How to deal with a landlady who wants to keep an entire security deposit
June 26, 2014 3:39 PM   Subscribe

On June 1, I gave month’s notice for an apartment I’ve been living in for ten years (I’m in California). I had a month-to-month lease and was never late with rent. Until now, I’ve had a cordial relationship with my landlady. When I gave her my notice, she called and said that she was going to keep my entire security deposit ($950). This came out of the blue. She claims it was for two things. A few months back, she replaced my stovetop. There was nothing wrong with it and I hadn’t asked her to replace it.

My cleaning leady scratched it while she was cleaning it. A few scratches, to be sure, but it’s not marred. She said she was going to charge me the amount of a new stovetop.

She also added that the retained security deposit would also include the cost of a sliding glass door in the bathtub/shower that shattered one morning three years ago when I opened it. She didn't replace it so, at my own cost, I bought a rod and curtains.

It both cases, I didn't discuss the matter with her any further.

I’m trying to find a way to calmly resolve this without having to go to small claim’s court, so I’m looking for other approaches.

I've gone through the "California Tenants - A Guide to Residential Tenants and Landlord's Rights and Responsibilities" on the California Consumer Affairs website. Under "Refunds of Security Deposits," I found this:

"Landlord’s notice.
The landlord must give the tenant written notice of the tenant’s right to request an initial
inspection of the rental and to be present during the inspection. The landlord must give this notice to the tenant a “reasonable time” after either the landlord or the tenant has given the other written notice of intent to terminate (end) the tenancy. If the tenant has a lease, the landlord must give the tenant this notice a “reasonable time” before the lease ends. If the tenant does not request an initial inspection, the landlord does not have any other duties with respect to the initial inspection."

She never gave me written notice of my right to request the initial inspection. Is that significant? Is there any other way to tell her she’s wrong about keeping the entire deposit?

I'm more than willing to have the place cleaned, at my own expense; but I think her intended claim to keep the entire security amount is misguided.

Is there some simple way to explain this to her so she understands it, without having to resort to small claims court?

Thank you.
posted by holdenjordahl to Law & Government (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I would focus more on the itemized invoices required, per this. For the stove, that should be easy -- she's not going to get that replaced over a few scratches, and you have a pretty good claim that that's ridiculous if it does (take pictures). For the glass door, it might be more difficult. It seems to me that if she can claim you were responsible for breaking it, and if she moves to get it repaired within 21 days of moving out, you might have more trouble proving that it was a fault in the door and not a fault in your action, so I will hope that someone else has a better idea there.

(also, check what your lease says, your written notices may be in there).
posted by brainmouse at 3:50 PM on June 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Easy peasy, but yes, you must treat this as though you are going to small claims court - because you might be.

Certified letter demanding your entire deposit back based on California law within 21 Days after you vacated the property.

Remind her that any damage comes under "wear and tear" over ten years of tenancy.

Tell her she can return your full deposit now, in full, or she can see you in court where she will be forced to kick over the full $950 PLUS 3x the security deposit in damages by a Judge.

Keep the letter SHORT. You can cite the particulars (stove top, shower door) but I would not. The stove top did not require replacement (do you have any emails from her notifying you of the replacement?) and the shower door is 1000% wear and tear - how date she!!

You're right. She can not keep your entire deposit, especially for these reasons.


I posit she's doing this because she does not have the money to pay you. Threaten to see her in court and inform her of the penalties for failing to return your deposit within 21 Days (cite the CA.Gov website.)

This type of stuff really chaps my hide. Eff her. Write the letter and relish the prospect of going to small claims. You could totally clean up!!

Of course clean, take video, document all correspondence, remain polite. etc., etc..
posted by jbenben at 3:52 PM on June 26, 2014 [24 favorites]

If you have to go to small claims court, don't be afraid of it. I won a landlord/tenant dispute in small claims (in CA) and it wasn't that hard. Totally worth doing.
posted by BlahLaLa at 3:53 PM on June 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

Whatever you do, I wouldn't start out by offering to have the place cleaned at your expense! I'm sorry, but who cares if she has been cordial - she is trying to screw you over. That's your money. If she's starting from the point of "I'm going to steal your money and give you no invoice for these phony charges," you should start from the point of "I know my rights, I have documentation, I am getting all my money back plus interest and will go to small claims court if necessary."
posted by citron at 3:54 PM on June 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

The scratches on the stove top seem like normal wear and tear to me, and I don't think a landlord can keep a security deposit for normal wear and tear. But the glass door may be another matter. Your description of what happened to the door was rather vague. If you broke it, then sure, the landlord could withhold some/all of the security deposit to have it replaced. Putting up a rod and shower curtain isn't the same thing as replacing a glass door. So be prepared to clearly explain exactly how that door shattered.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 3:55 PM on June 26, 2014

I'm with jbenben. You probably won't have to go to court, but you will have to make it very clear to her that you're willing to if she pushes this. I'd be writing her a civil but firm note indicating that you've read the regulations, she's wrong, you know it, and you can do it the easy way or the hard way.
posted by jon1270 at 3:56 PM on June 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

As a (former) landlord in CA where glass shower doors are highly prevalent, I assure you brainmouse is incorrect on that point.

