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How to Tackle the Two Most Common Landlord Problems

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Troubles with the landlord usually come in one of two flavors: unhealthy or uncomfortable conditions that never get fixed, or security deposits that never get returned. We talked to LA tenants' rights attorney Philip Shakhnis
to find out what to do should you find yourself in either situation.

Uninhabitable conditions
Shakhnis says the bulk of his cases stem from conditions like "cockroach infestations or bed bugs, heaters that don't work so people are cold," drafty doors and windows, and mold, each of which could render an apartment "uninhabitable" by California's housing law. These conditions are easy to miss when you're apartment hunting, so avoiding them in the first place can be tricky.

But your landlord or managing company is required to take prompt action to remedy these problems once they've been flagged. The first step is to document the issue as thoroughly as you can. Then report it: a phone call is fine initially, but any follow up should be done in writing, with dated copies kept for your records. If no improvements are made after two or three requests, contact your city's housing department, which will send an inspector out to deal with the problem. Housing departments in Santa Monica and Culver City have good reputations, but Shakhnis warns that the "LA Housing Department is like a C. They don't really go the extra mile to really protect tenants." Which is why it's important to keep good records to back up your claims.

Security deposits
Landlords are obligated to return a tenant's security deposit within 21 days of the end of the tenancy, minus the cost of fixing any damage to the apartment. But there's a difference between damage and ordinary wear and tear; your security deposit can only be used to fix the former. The longer you've lived someplace, the stronger your case for an issue being classed as wear and tear rather than damaged. For instance, if you've lived someplace for a couple of years and the owner wants to repaint when you leave, it's their responsibility. But if you leave after six months and new paint is required, it's yours.

Shakhnis advises tenants to ask for a pre-move out inspection. At the end of the inspection your landlord will give you a list of all the repairs, and the chance to make them yourself. After the inspection is done, your landlord can't add anything new to the list; if you make all the repairs, you're entitled to your full deposit back. If not, you're entitled to an itemized list of charges for the repairs, including receipts or good-faith estimates. The inspection is guaranteed to all renters in the California Housing Code, but "tenants have to ask for it, or it won't happen."

Small claims court
If you wind up taking your landlord to court over the security deposit, you're likely to end up in small claims court where--as you may recall from your days watching The People's Court--you have to represent yourself. According to Shakhnis, the problem with small claims court is that even if you win, enforcing the judgment can be difficult. As he says, "people don't know how to do this, and landlords understand this?so sometimes they don't mind because they know the tenants won't know how to collect." --Eve Bachrach [Image via Chris Camargo / Curbed LA flickr pool]
· Renters Week 2012 [Curbed LA]