replacement prorates the total cost of replacement so that you pay only for the remaining “useful life” of the item that you have damaged or destroyed. For example, suppose you damage beyond repair an eight year-old carpet that had a life expectancy of ten years, and that a replacement carpet of similar quality would cost $1,000. The landlord could properly charge only $200 for the two years’ worth of life (use) that would have remained if you had not damaged the carpet.
How about repainting costs? Usually, you can assume that interior paint has a lifespan of two or three years. Applying the “useful life” method, the longer you stay in your apartment, the less the landlord can charge you for repainting. So let’s say you were not the cleanest tenant, and the walls require repainting after you move out. If you stayed less than six months, the landlord may charge you virtually the full cost of repainting. However, if you stayed for over 2 years before moving out, the landlord may not charge you at all for repainting, because the unit would require repainting regardless of how well you maintained it (assuming a two year paint lifespan).
Generally, minor marks or nicks in walls are the landlord’s responsibility as normal wear and tear (for example, worn paint caused by a sofa against the wall). You should not be charged for such marks or nicks. However, a large number of holes or large marks on the walls or ceiling that require filling, patching or repainting, could justify withholding the cost of repainting from your deposit. In this situation, deducting for painting would be more likely to be proper if the apartment had been painted recently, and less likely to be proper if the apartment needed repainting anyway.
The DCA emphasizes that the above suggestions regarding cleaning and repair are not hard and fast rules. Rather, they are offered to help you and your landlord avoid or resolve security deposit disputes. On the other hand, the rules below defining how much a landlord can charge if you move out early due to a PCS or deployment are clearly defined under federal law.
Ordinarily, your landlord can charge to your security deposit unpaid rent if you leave before the lease expires. However, under the Service member Civil Relief Act, Airmen may terminate a lease any time after entering the military or after the date of their military orders. This right applies to Airmen who join the military after signing a lease, and to Airmen who sign a lease and then receive orders for PCS or deployment for at least 90 days. Does this mean that if you receive orders to PCS or deploy that you can leave immediately without paying additional rent? Unfortunately not.
Under the SCRA, you must give the landlord written notice of termination and a copy of your orders. You may personally deliver the notice to the landlord or agent, send the notice by private delivery service (such as FedEx or UPS), or send it by certified mail with return receipt requested. Proper termination relieves your dependents, such as a spouse or child, of any obligation under the lease.
If you pay monthly rent, termination takes effect 30 days after the next rent due date that follows delivery of the notice. So you must pay rent on a prorated basis up to the date that the termination takes effect. If you paid rent in advance for the period following the effective date of termination, the landlord must refund these amounts within 30 days after the effective date.
For example, let’s say you pay $600 rent on the tenth of each month under the terms of your lease. You pay the rent on June 10, and then give the landlord notice of termination on June 15th. The date that termination takes effect is August 9 (30 days after the July 10th rent due date). You must pay $600 rent on July 10th for the period from July 10th through August 9. By Sept. 8, the landlord must return any rent paid in advance for the period after the effective date of termination. The landlord also must return any “lease amounts paid in advance” (such as the unused portion of your security deposit) by Sept. 8.
Relocating can be costly, so don’t shortchange yourself by simply accepting whatever amount you receive back from your security deposit. Know legally what your landlord can or cannot charge, and you won’t be as frustrated or disappointed the next time you move out.
The information in this article was taken from the DCA’s legal guide publication entitled “California Tenants – A Guide to Residential Tenants’ and Landlords’ Rights and Responsibilities.” The publication may be found at the DCA’s website at: www.dca.ca.gov.