My landlady claims that she deducted a minimal amount from my deposit due to 'excessive filth and debris' that had to be cleaned by her cleaning lady. She claims because my window has been left open for weeks. I left for 1 week only and usually keep the window locked with 1-2 inches of space between the wall to allow ventilation. I clean and maintain the room well and cleaned again before I finally left. I did not see any 'excessive filth and debris' when I cleaned the window. I feel it is in retaliation for something I called her out on (reason why I left), and I have witnessed how she has done the same with another tenant who previously left whom she was upset with. I took photos of the room before I left (she doesn't know), but you can only partially see the window. For short I feel its a fabrication, at the very least an exaggeration on the true condition. I am known for my cleanliness habits and as it is part of my routine daily to open and close the window, I would have noticed an extreme build up of dirt and debris and cleaned it myslef because my bed is right next to the window. What can I do? I mean its a minimal amount only, I never even saw how 'bad' it was, if at all.
Under Civil Code 1950.5, the landlord may only make deductions from your security deposit for unpaid rent, cleaning and damages beyond normal wear and tear. The landlord is also supposed to return your security deposit within 21 days of termination of the rental agreement and provide an itemized breakdown of any deductions, including receipts for any materials or third party services plus the hours and rates for the landlord's employees used. If the landlord retains your security deposit in bad faith, you can recover treble damages.
You should strongly consider documenting the landlord's failure to timely refund your security deposit by sending the landlord a letter pointing out the fact the more than 21 days has passed since you moved out, but you have not received your security deposit or itemized breakdown of any deductions with receipts.
If the landlord fails to comply with Civil Code 1950.5, the landlord is required to refund your entire deposit. Granberry v. Islay Investments, 9 Cal.4th 738, 745 (1995). However, the landlord can still sue you for damages to the property and/or unpaid rent.
Ultimately, the landlord fails to refund your deposit, you may have to sue the landlord in small claims.
Your ultimate recourse is to sue the landlord in small claims. A smalls claims judge will hear both sides and decide whether you are entitled to any more of your security deposit.
But before taking the matter to small claims, make another good faith attempt to work things out with the landlord. Ask for any documentation of the costs (i.e., did she have to hire a cleaning service?).
If you file in small claims, make sure you have proof of your original deposit, any pictures of the room (possibly including pictures from when you were living there to prove that you generally lived in a clean manner), and proof of what the landlord refunded from your deposit. The judge will also have some tolerance for hearing about your retaliation issue, but be careful. The judge likely won't want to litigate whether your landlord was good or bad, she/he will want to get down to the facts of the clean up and move on.
It's hard to estimate your chance of success based on the facts presented. Clean up costs are pretty common, and unless the amount is facially ridiculous, I would guess that a judge would be hard pressed to rule for you. But regardless of the evidence, a lot of small claims cases are decided on presentation: be concise, professional, and even-tempered. If the landlord brings emotion into the room, don't respond. Her attitude will contrast with your coolness and make the judge more inclined to rule for you.
For information on filing in small claims court, see the website of your local County Superior Court.
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