Help me get my deposit back!
December 14, 2010 8:45 PM   Subscribe

Exlandlords not returning deposit and won't return calls. I have no copy of lease. Is there anything I can do?

My shady ex landlords will not answer or return my calls regarding my deposit. They were sketch enough that I have reason to believe that are purposely ignoring me and will never return it. I never got a copy of the lease despite multiple reminders (they kept saying they'll give me a copy but never did). It was month to month rent plus a deposit and I moved out after 1.5 months even though I paid for 2 months due to the weird living environment. It's been 1 month since I moved out and 2 weeks since my paid months ended. I know they have 30 days to return my deposit. I have been calling just to check in and ask about it but they ignore my calls. I know it was a stupid situation for me to put myself in-- yes lesson learned. But is there any way to fix the current situation? I have no written document and this is in California. It was a couple renting out a room in their house but I did sign a lease. Do I have any legal backing in this? Is there anything legal I can even threaten them with so they'll at least respond? Its only $300 so it's not a terrible amount. I would still love the money back because I'm a recent grad trying to make ends meet but it's not worth spending hundreds of hours and money on legal fees either.

Are there any legal avenues I can take? If not, can I report them or advertise somewhere so other people won't suffer the same fate (they seemed nice in the beginning and had me fooled). Or should I just chalk this up to costly experience?
posted by lacedcoffee to Law & Government (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If you have no lease you are pretty much SOL. Next time get a copy of whatever you've signed, and make sure the other party has signed as well.
posted by sanko at 8:58 PM on December 14, 2010

You should contact a renters-rights group in CA and ask for their assistance. They may be able to tell you where you can file a complaint, at least.
posted by emjaybee at 9:00 PM on December 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

One has to wonder if the landlord has been properly documenting that they've been renting out space like that. As in, not paying taxes or obtained appropriate permits for it. Do you have anything that documented your residing there? Like a utility bill, car loan, cell phone or your drivers license? All of which would help establish you actually living at the address.

I'd figure out what they could have been doing wrong and suggest to them it'd be cheaper to refund your due deposit. Then rat 'em out anyway.
posted by wkearney99 at 9:08 PM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

File in small claims court.
posted by pianomover at 9:14 PM on December 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm a recent grad trying to make ends meet but it's not worth spending hundreds of hours and money on legal fees either

They've probably made the same assessment of you, and figure they can just ignore you and keep the $300 and you won't bother pursuing it. West Coast business practices at their finest (East Coast would have been to guilt you for leaving and lie about damage to the property)

I'd talk to a local renters rights group and see if they can advise you on the law of the situation.

If you're interested is pursuing this, go to the house and have a (calm) discussion with them about it. In person (it's hard to ignore someone on your doorstep). Make it clear you're going to pursue this beyond what most people would consider reasonable, and if there was anything non-kosher about the rental from a legal perspective (again, renters rights groups can help on that) bringing them up in a vague, they-might-come-out-in-small-claims-court kind of way might be a jerky way of responding to their jerkiness.

The only leverage you have is their legal obligation to return the deposit and their desire to rent the property in the future. If you're not willing to apply that leverage they keep the money.
posted by alana at 9:18 PM on December 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses so far. Will look into renters association but further advice is appreciated. One thing that bothers me is that they now have a document with my signature. There were some fill in the blank writing on the lease. I'm concerned they'll try to doctor that up and make it seem like I signed something I didn't and squeezing more money out of me. Is that a possibility? Also I don't feel comfortable going to their residence in person. I want to use whatever leverage I have but not at expense of further liability or safety.

To answer another question: I don't have any documentation of living there besides an amazon purchase. I didn't trust them to get important mail to me.
posted by lacedcoffee at 9:26 PM on December 14, 2010

small claims court is designed for this kind of thing
posted by J. Wilson at 9:36 PM on December 14, 2010

In California it is 21 days - not 30.

You are woefully misinformed, but I think you know this. You have plenty of options. You are not SOL, although you are beginning from a little bit of a disadvantage.

