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Rental Experts Talk Rent Trends, Security Deposits, Fridges

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Curbed University delivers insider tips and non-boring advice on how to buy, sell, or rent a house or apartment. Additional questions welcomed to la@curbed.com.

Last week you had questions about renting in LA, and this week we have answers, courtesy of The Rental Girl, a leasing agency with neighborhood branches throughout the city. Each branch is operated by an individual agent providing free listings to renters. Answering your questions are Ellie and Zaya, the agents representing many of the eastish- and eastside neighborhoods. Ellie covers Los Feliz, SIlver Lake, and Atwater Village; Zaya covers Echo Park, Highland Park, and Eagle Rock.

Question: What kind of changes are you seeing in the rental market now that the housing market is coming back? Are fewer people looking to rent because they're looking to buy? Are rents going up?

Zaya: Just like today's housing market, the inventory for rentals is low and demand is high. As housing prices are going up, not all young professionals can afford to buy, so they're renting! Because of this, the rental market in LA has become very competitive and rents are going up.

Ellie: Rents have been going up for the past couple of years. But the good news is this: because it is now easier for investors and property owners to borrow money, rentals are improving. We are seeing more remodeled and updated properties which provide renters more for their money. Also, as LA.Curbed has been reporting, investors and developers are building! There will be an influx of new rentals on the market soon.

Question: Is it legal for property management to retain a substantial amount of your security deposit when you move out for things like carpet cleaning, apartment cleaning, and apartment painting?

Zaya: The landlord can deduct from your security deposit for 1) rent owed, 2) cost of repairs for damage done by you, 3) cleaning, 4) lost keys and missing/damaged garage door openers. It is illegal for a property management or landlord to charge a non-refundable security deposit, including a non-refundable "cleaning fee", "carpet cleaning fee" or "re-painting fee." The landlord has to give you the opportunity to return the unit in the condition it was in at move in, minus normal wear and tear. A landlord/management company may deduct all or a portion of the security deposit for cleaning and repairs, but they cannot charge you an unreasonable amount for repairs, and must provide you with receipts of the performed work, or estimates, to restore the unit to the original condition. Before you vacate, you have the right to request an itemized list of repairs from the landlord.

Ellie: Regarding carpet cleaning/replacement and painting, the State Consumer Affairs has published a California tenants guide that addresses security deposit refunds, which suggests approaches for security deposit deductions pertaining to carpet and painting. It can be frustrating and difficult to consult on carpet replacement because there are different types of carpet. But generally the cost is amortized over the expected life of the carpet. With painting, it is generally accepted that if you have lived in your apartment for over two years the landlord should not deduct for painting (unless you have violated the terms of your agreement and have repainted on your own).

Question: When I moved out of my apartment, I left it in pretty darn good condition, but they still retained $400 for the things I listed. I'm confused, because I thought retaining security deposit is only allowed if you break something or leave something in bad condition, whereas normal wear and tear and routine maintenance are supposed to be paid for by the management company.

Zaya: We suggest you first write a letter to your landlord. Cite sections of the civil code pertaining to security deposit refunds, highlighting the specific sections your landlord has violated. Inform the landlord that you are aware of the law and request the landlord to return your deposit amicably or you will pursue your case in small claims. If the landlord does not respond, you should contact the Department of Consumer Affairs, which regulates security deposits, for advice and mediation. Many times, security deposit discrepancies can be dealt with outside of court, either through mediation or communicating directly with the landlord. As a last resort, you may consider taking your case to small claims court.

Ellie: There are certain measures you can take at the beginning of the lease term to help ensure full refund of your security deposit at the end of your lease. For starters, you should take digital photos of the unit before you move in. Take detailed photos and take a lot of them. You should also fill out a Move In Inspection form noting the existing condition of the unit, scratches on the floors, tears in the screens, dings in the appliances, etc. You need a record of the existing damage of the unit so you are not charged for it when you move out. Do this when you move out as well: take digital photos of the unit and perform a Move Out Inspection. Request the landlord perform a move out inspection with you before you move out so your landlord can inform you in advance of any damage he wants you to correct.

Question: I'm looking to rent an apartment in LA. However, I live on the East Coast. I've have never known of an apartment that does not come with a refrigerator as a standard appliance and I've been seeing it at a lot of places. Is that an indication of a poorly managed apartment complex or is this just common?

Zaya: The trend of L.A. landlords not providing refrigerators started many, many years ago. Landlords who have a lot of experience renting L.A. apartments or who have a lot of rentals tend to not want to provide refrigerators because they feel it's one more item to repair and ultimately that affects their bottom line. This is important to understand because a vacancy that sits for a long time also affects a landlord's bottom line. So don't be afraid to negotiate: are you willing to move in right away or offer a longer lease term? You can always negotiate with the landlord and ask the landlord to provide the fridge. Or, the landlord may be willing to offer you a move in special if you bring your own fridge.

Ellie: I'd say about 50 percent of properties include refrigerators. But because this has been going on for so many years, there is also a market here for used refrigerators in LA. There are many tenants selling their refrigerators on Craigslist and for about $50 you can find a guy with a truck to deliver it! There are also a ton of used appliance stores in L.A. that sell used refrigerators, offer free delivery and a guarantee.

Question: Is there a standard for carpet replacement? We've had ours for four years and the previous tenants had the same carpet for at least two. The landlord put hardwood in the main areas but the bedrooms were left with the same carpet. Can we get it cleaned or replaced at this point by the landlord or is it up to us?

Zaya: Unfortunately no. Unless it is a habitability or health issue the landlord does not have to repaint or recarpet a unit during a tenancy.

Ellie: Even though it's not required, you can always ask. If you pay your rent on time and you are a desirable tenant, the landlord will not want to lose you. If would be more cost effective for a landlord to repaint or re-carpet your unit then to deal with a vacancy. Some tenants negotiate with their landlords and split the cost.

Question: What, exactly, are my odds of finding my first apartment, with bad credit, and a willing cosigner? I'm young, employed, but my debt gives me nightmares

Zaya: Nowadays, it's not hard to find a rental with bad credit because there are a lot of people in the same situation. Having a willing cosigner is great; however, it depends on his/her credit, income, whether or not the cosigner is in the state. Some landlords prefer not to have any cosigners. In that case, it helps to be willing or able to pay a higher security deposit or several months rent upfront. Also, get references from your previous landlords to prove that you're an awesome tenant. With a cosigner, excellent references and/or higher deposit, you have good chances finding a rental in LA. Good luck!

Ellie: Every property owner is different and depending on the landlord they may or may not be OK with your credit situation. Every credit report is looked at differently based on what is on it, dates and reasons. The best way to give yourself a chance is to: a) see the property you desire, b) fill out a full application (without paying the application fee), c) but include the required items such as ID, proof of income, copy of your credit report, and so forth, d) and finally I also recommend a letter of explanation to the owner. You never know - this may help you win them over. In general, it is better to be upfront about your situation. [Illustration by Eric Lebofsky]
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