We’ve all been there. You’ve been a good tenant, paid your rent on time, tried not to bother your landlord for minor issues, and you feel like you took reasonable care of the property while you were living there. You move out and eagerly await the arrival of a check for the return of your security deposit. Either the check never comes or, when it does, it’s for half the amount you were expecting. Most likely the landlord is claiming for damage to the property.
If you in fact did damage the property, the landlord can likely deduct the repair cost from the deposit, and you probably wouldn’t object to that. But what if the so-called “damage” is actually normal wear and tear? In that case, the landlord by law can’t deduct the repair cost from your deposit. The problem is that what is “normal wear and tear” is often in the eye of the beholder. Fortunately, court rulings in California have injected some clarity as to its meaning.
Essentially, a landlord may not charge the tenant for deterioration of items inside the property due to natural ageing or fading. No deposit deduction can be made if: the carpet becomes worn because of ordinary use; appliances need replacing because of routine use or age; there are minor nicks or marks on the walls. Clearly, deductions can be made if the tenant damages the property. Examples may include: damage from cigarette burns; wine stains on carpet; damage caused by guests of the tenant or pets; tenant’s failure to notify the landlord of leaks, electrical or plumbing problems (if the tenant knew or should have known about those problems).
Even if you caused damage that the landlord is entitled to make a deduction for, that raises the question: how much can the landlord deduct? Most items have a natural shelf life. They would need replacing after a certain amount of time even if you hadn’t caused any damage. Carpeting, for example, is generally considered to need replacing every 5 years. It would be unfair if you spilt wine on a 4 year old carpet and then had to pay to replace it even though the landlord would have had to replace it next year anyway. The law steps in to protect you in those scenarios. In the example of the carpet, the landlord could only charge you for 20% of the replacement cost (to compensate him for having to replace the carpet one year earlier than he otherwise would have needed to).
If you suspect that a landlord has deducted more than he is entitled to from your security deposit, you may be right. If you are, then the law requires that that money be returned to you.