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Save Thousands – Laws to Protect Yourself as a Tenant

landlord-apartment-leaseWe’ve all been there. I am currently going through this struggle right now – my landlord is trying to screw me out of my security deposit.

Oftentimes, whether it’s a landlord or a credit card company, we as consumers, are taken advantage of.  Fortunately, the legal system has rules in place to protect us, but many people are simply unaware that these laws exist.  Knowing these laws could end up saving you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. However, keep in mind that these laws are largely relevant for California tenants; laws can vary by state.

So the following is a nice summary of the CA laws to protect yourself as a tenant that everyone should be aware of.


The Walk-Through: Under California law, a landlord is required to give a tenant the option to do a walk-though/inspection of the apartment no more than 2 weeks in advance of the move-out date.  This is to give the tenant enough time to make necessary repairs so they aren’t forced to pay for the landlord to fix any issues.

It’s a good idea to take advantage of this option so that you can anticipate what they might charge.  For instance, my landlord tried to tell me she was going to charge to repaint walls with minimal marks on them.  As a result, I was able to argue that it was normal wear and tear (see ‘Damages’ below) prior to the work being done and ended up convincing her not to charge me to paint those walls.  This saved me $308.

Damages: On move-out, damages can be deducted from your security deposit (see ‘security deposit’ below), and landlords tend to take many liberties with this ability. One major term you should be aware of when moving out is “normal wear and tear.”  The California Department of Consumer Affairs makes it clear that minor marks or nicks in walls or worn paint caused by a sofa against the wall are not the responsibility of the tenant.

Normal wear and tear is essentially as it sounds: the cost to fix things that come naturally during the course of living somewhere should not be charged to the tenant. Obviously, being aware of this tenant law is sure to give you an upper hand to protect yourself from being overcharged.  

Painting: Your landlord might charge to repaint if the walls had not been painted recently.  Usually in these cases, they will make the tenant pay for their portion of the life of the paint (for instance, if the landlord says the life of the paint is 3 years and you lived there for 1 year, the landlord could charge 1/3rd of the cost of painting). Make sure you don’t pay for a complete paint job if you’ve only lived there for a short time to save a substantial amount of money.

Finally, always ask for an itemized statement of repairs when moving out.  Keep in mind a landlord is required by law to issue the tenant the security deposit back, or that itemized statement within 21 days of move-out.  The landlord will oftentimes try to overcharge you; make sure you closely inspect your itemized statement to make sure the landlord is not taking advantage of you.

Security Deposit:

The root of all landlord-tenant problems usually relates back to the security deposit and the fact that the landlord dictates how much is returned to the tenant.  The laws to protect yourself as a tenant related to your security deposit are simple. California law specifically allows the landlord to use a tenant’s security deposit for four purposes:

  • For unpaid rent;
  • For cleaning the rental unit when the tenant moves out, but only to make the unit as clean as it was when the tenant first moved in;
  • For repair of damages, other than normal wear and tear (see ‘damages’ above), caused by the tenant or the tenant’s guests; and
  • If the lease or rental agreement allows it, for the cost of restoring or replacing furniture, furnishings, or other items of personal property (including keys), other than because of normal wear and tear

There are 2 main laws you should know about security deposits.  The first is that the landlord can only use the tenant’s security deposit for the four purposes stated above.  The second is that within 21 days of moving out, the owner must either A) return the security deposit, B) provide a copy of an itemized statement indicating how much of the security deposit was used and why, or C) a combination of A and B. (California Civil Code Section 1950.5)

In rare circumstances, mostly in rent controlled areas, the landlord must return the security deposit including interest collected over the term of the lease.

Timing on Move-Out:

To end a periodic rental agreement (month-to-month), you must give the landlord proper written notice before vacating.  If you pay rent monthly, you must give at least 30 days advance notice. If you pay rent weekly, you must give at least 7 days advance notice. (Civil Code Section 1946)

Getting evicted?

If you’re reading this, you’re probably in some type of messy situation.  Eviction is NOT a fun experience for anyone, the tenant or the landlord. While California might be the most tenant-friendly state in the country, once you are evicted for a legitimate reason, there is not much you can do other than hire a lawyer.  Generally, you as the tenant have 30 days to move out after being served an eviction notice.  The exception is if you have lived in that unit for more than a year, then you have 60 days to move out after being issued an eviction notice.

You, as the tenant, will have those 30 days or 60 days to move out.  However, a landlord can terminate your tenancy with only 3 days written notice if you have done any of the following:

    • Failed to pay the rent.
    • Violated any provision of the lease or rental agreement.
    • Materially damaged the rental property (“committed waste”).
    • Substantially interfered with other tenants (“committed a nuisance”). This includes excessive noise violations.
    • Committed domestic violence or sexual assault against, or stalked another tenant or subtenant on the premises.
    • Used the rental property for an unlawful purpose.
    • Engaged in drug dealing, unlawfully used, cultivated, imported, or manufactured illegal drugs.
    • Using the building or property to conduct dogfighting or cockfighting.
    • Unlawful conduct involving weapons or ammunition.

For more information, the California Department of Consumer Affairs provides a lot of very valuable information on laws to protect yourself as a tenant.  However, sometimes your legal battles with a landlord require a lawyer’s help. To get offers from a number of qualified landlord-tenant lawyers near you, check out LawKick.


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