Memail, please.
posted by jbenben at 9:52 PM on December 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

In California, landlords are required to return your deposit or send you an itemized list of deductions within 21 days. If they fail to do so, they may be liable for a multiple of the deposit amount - my friends in Oakland eventually recovered three times their deposit when their landlord missed the deadline. I would also recommend looking up local regulations that depending on your location may set additional requirements.
posted by zxcv at 9:58 PM on December 14, 2010

> Is there anything legal I can even threaten them with so they'll at least respond?

Sure, you can threaten them (in a manner of speaking) with small claims court and being more organized than they are.

Get yourself a little crash course in the relevant bits of your local tenant-landlord law, and then write a nice, polite, quite formal letter requesting the return of your security deposit by [date required by law], lest you be forced to seek a legal remedy. Send it via certified mail. Odds are you'll get your check at the 11th hour on the deadline.

I've had some messy lease-endings with some jerky landlords, but I have to say that none went to the trouble of framing me up by falsifying a document. That's a lot of work for a slacker unless they are truly a con artist.
posted by desuetude at 10:04 PM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

You sound pretty paranoid and vengeful in your tone here, so I recommend taking a deep breath. You aren't Jason Bourne. You're gonna have to wait until the three (right? In CA?) weeks is up before anything happens, but you have a lease that you signed so I don't know what you mean about having legal backing. What did you think a lease was? Besides, they cashed your checks, didn't then? I do hope you have some canceled checks or ATM receipts for cash, or money orders or something.

Don't worry about them doctoring anything, why would they let you move in without a deposit? It wouldn't make sense for them to just ignore you about this like you never lived there. Remember, in CA if they don't get back to you in time they lose all claim to it and are liable for 3x in damages.

Just bide your time, go down to the small claims court (prolly website, too), get a form, fill it out to $1200 ($300 + 900 damages) + $court_costs (see below) and wait until 21 have passed since you gave them back the keys. Then go down to the courthouse and file it for I dunno $40 (one fee), then pay another guy to serve the building owner, which is another fee, probably $50-75 (you can go cheap here, they have to serve it by law, so shop around. they'll probably all be about the same price). Add these costs onto your claim, and in fact you can just add $300 on top of the deposit and damages, the judge can trim them down to the actual costs in court no problem.

Don't worry about taking care of this in person and stop harassing them on the phone, their time isn't up yet. Good luck, at least you're away from these psychos now!
posted by rhizome at 10:05 PM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The first thing you can do is use California Courts website to draft a letter. It walks you through all the info you need to input, producing some scary sounding and correct legalese.

This is all I used to get my last deposit back.
posted by mnemonic at 10:11 PM on December 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: IANAL, I am just a California renter who knows her rights.

The Department of Consumer Affairs publishes this Guide to California Tenants and Landlords Rights and Responsibilities. It's extremely thorough and readable. California has very strong tenant protection laws and they are unambiguous regarding security deposits. You can download the pdf here, and check out DCA's page on security deposits here.

From CA Civil Code Section 1950.5:
Within 21 days after you leave the unit, the landlord must refund your full deposit, except for limited deductions which must be itemized in a accompanying notice. The landlord may only deduct from your security deposit the amounts that are reasonably necessary to clean the premises for the next tenant, repair damages that you caused beyond normal wear and tear, and pay any rent you owed but did not pay. Painting the unit is not a legitimate deduction, unless inherent in repairs of damage you caused, such as replacing the walls. The list must itemize each amount, time spent, hourly rate, the name and contact information of the person who did the work, and what was done, and be accompanied by receipts and other documentation showing exactly where the money went.
21 days. Every landlord knows this. Most tenants do not, and this is what bad landlords count on. You know who else knows this? Small Claims Court judges. Unfortunately, you'll probably need to sue your landlord to get your deposit back. The good news: You can sue him for twice (IIRC) the amount of the security deposit to cover punitive damages if the judge decides the landlord acted in poor faith. Suing sounds like a drag, but it's really very straightforward and judges deal with this every single day.

If you're interested is pursuing this, go to the house and have a (calm) discussion with them about it.

I respectfully disagree with this. (The means, not the ends.) Before you can sue someone you have to send them a letter of intent (IE, Pay up or I'll see you in court) specifically to give the parties a chance to work it out so just get that ball rolling without the drama. Best case scenario: Your landlord realizes you're not a sucker and gives you your money. Worst case scenario: He ignores the letter, but you've laid the groundwork to file your claim. There's also the chance that once he's served he'll just pay you so you can drop the suit.

