Disagreements on deposits | 'Clean' can be a dirty word
Robert S. Griswold, Steven R. Kellman and Ted Smith
This column on issues confronting renters and landlords is written by Certified Property Manager Robert S. Griswold, host of KSDO Radio's "Real Estate Management Today" and by attorneys Steven R. Kellman, director of the Tenants Legal Center, and Ted Smith, principal in a law firm representing rental owners.
Q: I am moving out next week and I want to get my full deposit back. The manager told me that there will be a charge for cleaning whether I clean the unit or not. I offered to hire a cleaning service but he said that the owner likes to use his own service. What can I do?
A: Kellman: The measure is of the cleanliness of the unit, not upon who did the cleaning. Tenants may use any cleaning assistance they wish, including professional help. If the rental is left clean, the landlord may not complain or charge the tenant because the landlord's favorite cleaning service was not used. There are many services in San Diego that will do an excellent job cleaning rental units for much less than many landlords would deduct from a deposit to do the same work. To be sure the unit is clean and avoid a dispute over this point, I recommend hiring a private cleaning service when a tenant moves. The tenant will have the receipt -- which is good proof -- and moving is hard enough without having the extra burden of cleaning. The law requires a tenant to leave the rental at least as clean as when he or she moved in. Dirt is generally not considered normal wear and tear. However, if something cannot be cleaned due to wear, then the "dirt" will be considered normal wear and tear and not the responsibility of the tenant.
Smith: The law allows California landlords to deduct from the security deposit expenses for reasonable cleaning and damages above ordinary wear and tear. If the apartment is left dirty, a reasonable charge for this cleanup may be withheld from the security deposit. If the resident chooses to hire a cleaning service, the apartment manager still reserves the right to review the quality of the cleaning to determine if it is within the standard acceptable to the apartment industry. If not, the manager has the right to reclean the apartment -- this time correctly -- and deduct the charge for this from the deposit. From a practical standpoint, it is an out-of-pocket expense to the departing tenants whether they pay a cleaning service or let the apartment manager do it.
Steve and I disagree on the following point: The manager can probably do the cleaning cheaper and more efficiently, resulting in a smaller deduction from the security deposit than an outside cleaning service would charge.
Q: I understand that employers are required to verify the immigration status of employees prior to hiring them, or face possible fines. I own a small apartment building and I am concerned that I may be required by law to check immigration documents of my prospective renters. Is there such a law and would I be fined if I rent to an undocumented immigrant?
A: Griswold: Unlike employers, you are not required to verify the citizenship or immigration status of prospective renters, and you are not subject to penalties if you do rent to undocumented immigrants. Therefore, you have no reason to ask about citizenship or immigration information -- and should not for any reason. California law clearly prohibits rental discrimination on the basis of national origin or for arbitrary reasons such as immigration or citizenship status.
Q: Recently my child accidentally broke a window in our apartment. I contacted the resident managers to have it replaced and they informed me that it is my responsibility to pay for it. Isn't this normal wear and tear for which I am not responsible?
A: Griswold: The definition of "normal wear and tear" is subject to constant debate. However, it is clear that in the situation you describe, you are responsible. It is your responsibility to repair any damage to the property caused by you, other occupants of your apartment, or your guests. You might ask the manger's permission to either make the repair yourself, if you are capable of doing the job properly, or hiring an outside firm yourself. In most instances, the management staff will have the ability to complete the repair properly at a lower cost than you can yourself.
Kellman: While it's fairly easy to blame the tenant for breaking the window, there may be circumstances where the tenant is not responsible. For example, if the window was not properly secured to a frame, it may have fallen out from a light tap. Or prior damage to the window may have made it weak and prone to breakage. Therefore, "normal wear and tear" might include a broken window under some circumstances. To automatically hold the tenant at fault might lead to an improper and unfair result.
Q: My tenant tells me the phone in his apartment does not work, although the phone instrument works fine at the neighbor's and the phone company has verified that his line is all right. He claims that the problem must be the wiring in the wall of the apartment. It is my understanding that since the phone line worked when he moved in, any subsequent problems are his responsibility. The tenant says I am responsible. Who's right?
A: Griswold: As of January 1992, a new law makes property owners responsible for providing at least one working phone jack. Owners are also responsible for maintaining the inside telephone wiring in good working order. If the resident has checked the phone instrument on another line and the phone company also has checked the wiring leading to the telephone connection box outside your apartment units, then it logically seems that the problem is the inside wiring, which is your responsibility.
Of course, if the problem is later traced back to the resident, then he would be responsible for all expenses incurred in making the repairs. For example, phone jacks can be bumped too hard or clogged with paint or nails and staples that puncture or even sever the phone line in the wall. Unfortunately, the charge from your local phone company to make these repairs is quite high. However, there are alternative firms that offer the same service at much lower prices.
Recently, I heard of an owner who required tenants to pay the telephone company a monthly fee of 50 cents for "pre-paid" repair service that covers the inside wiring. This is not acceptable, as the owner cannot pass their responsibility to tenants.
IF YOU'RE A TENANT OR LANDLORD, the authors stand ready to answer your questions. Write them at: Rental Roundtable, Homes Section, San Diego Union-Tribune, P.O. Box 191, San Diego, CA 92112. Or you may e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Robert Griswold and the Real Estate Today! radio show strongly support the intent and the letter of all federal and state fair housing laws. As a reminder to all owners and managers of real estate, note that all real estate advertised is subject to the Federal Fair Housing Act, which makes it illegal to advertise "any preference, limitation, discrimination because of race, color, national origin or ancestry, religion, sex, physical disability, or familial status, or intention to make any such preference, limitation or discrimination." Additional state and/or local fair housing laws may also apply. Be sure to inform all persons that all dwellings offered or advertised are on an equal opportunity basis.
Revised and Updated - Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Robert S. Griswold, CRE, CPM, CCIM,
PCAM, GRI, ARM
©2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1997, 1996 Robert S. Griswold.
All Rights Reserved.