Suggestions for getting security deposit returned.
March 2, 2013 8:39 PM   Subscribe

Need help figuring out the next step in my quest to get my deposit and pro-rated rent back from my landlord. Difficulty - I am now living out of state.

I gave 30 days notice to my landlord last December.
I was out of the home with the 30 day period, but the landlord and his agent postponed the walk-through three times. By the time they could come to the house, I was in another state. Luckily, my BF was able to meet with the agent to do the walk-through a week after I left (still w/i the 30 day period).

This was mid-January and I have yet to receive my deposits and my pro-rated rent from January (I paid the whole month, but left mid-month), for a grand total of $2300 and change.
I have sent two emails, with a detailed breakdown of the deposits, and a copy of the lease agreement. I have a letter ready to send out certified mail on Monday, with said details and a reminder of the rental law in the State of California.
The time limit on when they need to inform me about any damages for which they might be withholding a portion of the deposit passed long ago.

So, what should I do next (assuming I get no response to the letter)?
Lawyer, mediation, arbitration? Small claims court?
My biggest worry is the fact that I am no longer living in California, and it would be difficult money- and time-wise to get time off if I needed to be present in California for any of the proffered solutions.
I hope this makes sense, feel free to ask for clarification on the timeline/details.
If it helps, I lived there for 4 years.
Thanks!
posted by tillei to Law & Government (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
IAAL, IANYL, TINYA. I do some landlord/tenant.

You seem pretty knowledgeable about the requirements regarding security deposits, so you are already a few steps ahead of most tenants. I do not practice in CA, but assuming it has anything like the model landlord/tenant act, your landlord would have had a short period e.g. 15 days to notify you of any intent to withhold a portion or all of the security deposit. Since that didn't happen, you are entitled to a return of the deposit. It doesn't mean he couldn't sue you for damage for the apartment if such damage exists. It just means that he can't apply the security deposit to it.

I cannot say whether or not he needs to prorate your rent because I haven't seen your lease and I don't know the landlord/tenant act of your state.

Some lawyers specialize in this sort of low stakes tenant's cases. I've dealt with a rather tenacious one myself. If I were you, I would find this lawyer and have him lined up to file suit. Despite the low amount at issue, I think you have a good chance of finding a reputable tenant's rights lawyer because they tend to have very efficient practices that make the work profitable for them. What is also in your favor is that failure to return a security deposit is very open and shut to prove, and you have papered your file well. Plus, landlord/tenant acts almost always have a attorney's fee provision and your lease probably has a prevailing party clause. I do not expect you to have much trouble finding a good lawyer in your area who is willing to do this on a contingency basis or for his statutory/contractual fee entitlement. You'll still have to pay court costs and may need to pay a retainer, but I think it is a good way to go. If you know any California lawyers or have friends who know California lawyers, see if they can get you a referral. Otherwise, use the California bar's lawyer referral service.

Once you have that lawyer lined up, I would send one final letter saying that if you do not receive payment by Date X, you are filing suit. Then, if you don't have payment by Date X, tell the lawyer to pull the trigger. The reason I recommend lining up the lawyer first is so that you can carry out your threat as soon as the landlord doesn't pay. If you have the lawyer, you will not need to physically be in California except to testify at trial or a deposition. I think it is unlikely that either a trial or any deposition will take place because there just isn't much to prove up in a case like this.

I am usually the last person to cheer "lawyer up!" but I think it is the appropriate move in this case for the reasons I have discussed.
posted by Tanizaki at 9:38 PM on March 2, 2013


In addition, I believe you are now owed a penalty fee on top of the deposit.

IANAL, but I used to deal with these issues regularly in CA.

Good luck!
posted by jbenben at 10:53 PM on March 2, 2013


1st Step:
You're already planning this for Monday - in my experience, the certified letter reminding the landlord of CA law does the trick nearly all of the time even with really negligent landlords. Most people don't even bother or know the law.

2nd Step:
Did a lawyer draft the letter for you? If not, the next step is a detailed letter written in legalese by a lawyer threatening small claims court if the deposit is not returned. I have a friend who has done this for me as a favor. I don't think it would be wildly expensive if you needed to pay for it.

3rd Step:
File in small claims court. This is easy and done online in CA. Don't worry about the court date or traveling yet - the notice of filing may lead your landlord to pay up.

4th Step:
If you need to actually go to court, it may be worth a quick trip back to CA. It shouldn't take more than a few hours in court. Ideally you will never make it to this point. I only did this with a really crazy management company situation and it was ruled in my favor instantly. Actually collecting is really difficult, but it ultimately worked out. Happy to give you more detail if you get to this point.
posted by rainydayfilms at 7:01 AM on March 3, 2013


Thanks for the advice, all!

In addition, I believe you are now owed a penalty fee on top of the deposit.

jbenben, I found the clause about penalty fees in the CA Civil Code, thanks for the heads up. It looks like I would be entitled to it only if I ended up in court, and I'm *hoping* it doesn't come to that, but it will be another proverbial weapon in my arsenal.

Tanizaki and rainydayfilms, thanks, I will contact a lawyer. It will absolutely be worth it if a well-crafted letter full of legalese can get the ball rolling.
posted by tillei at 9:20 AM on March 3, 2013


IAAL(andlord). rainydayfilms has the step-by-step. Really, step 1 should be enough for any but a total sleazeball, because there are a lot of landlords out there who simply depend on the laziness/fear/etc. of their tenant demographic to get away with this. I suppose a good chunk could simply be lazy, but (having had some lessons in this recently) that self-interest goes a long way toward motivation in certain areas and people can be remarkably good at lining up their efforts, consciously or not, with their interests. Anyway, don't worry about a lawyer yet, just send the certified letter, remind the landlord of his responsibilities under the law, and give him a firm deadline after which you will pursue legal action. Be short, non-abusive, and utterly serious.
posted by dhartung at 5:56 PM on March 3, 2013


I hope this goes well for you. We are in the middle of a similar situation (in Maryland)

My fiancee and I rented month to month from a landlord who rented us her furnished condo. After a month in which we endured cockroaches and a bizarre interaction with her, we gave her 30 days notice. She never responded to email or phone call for two months. Then, just before the deadline she sent us a letter claiming $4,000 in damages that were either non-existent, or existing wear and tear. We sent her a certified dispute letter, which, like the others, she did not claim and was returned. We filed in small claims court recently but just last week they were unable to serve her because no one would come to the door.

We're not sure what to do next. Then today I found that she made a slanderous post about us on terriblerenters.com which appears when I google search my name. Trying to figure out how to fight back wisely.
posted by SpicyMustard at 2:05 PM on March 14, 2013


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