A few years ago, after moving out of a condo in a desirable San Diego neighborhood, Jacquelyn and Dave Quinonez found themselves in a bind. Their landlord, someone Jacquelyn describes as being at first only a “little weird,” was withholding their rental deposit, first for 30 days (illegal in the State of California, which requires landlords to return security deposits within 21 days) and then indefinitely.
“We [then] received a certified package with a long list of ‘repairs’ he made to the place, including replacing lightbulbs in the recessed lighting throughout the place,” Jacquelyn says, “at a crazy hourly rate he came up with based on what a handyman would charge.”
The Quinonezes eventually took the landlord to court — and won — but he managed to be problematic still.
“A few weeks later we received ten checks for $7.77 each with ‘White Trash Payout’ written on the memo line of each check, numbered one through ten,” says Jacquelyn. “We were shocked and confused — and, of course, angry, especially my husband, who is not even white — and wondering why he sent so many checks and why they totaled only $77.70. For two weeks, we received ten more checks per day, same amount, same memo line, which we divided up into three piles — [ones] written to me, written to my husband, [and] written to both of us.”
Their ordeal finally over, the Quinonezes decided to let the atrocious behavior go.
“We were just happy to be done with that crazy landlord!” says Jacquelyn.
Attorney Steven R. Kellman, who has been practicing renters’ rights law for over 20 years, runs the website Tenants Legal Center (tenantslegalcenter.com). He advises that you “do a little bit of investigation before you move in.”
These days he recommends checking the property for a notice of default, which indicates an owner is behind on the mortgage payments and the building may be foreclosed upon. The default notice is filed with the San Diego County Recorder. You can check online for a notice of default, in the Grantor/Grantee Index, if you know the property owner’s name, but there are options for those who don’t want to do the legwork themselves. Defaultresearch.com offers, for a fee, lists of notices of default. For $199.99 per county, you can get a quarterly foreclosure report. There are cheaper options, however; according to all-foreclosure.com, the lowest-priced subscription fee is for foreclosure.com ($40 a month), and the highest is Retran ($99 a month) in order to see and search listings.
Either way, checking for a notice of default is an important part of the process, says Kellman. “It’s amazing how easy you get into a lease, and it’s because they’re on the verge of losing their house,” he says.
If the place checks out and you go ahead with your rental, there are some things to keep in mind. One of the most common hassles with landlords is over repairs. First, Kellman says, make oral contact with the landlord and request repairs. If that doesn’t work, send a politely worded letter. If this, too, fails, you can play hardball by calling the City and requesting a building inspection.
With the advice of a lawyer or at your own risk, there is a further step that can be taken.
“Tenants may also withhold rent to obtain needed repairs,” says Bernadette Probus, the lead housing attorney at the Legal Aid Society of San Diego, which assists those with low income in obtaining legal assistance.
She warns, however, that this can result in an eviction notice.
“There are landlords that will attempt to retaliate,” cautions Probus, who has been practicing law for over 20 years. “Besides beating them a few times at trial, there is no way to micromanage landlords who retaliate against tenants who are assertive.”
When battling landlords in court via the Legal Aid Society, she says, one must be “patient and persistent,” as the agency handles over 500 calls per month.
Kellman advises people who are moving out of a rental unit to have a professional cleaning service scrub the place down. If you do it yourself, he warns, the landlord can redo the job and charge you for it. With a cleaning service, you get a receipt.
Probus says to make sure to do an exit inspection when moving out of the property.
Keeping good records — receipts for repairs and cleaning services, written agreements with the landlord — is key. The landlord will have documentation, and as Probus mentions, repairs can’t be validated without receipts. If you enter into a legal battle with nothing, according to Kellman, things may not go your way.
“Files beat talk,” he says.
Another way to ensure that you do not rent from a lunatic is to check out the apartment building on sites like apartmentratings.com. This site is free to use and to post to, and it has hundreds of reviews of apartments, condos, and other types of units across the country. A simple search will determine if yours has made the list. The drawback? Many of the reviews are anonymous, eliminating the possibility of dialogue, and there’s no way to know if a claim is true.
There are also sites like the Rental Protection Agency (rentalprotectionagency.com), which allows individuals to file landlord complaints and generate “free” landlord reports. Sites like these, however, often require fees and don’t have enough information on file to suffice as a resource.
If your building is run by a property management company, there’s a chance it is listed on the popular peer-review site yelp.com. Apartment buildings are also reviewed, with ratings ranging from one star out of five (Melrose Canyon Apartments) to five out of five (Bayview Apartments).
However your research is conducted, the most important thing for a renter is to know your rights. If they are violated, actions can be taken and, as daunting as legal battles may seem, there is hope.
“Most cases,” Probus says, “settle without going to trial.”