Shower doors breaking are the fourth or fifth most common apartment maintenance repair in CA, right behind faucet leaks, toilet clogs or flush mechanism repairs, and garbage disposal repair.

They wear out. 10 to 15 years is about right for a typical shower door lifespan, but they can break as often as every 8 years or so.

It's so common that a panel shatters or a hinge breaks. Super common.

Def wear and tear, not deposit deduction worthy.
posted by jbenben at 3:57 PM on June 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

thanks for the comments so far!
to clarify, i was simply sliding the door open to into the shower. there was no sudden, jarring motion.
posted by holdenjordahl at 3:59 PM on June 26, 2014

Also note that she called you.. That's what people do when they don't have much grounds to stand on and don't want to leave a paper trail.. I would make sure you document your correspondence with her, either email it or keep copies and send by certified mail, so there is a paper trail in case you need to use small claims court. Also I wouldn't even get into an argument about the shower door, frankly. The point is that she either needs to return the full deposit or send you actual documentation of any charges.
posted by citron at 4:03 PM on June 26, 2014 [5 favorites]

OP, you must leave the place clean. Landlords can and should deduct cleaning costs under the law.

The landlord can not deduct for an item or repair (in this case a shower door) that she did not pay to fix.

Landlords must provide receipts for all deductions.

I am 100% certain your landlord can not deduct for an item she never repaired, and or, an item she failed to repair during your tenancy.

Proceed documentation-wise as if you are going to court because your landlady is woefully or willfully unaware of her legal obligations to you.

I'm going to stop commenting in this thread now!

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 4:06 PM on June 26, 2014

Take a LOT of pictures of the place, use a newspaper or something to demonstrate the date (she can't claim they were old pictures.)

Then send a demand letter for the entire deposit.

Now SHE'S on the defensive. If she doesn't kick back a deposit in short order, you will then sue her. It will be fun. You will win.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:07 PM on June 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Tenant law gives time-frame guidelines for what constitutes reasonable wear-and-tear (eg how long something can be expected to last before it might need replacing). Wear and tear is ineligible to be taken out of a security deposit.
You've been living there for ten years - pretty much everything will fall under wear-and-tear for such a long period. The situation is on your side.
posted by anonymisc at 4:08 PM on June 26, 2014

- She will owe you a 3x's penalty for not returning your full deposit within 21 Days.

See the CA.GOV website for details you can cite in your letter.

- There is no way you are responsible for a 10 year old+ shower door even if you did make some abrupt movement. If you took a hammer to it, then it would be your fault.

- Oh? She only called to tell you this??


- Send a certified demand letter for the full amount & citing the law. Do not get into side arguments about repairs. Wait for the check:))

OK, now I'm done.
posted by jbenben at 4:12 PM on June 26, 2014 [8 favorites]

There is very little ambiguity in California's Landlord/Tenant laws, and judges have zero patience for landlords that waste their time by not taking the steps required to withhold your security deposit. However, you have to take the steps required as a tenant, including things like sending your landlord notices via an approved* method.

Check out the link that brainmouse provided. You can even call the California Dept. of Consumer Affairs and ask them for help.

Be prepared to take your landlord to small claims court, and remember that if you believe your landlady is deliberately acting in bad faith you may sue for punitive damages of twice the security deposit. You have to ask for it in your original claim, though. (I won punitive damages once and it felt great!!)

Mostly by sending a letter to your LL that tells them you are one of the rarer tenants who knows their rights and they will probably get right on board.

On preview, the 3x damages jbenben mentioned is new to me.

*Last time I checked it was certified mail, but that was a while ago.
posted by Room 641-A at 4:23 PM on June 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just to add, you can get and fill out the Small Claims form now so that it's ready for you file it on the 22nd day.
posted by rhizome at 5:28 PM on June 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Clean the place out perfectly. Take pictures of everything. Do the letter, per above, then sue for your entire deposit X3 in small claims court.

posted by hal_c_on at 7:16 PM on June 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here's a sample letter. Depending on the city you live in, she may also owe you interest.
posted by three_red_balloons at 7:50 PM on June 26, 2014

So let me get this straight, she appears to have no case at all and if she doesn't return your deposit in 21 days, you get three times the amount? SAY NOTHING! Maybe make a few small murmurs, get your paperwork together, wait out the twenty one days and profit. She wants to be an evil bitch? Teach her a lesson. I guarantee she'll never screw anyone over again like that.
posted by Jubey at 9:33 PM on June 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

thanks, everyone, this is all fantastic stuff!
posted by holdenjordahl at 9:16 AM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have actually sued in California to get my deposit back (3x). After the 21 days, I would call the landlord about 10 times in 2 weeks to leave a message.

THAT is the difference between getting your deposit back and getting 3x your deposit back. Make sure you do it from either a landline or cell phone whose bill is itemized and use a highlighter to show your calls. Small claims court judges love it when people try to get their money back by themselves, but just come up against a brick wall.

And then for your next question 3 months from now, on how to collect the money, I'll introduce you to the very california concept of "till tap".
posted by hal_c_on at 5:46 PM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

« Older Stranger in a strange land   |   How to get a home developer to make a small change... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.