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Q: What can I do if my tenant still owes me money after I applied the security deposit to the outstanding balance for unpaid rent and necessary costs to clean and repair the rental unit?

A.  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 from 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. Second, if the tenant fails to pay for the balance not covered by the security deposit, then you may file an action against the tenant to recover the outstanding sum. You can do this in small claims court.  You will need to know where the tenant lives or works to serve him or her with the lawsuit.

Q.        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 in bad faith, 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 the 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 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? What can I do to collect money for all of the damages?

A.If there is extensive damage to the unit that exceeds normal wear and tear, then the landlord is required to send an estimated security deposit itemization within 21 days of the tenant vacating. 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.  If the tenant still owes you money after applying the security deposit, you may file an action in small claims court.  In small claims court, you will need to prove the extent of the damages and provide evidence to the judge including, if avilable, photos, a copy of the lease/rental agreement, move-in/move-out checklist, and copies of all receipts and invoices. You should organize these items into a packet for yourself, the tenant, and the judge. Additionally, you may want to submit a short trial brief to the judge to lay out your position and damages.

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 counterclaim. In your counterclaim, you may request damages up to $10,000. Once you file your claim you will need to attend your hearing and present your case to the judge. If you win at your small claims trial, then the judge may award you a judgment for the money the tenant owes you. If you want to sue the tenant for more than $10,000, then you will need to file an action in Superior Court.

Q. I went to small claims court because my tenant sued me for the return of their 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. 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 the date the Notice of Entry of Judgment was mailed to you by the court clerk. The case will be heard again without consideration of the previous ruling. In the appeal, you and your tenant may be represented by an attorney. If you do retain an attorney, you should try to settle the case one last time. Settling the matter, will take the expense and risk out of having to go to trial again.