Sure. If your landlord refuses to return your security deposit, or makes false charges against it, you can sue the piss out of the feudalistic offender in small claims court.
Is it worth it? Maybe. There are strong legal penalties for a landlord who makes illegal charges against a security deposit or who fails to return it on time.
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Most states have laws similar to California’s Civil Code section 1950.5 that allows a renter plaintiff to recover upto 3x damages in punitive, statutory penalties.
But suing in small claims court for a security deposit is a pain in the ass. Victory? not assured. Costs? high. Likely success? not that pretty. The better course of action is to avoid a court dispute all together with preparation, and some skilz that you are about to acquire.
The following tips for getting your rental deposit back are probably relevant everywhere in the civilized world, but we refer to California law. By following these rules, you will simultaneously be minimizing the chances of a dispute of return of the deposit, and preparing for court action the right way just in case.
Keep a Copy of Your Security Deposit Payment to the Landlord.
You must get and keep proof that you in fact paid a security deposit, and how it was paid. Your copy of the security payment would be primary evidence in small claims court if you had to sue at some point. It is proof you paid. Do not pay a security deposit in cash. Use a bank Cashier’s Check, United States Postal Service Money Order or personal check. Keep the copy in a secure place.
Note on the Security Deposit Payment “Security Deposit Payment for Property at……”
A short notation like this on the payment will prevent the landlord from later claiming that the payment was for something other than a security deposit. If you later have to sue, you do not want the amount of the security deposit to be contestable.
Take Video and/or Many Pictures of the Move in Inspection.
Record the scene as it was when you moved in. Save the files as if they were evidence in a court case. They are evidence, if you don’t get your money back. Be careful to note how clean the place is, and any damage to walls, etc. Bring a reliable witness with you such as friend to causally observe the condition of the rental at the time you move in. Such an “observer” could be a good witness for you if you are later forced to sue your landlord.
Give More than 30 Days Written Notice of Your Intent to Terminate the Rental Agreement and Move Out.
Provide a specific date for your departure and handing over of the keys. Do not expect to be able to change this date. Keep a copy and proof that you sent it (US Postal Service tracking number works good). Leave a few days available at the end of your tenancy to repair, clean or replace areas your landlord has indicated were in need of change.
Make a Written Request for a Pre Move Out Inspection at Least 4 Days Prior to Leaving.A tenant can ask for a pre move out inspection so that they can have time to fix problems. In California, it is called a CC 1950.5(f)(2) inspection.
Many states have a law similar to California Civil Code section 1950.5(f)(1), which gives the tenant the right to request a pre move out inspection within the last 2 weeks of the tenancy. CA Civ Code 1950.5(f)(2) States:
At a reasonable time, but no earlier than two weeks before the termination or the end of lease date, the landlord, or an agent of the landlord, shall, upon the request of the tenant, make an initial inspection of the premises prior to any final inspection the landlord makes after the tenant has vacated the premises. The purpose of the initial inspection shall be to allow the tenant an opportunity to remedy identified deficiencies, in a manner consistent with the rights and obligations of the parties under the rental agreement, in order to avoid deductions from the security.
Video the Pre Move Out Inspection, and Ask the Landlord Questions.
It is wise to document everything about the pre move out inspection. It is wiser yet to ask the landlord questions during the inspection such as: “Do you see any trouble or damage to the walls in this room.” And “Do you feel that there are any parts, or items missing such as screens, or stop top grill covers.” And “Do you see any damage to the carpet that you feel must be repaired?”
Request a Written Record from the Landlord of the Pre Move Out Inspection With a “Punch List”.
In order to accomplish the goals of Civil Code section 1950.5(f)(2) – which is to give the tenant the opportunity to correct issues needing repair – the tenant has a right to a list of things to fix, repair, replace or clean. Make sure you ask for this “punch list”, and then use your last few days fixing, cleaning, and checking off the list.
Keep records of the before and after condition of any repair work or corrective action you take based upon the landlord’s concerns. Be prepared for the landlord’s possible claim it was not fixed, cleared, or replaced correctly.
Make a Demand for a Written Itemized Statement and Receipts for any Charges Against Your Deposit.
The Landlord is allowed by law to charge against a security deposit for certain items the tenant does not or cannot repair, such as a refrigerator that disappeared during the tenancy. However, the tenant has a right to an itemized statement of the charges, and proof that the claimed costs were actually paid by the landlord in the amount claimed.
Thus, if the Landlord does make charges against your security deposit, you should demand receipts. Then, review the receipts to compare the claimed repair and costs with what is actually done.
If your landlord makes charges against your security deposit for repairs but cannot produce receipts, there is a problem.
Landlords are only entitled to recover for actual damages – which means if they charged you $200 to repair a wall, there must be a receipt for that amount showing work completed, if you need to sue later.
There you have it. Free self help, simple rules. Following these security suggestions will greatly decrease the possibility of a dispute over your security deposit. But if a dispute does arise, you will be prepared to present your case in court with the right evidence.
If you do have to sue to recover a security deposit, make sue you review the relevant law, and ask for an award that includes all statutory penalties in your court papers. Many people make the mistake of failing to ask the court for those penalties.
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