Holding Cleaning Fee from Rent Won’t Wash

I live in South Pasadena but I’ll be moving out of state in the near future. When I moved into my apartment, a $655 security deposit was required. Of this, $150 was allocated toward a “non-refundable cleaning deposit.”

The apartment has been kept in good shape except for a portion of the carpet that was drenched by the recent rains due to a crack in the wall.

I have been told that non-refundable cleaning deposits are illegal in California. Assuming they are illegal, what could happen to me if I deduct $150 from my last month’s rent when I give my 30-day notice to vacate?

A: Non-refundable cleaning deposits became illegal in the State of California on Jan. 1, 1978 (Civil Code section 1950.5[i]). Prior to that time they were legal.

If your tenancy commenced before Jan. 1, 1978, the non-refundable cleaning fee is allowed. Otherwise, it is precluded by state law. That does not mean that the owner cannot charge you to have the apartment cleaned, assuming it was clean when you moved in and it’s dirty when you move out. He is, however, limited to charging you the actual cost of cleaning.

With that background, we’re ready to analyze your question, “…what could happened to me if I deduct $150 from my last month’s rent…?”

Regardless of when you moved in, and whether or not the fee is justified, if you fail to pay all of the rent when due, the owner can serve you with a 3-day notice to pay the (balance of the) rent or quit (move out of) the premises.

If you do one or the other, pay or move, the matter is finished. If not, the owner may proceed with an unlawful detainer, eviction, action. That, of course, is a matter of public record and, as such, is reported on by various credit reporting agencies.

So, while it’s extremely unlikely that you will be evicted before you move out (it often takes longer than a one month), your credit history will be marred by the incident. Pay the rent on time. If there is a problem with any security deposit refund that you may be due and don’t get, you may sue the owner for that in Small Claims Court.

From “The BEST of Apartment Life: How To Survive Apartment Living and Ownership,” by Kevin B. Postema.