More than half of San Diego County residents are renters and almost all have to put down a significant amount of money when they move into a new place.
The dreaded security deposit typically involves one month’s rent but there are also extreme cases of requiring first and last month’s rent up front.
Since 2003, I have lived in 19 apartments across 11 cities. Aside from having a pretty wild sight-seeing adventure, moving was always difficult and security deposits were a huge issue. There was always the anxiety of waiting to get my landlord to give the deposit back while trying to get enough money for my new place.
Recently, I had a Hillcrest property manager tell me I couldn’t get a $300 pet deposit back because it was nonrefundable. I informed her that was illegal in California and, eventually, the landlord got involved and I got the deposit back.
There are likely hundreds of renters across San Diego County having similar issues — especially with a historically low homeownership rate in the county. Landlords also need protection from nightmare tenants but, on the flip side, tenants fighting bad landlords may need additional money they don’t have for a legal battle.
What to do if your landlord won’t give the security deposit back
San Diego attorney Steven Davis said the California Civil Code on renting is like reading the instructions on the Monopoly game and getting a road map to victory.
In my case, I was able to text my landlord information from California Civil Code 1950.5 that informed him keeping a pet deposit was illegal. Then, he yielded and sent the full deposit to my new address. Realistically, it isn’t going to go that smoothly for everyone.
The next step is likely getting a lawyer and going to small claims court, where a tenant may be able to get up to twice the amount of the security deposit and interest. The lawyer will probably charge a flat fee of $150 to $400 to walk you through the process, Davis said. The lawyer can’t go to court with you, so he or she is basically just coaching you through the process. There will be additional costs at civil court, such as a $50 fee to file a claim for a security deposit that was more than $1,500 but less than or equal to $5,000. But, it might be worth it if you have a strong case.
The downside is it can take anywhere from one to three months to get a hearing in front of a judge — time a lot of renters don’t have while they are trying to come up with a security deposit for the next place.
What you need to know
California has strong consumer protection laws when it comes to tenants. Landlords have 21 days to return a security deposit after the renter has left. If they don’t send it in that time frame, your case is especially strong.
If the landlord took away money because they said the place was dirty — even though it wasn’t that bad — a tenant could also be successful in small claims court. The law says the landlord cannot take money away for “ordinary wear and tear,” so unless you put a hole in the wall, the landlord who fears litigation might want to avoid taking too much, or anything, for cleaning.
Davis said he has seen plenty of landlords try to “bag the money” in all sorts of way. He gave the example of a tenant moving into an apartment with 5-year-old drapes, but because he smoked in there a few times, the landlord decided to get new drapes. That could technically violate the normal wear and tear rule considering the drapes were old to begin with. In extreme cases, a landlord may try to recoup costs of a washing machine even though it would naturally wear down anyway.
“You’re obligated, at most, to restore, not obligated to replenish,” Davis said. “You don’t have to pay to them something that was their obligation to do.”
He said it helps to take photos of an apartment before you leave to prove the cleaning fee wasn’t necessary.
Is there any agency I can talk to?
There are a few local organizations that may be able to help with a security deposit. Some of them include Legal Aid Society of San Diego and San Diego Tenants United.
The Legal Aid Society of San Diego offers free help for low-income people struggling to get their security deposit back. If the tenant qualifies, based on income, health status, safety and other factors, they may be afforded free legal advice.
Exceptions are sometimes made, but individuals given legal aid usually must make no more than 125 percent above the federal poverty line. In San Diego, that’s a household income of around $15,000 a year for an individual. Federal poverty limits vary based on household side.
A grassroots effort in City Heights called San Diego Tenants United said it has had success recently writing letters and making phone calls on behalf of renters. Tenants United started as an effort to bring rent control to San Diego, holding a rally downtown in 2016, but soon had dozens of renters coming to them for help.
For the past few years, the all-volunteer group has put pressure on landlords by reaching out on behalf of a tenant, as well as directing renters to resources, such as the Legal Aid Society. It recently formed a tenants union dedicated to helping working class renters.
“Unfortunately, in San Diego — I don’t know if it is the same in the rest of California — people just expect not to get their deposits back,” said Tenants United organizer Rafael Bautista.
The Legal Aid Society also sends letters to landlords, which they say can effective in getting the deposit back and avoiding going to small claims.
“A lot of landlords don’t know the law, didn’t realize they didn’t apply it correctly or don’t have the documents to back up what they are deducting,” said Joanne Franciscus, senior attorney at Legal Aid.
What if my landlord says something is nonrefundable (like a pet deposit)?
California law says any fee charged by a landlord with the purpose to protect a landlord against damage to a property, such as a pet deposit, should be treated legally as a security deposit. California law does not allow for nonrefundable security deposits.
In my case, it turns out I did the correct thing by texting my landlord concerns about the pet deposit. Davis recommends text or emails with a landlord to better document what happened, as opposed to talking on the phone.
When you can’t get your security deposit back
Renters are not always innocent and there are plenty of horror stories of destroyed apartments. California courts say a security deposit can be used to cover damage to the property, cleaning, key replacement or back rent.
Still, if the landlord doesn’t follow the law, even a wrecked apartment means a deposit should be returned in full.
Franciscus, of Legal Aid Society, said tenants that don’t get an itemized list of damages from the landlord — giving them a chance to fix stuff — will still be entitled to their full deposit. That doesn’t stop a landlord from trying to go after them in small claims court, but legally speaking the landlord has forfeited their right to take the deposit.
Steps to take next time
In a perfect world, every rental lease would be reviewed by a lawyer before it is signed. In the real world, Davis said it is important to ask a potential landlord a lot of questions; Inquiries about mold, plumbing and other issues are usually a good idea.
Once a tenant signs, the best thing to do is to take plenty of pictures of the unit just in case a landlord attempts to charge for damage that is already there. Apartment website Trulia suggests downloading a rental inspection checklist to also note any problems to go along with photo documentation.
Other tips from Trulia include making sure to patch holes where pictures were hung, deep clean the refrigerator and request a final walk-through with a landlord.