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Q: My tenant recently vacated my rental property. The security deposit does not cover the full cost of the damage the tenant left at the property. What can I do to recover this money?

  1.  First, you will need to fill out a security deposit itemization for back rent, cleaning costs, and damage beyond normal wear and tear. Deduct the security deposit for the amount owed, then request the tenant pay you the remaining sum due. You are required to mail the itemization and receipts for materials and labor within 21 days of the tenant vacating by regular US mail to the tenant’s last known address. In many situations the tenant’s last known address might be your rental property that they just vacated from. Second, if the tenant fails to pay for the additional back rent, cleaning costs, and/or damages, then you may file an action against the tenant to recover the outstanding sum. You will need to know where the tenant lives or works to serve him or her with the lawsuit.

Q.        After my tenant moved out, I forgot to send the security deposit itemization within 21 days of the tenant vacating. Can the tenant sue me for more than just the security deposit amount?

A.        Yes, if the security deposit is mishandled, then the tenant may be entitled to up to three times the security deposit. However, if the tenant sues you in small claims court, then total amount cannot exceed $10,000 as this is the jurisdictional limit in small claims court.  To request sums more than $10,000, the tenant would have to sue you in the Superior Court.

Q.        I am a landlord and my tenants vacated two weeks ago. There is so much damage to the property that I will not be able to produce a full Security Deposit Itemization and receipts within 21 days of the tenant vacating. Can I wait until the repairs are done to send the Security Deposit Itemization?

A.        If there is extensive damage to the unit that exceeds normal wear and tear, then the landlord may send an estimated security deposit itemization within 21 Days of the tenant vacating. However, once the work is completed, the landlord must send an updated security deposit itemization, including all receipts and invoices supporting the charges, within 14 days. 

Q.        I followed California Civil Code §1950.5 and sent a security deposit itemization with receipts to my tenant within 21 Days of them vacating. My tenant sued me in small claims court for their security deposit, but they owe me for over $10,000 worth of damages and unpaid rent. What can I do to get the judge to award me the money the tenant owes?

A. You will need to file a counter-claim for up to $10,000. The judge may deny the tenants claim for money, but if you do not file a counter-claim, then the judge will only rule on the amount requested by the tenant. In order to receive a money judgment from the court, you must demand the amount in your small claims counter-claim, then present your case to the judge. If you win at your small claims trial, then the judge may award you a judgment.

Q. I went to small claims court with my tenant because they sued me for the security deposit. The judge ruled that I did not have enough evidence or receipts and awarded the tenant the full security deposit plus attorney’s fees. I have the receipts at home and I provided them to the tenant. Can I appeal this case? If so, how long do I have to appeal it?

A. You may appeal your small claims case within 30 days after receiving notice of entry of judgment mailed by the court clerk. The trial will be heard again without consideration of the previous ruling. You and your tenant may also have attorneys represent you in an appeal. If you do seek an attorney, then the attorney may also suggest trying to settle the small claims action before having to go to trial. This will take the risk out of having to go to trial again and will resolve your small claims matter.

Q. I am a landlord that recently filed a small claims lawsuit against my previous tenant for damages to my rental unit. What are the kinds of evidence that can help me win my case?

A.  You will need to prove the extent of the damages and provide evidence to the judge including, photos, a copy of the lease/rental agreement, move-in/move-out checklist, and copies of all receipts and invoices. You will need to organize these items into a packet for yourself, the tenant, and the judge. Additionally, you may submit a short trial brief to the judge to lay out your position and damages. You can have an attorney prepare documents for you to bring with you to court but you will not be able to have an attorney present to argue your case.

Q. My previous tenant sued me in small claims court for their security deposit. I have some legal questions about the small claims case. What resources are available to me to get legal advise about small claims cases?

A. The San Diego Superior Court has a small claims advisor that is available to answer legal questions for free by phone or in person Monday through Thursday. Your can find more information about the small claims advisor by calling 858-634-1777 or visiting the court website.