(FWIW, when I took my former landlord to court I came prepared with stacks of papers (evidence!) detailing all the ways I was wronged and all the judge wanted to know was whether or not the landlord had sent the letter within 21 days. I got the deposit back plus the punitive damages. Don't worry about all the "gotcha" stuff.)
posted by Room 641-A at 10:56 PM on December 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

Oops, on preview scrolled right to the top over the last few comments. I wanted to add that you should also be due the interest on the deposit (unless that's changed) so include that in your claim, too.
posted by Room 641-A at 11:03 PM on December 14, 2010

Regarding the previous comment: you do not always get interest back on your deposit, it depends on your location. In LA most apartments did not have to pay interest, but those that were rent-controlled did. So check your city's laws to see what you are owed.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 12:50 AM on December 15, 2010

I have read through this thread and you are getting conflicting advice. I am a businessman who has had a lot of experience leasing. Listen to the people who are telling you to file in small claims. It's not hundreds of hours. But make sure you are due the money right now as I'm unclear on your exact time-frame but you now know they have 3 weeks. A day over, and like wysk said, you have got a $1200 payday coming. And heck no you don't let them get away with it. You first call them and tell them you are ratting them out to the IRS because you know for a fact that they have not been declaring the income, and on top of that you are gonna sue their asses for $1200 and win. So tell them they have a choice, and it's to face an audit by the IRS (and you are gonna testify you were paying them $600 a month and that they have been burying that for years) and a court battle which you will win. Or they can give you the lousy 300 bucks -- which is it gonna be? I hate to say it but after 30 years in business alot of it is poker. Bluff them hard and you will likely get your money without having to go to court.
posted by sobersearchparty at 6:23 AM on December 15, 2010

By the way Room is right about the letter. If your bluff doesn't work, do mail them a certified letter and get a return receipt. But do you see how everybody is ort of dancing around the notion that they may think you are a sucker? Man come at them like an enraged bull, like the nice grad students devil twin that they never knew existed. It'll be fun for you and you will get paid (because not only will they realize you are not a sucker, they will be amazed at your fortitude and not want to tango).
posted by sobersearchparty at 6:32 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you're a recent grad, can you try student legal services from your university? Just a thought. Obviously any renters' or tenants' rights organization will be a good place to go too.

I also just wanted to offer that my husband and I went through this with a previous landlord. Several weeks went by with my husband trying to get the deposit back and our landlord stonewalling him. So my husband looked it up and saw that he was supposed to get it back to us within 30 days or send us a letter with an explanation for why we were not getting it back.

Eventually, we went to court. The judge said, at the very beginning, if you are here as a landlord who did not give a tenant their deposit back within 30 days, I'm going to rule against you, the law is very clear on this. We still had to go to mediation, where our landlord said that he lost out on a month's rent because of us and tried to settle for half, but when we went back to the judge, the judge said to our landlord, "Were you listening at the beginning? I said that in this specific kind of case, I will find for the plaintiff." Our old landlord started complaining that he had to pay some condo association fee because of something we did, accused my husband of lying somehow, the judge didn't care and ruled in our favor. We got our money about a week later.

My husband said that he has never gotten a deposit back without fighting for it. Landlords prey on people not knowing their rights. Don't let them get away with it.
posted by kat518 at 7:20 AM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

I had a slack landlord a while back. Kind of shady, but I think just more slack.

When e-mails and phone calls didn't get my deposit back, I sent a certified letter with return receipt, and got my deposit back within a week.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 7:39 AM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

"You first call them and tell them you are ratting them out to the IRS because you know for a fact that they have not been declaring the income,"

That seems a bit much. The OP does not know "for a fact" that they aren't reporting the income; that is an assumption. It also has very little to do with the OP's deposit.

I took a landlord to small claims court for the same thing and it was worth it even though I used up a vacation day. I highly recommend it, as it might not only get your money back but might also stop them from doing this to another renter.
posted by soelo at 10:23 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

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