At the end of each residential tenancy in California, landlords are required to perform a checklist of tasks to comply with the law. These tasks can be intimidating and are riddled with pitfalls that could result in further involvement with your tenant, including potential dispute. In this article, we will go over some of the most important things to remember to help you avoid a dispute with your soon to be former tenant.
Pre Move-Out Inspection
Any time a tenant’s occupation of a residential unit is coming to an end, the landlord is required to offer a pre move-out inspection related to the tenant’s security deposit. I typically have my landlord clients provide notice three (3) weeks before the anticipated move-out date. Additionally, Civil Code Section 1950.5 requires specific language to be delivered to the tenant relating to the inspection. See below:
“Pursuant to the end of your tenancy coming up on [DATE], we would like to offer you a pre-move out inspection as provided for under Civil Code Section 1950.5(f). The purpose of the inspection shall be to allow you an opportunity to remedy identified deficiencies, in a manner consistent with the rights and obligations of the parties under the rental agreement and civil code, in order to avoid deductions from the security deposit. If you would like to do the inspection, please advise on some dates and times in the immediate future so we can schedule the inspection. Ideally, the sooner the better as it will give you all more time to conduct any necessary repairs before your tenancy ends on [DATE].”
Regarding timing of the inspection, this is what Section 1950.5 says: “at a reasonable time, but no earlier than two weeks before the termination or the end of lease date, the landlord, or an agent of the landlord, shall, upon the request of the tenant, make an initial inspection of the premises prior to any final inspection the landlord makes after the tenant has vacated the premises.” The tenant has no obligation to conduct a pre move-out inspection, and if they fail to do so, they’ll be unable to cure deficiencies that would otherwise result in deductions from the deposit.
After the inspection, the landlord is required to provide the tenant with an itemized statement of proposed deductions, specifying what repairs and/or cleanings need to be done to avoid such deductions. The statement needs specific language, so please seek legal counsel when drafting these post-inspection itemized statements for the tenant.
Arguably, if the landlord does not offer the pre move-out inspection and/or send an itemized statement, the tenant can claim that the landlord should not be entitled to make any deductions for cleaning and/or repairs they otherwise would be entitled to make.
Confirm Relinquishment of Possession
Even if a tenant promises to be out by a set date and their move-out is cordial, landlords must be especially careful when regaining possession of the unit. Our firm has litigated disputes wherein a landlord reasonably believed the tenant had vacated, but they had not formally ‘relinquished possession’. In that case, the landlord noticed that the tenant had emptied out the unit and was not present, so they changed the locks and regained possession. Unfortunately, the tenant was still in the process of vacating the property, and the changing of the locks resulted in a premature wrongful eviction of the tenant. The wrongful lockout cost the landlord thousands of dollars in damages to the tenant.
No matter if there is a signed move-out agreement, valid cause to terminate the tenancy, or some other kind of mechanism terminating the tenant’s right to possession, it is extremely important the landlord confirms that the tenant has given up possession. It is preferred that confirmation be made in writing by the tenant, either via text message, email, etc. Outside of written confirmation, a full return of the keys is another way that a tenant can affirmatively relinquish possession. This confirmation process can be tricky and we recommend you seek legal counsel so as to avoid an unlawful lockout of the tenant as the penalties are steep.
Return of Security Deposit and Itemized Statement
In addition to having to offer the tenant a pre move-out inspection, landlords must also send their tenants an itemized statement and a return of the security deposit within 21 days after the tenants vacate the subject property. Please be mindful that the 21-day deadline is non-negotiable, and failure to comply with that deadline is one of the more common landlord-tenant disputes we see come into our firm.
Within 21 days, landlords must itemize any deductions allowed under Section 1950.5., make those deductions, and send the itemized statement with a refund of any remaining deposit to the tenant at their forwarding address. If an address is not provided to the landlord by the tenant, landlord is allowed to mail the statement and deposit to the subject property. It is encouraged that the landlord also emails a copy to the tenant as a courtesy to expedite receipt. Please be careful however, as landlords must serve a written copy of the statement, meaning a ‘paper copy’. Email service alone does not suffice and will cause the landlord to breach their duty under Section 1950.5.
In addition to the 21-day deadline, if a landlord makes deductions from the deposit, they must provide invoices, receipts, documentation, etc., to the tenant supporting the deductions. Failure to do so will result in non-compliance with the statute. If documentation cannot be provided within 21 days, a landlord may send them after the itemized statement, typically required within 14 days after the statement was delivered. If this is the case, the landlord must make a good faith estimate of the deductions and follow up with the documentation within the time provided.
Failure to comply with Civil Code Section 1950.5 could result in the landlord being required to return the full deposit to their tenant. In addition to that, if it’s deemed the landlord retained the deposit in bad faith, the tenant could make a claim for damages in the amount of two times the deposit (in addition to return of the deposit). As you can see, this procedure is riddled with pitfalls, and we recommend you seek out legal advice if you are unsure about how to handle the tenant’s deposit after they vacate.
Abandoned Personal Property
Once you’ve done your pre move-out inspection and regained possession, it is not uncommon for tenants to leave items of personal property behind. Either they do so purposefully, they didn’t have enough time to vacate, or they simply just forgot. Regardless, if this occurs, there is a specific procedure that landlords must go through to comply with California law as it relates to abandoned personal property belonging to a tenant.
Civil Code Sections 1980 through 1991 discuss how to handle this type of situation. First, landlords must inventory the items left behind by the tenant. We typically have landlords provide us with a list of all the items left behind, including pictures of the items if possible. Then, that list must be included on a notice that outlines the specific timeline the tenant has to recoup the property. Depending on service of the notice, the tenant has anywhere from 15 to 18 days to recoup the property. If the tenant doesn’t recoup the item within 2 days after they vacate, the landlord can charge the tenant the reasonable cost of storage for the items left behind.
If the tenant fails to respond and/or recoup the items within the timeframe provided, the landlord can dispose of the items in one of two ways, depending on the value of the items. If the items are worth $700 or more, the property must be sold in a public auction that requires very specific notice and actions to comply with the code. If the items are worth less than $700, the landlord can dispose of the items in any way that is convenient for them, including throwing the items away.
Like other end of tenancy checklist items, the handling of abandoned personal property belonging to a tenant can also be complex and riddled with pitfalls.
Not only do property owners and managers have many responsibilities while their tenants reside in their unit(s), but the process of a tenant vacating the unit and what happens after the tenant vacates has many steps involved, as well as many pitfalls. Our firm regularly helps landlords and property managers handle these steps, as well as help them avoid the pitfalls that come with them. Please do not hesitate to reach out for help or assistance with your rental property, we’d be happy to help.