DennisBeaverNovember 18, 2006 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

If you are a landlord or tenant, today’s story will be of special interest, as it is an example of what gives landlords and some property managers a bad name. A real bad name.

Our story begins in Hanford, when in February of 2005 Craig and Becky (names have been changed) rented a cute little house on Berkshire Street from the owner (Sarah) who lives in San Jose. As her cousin Dimitri lives in Hanford, the task of collecting rent and managing the property was left to him.

Naive newlyweds in trouble

Becky’s mother-in-law contacted You and the Law on behalf of her newlywed son and his bride, believing it was time for her to step into a situation well beyond the experience of this young couple. She was right.

In the summer of 2006, the newlyweds found a house they wanted to buy. Wanting to do the right thing, they discussed finding a new tenant with Sarah and Dimitri.

“The kids did locate an acceptable tenant who signed a new lease. We are worried about the return of their $1,200 security deposit. It appears that improper deductions are going to be made,” Craig’s mother explained.

There was good reason to be concerned, as several days before the end of their occupancy, a real nightmare began, as I would soon learn.

Why you sleeping? Get up!

“I work nights, and suddenly, early one Saturday morning in late September, there was a loud banging on our front door, and the door bell was repeatedly rung. It was Dimitri yelling for me to get up. I explained that I was sleeping because I work nights, but he didn’t care. He yelled, ‘Why aren’t you guys moving?’ I told him that we are paid up until the first of the month. He kept asking where my wife was, repeating ‘You are supposed to be moving out!'”

“Dimitri said his cousin was coming to check out the house. But I told him no one said anything about this. Yelling, he said that he would just go find my wife and bring her back to the house! I said she was working at the Hanford Civic Auditorium for a community fundraising event.”

“We knew Sarah was coming down to sign a lease with the new tenants, but there was never a discussion about inspecting the house. We were still living there!” Craig maintained.

“When my wife returned later, she was in tears, and told me that Dimitri was yelling at her in front of other people, demanding that she go to the house. This was obviously embarrassing as she has a good position with her bank and is well thought of,” Craig added.

I confirmed these events with Becky, who even today is afraid of Dimitri, “and of what he might say or do since he knows where I work.”

Several hours later, the owner did show up and announced to the couple something that left them “dumbfounded.”

“I am charging you for renting a car to come here because the tires on my car are bad, as well as my lost wages for taking the day off!” she told them.

The couple was unaware that California law does NOT permit a landlord to just “drop in” and “inspect” a rental property, unless very specific legal requirements are met. None were in this situation. Neither Dimitri nor Sarah had the right to disturb their tenants. It was a clear violation of a tenant’s right of what we call “Quiet Enjoyment” of the property.

Was the lease broken?

When a tenant just walks away from a lease with no justification or permission from the landlord, it’s a clear breach of the rental agreement, and in some circumstances the owner has the right to immediately enter the unit. But here, the property manager agreed to a substitute tenant. Clearly, there is no “broken” lease, and nothing gave our San Jose owner the right to inspect the property under these circumstances.

Under California Civic Code Section 1954, there is a right to enter the rental unit under very limited circumstances: if there’s a true emergency, after the tenant has moved out, when agreed upon or necessary repairs are to be made or to show the unit to possible tenants. None of that applied here, and this was not a final “walk through” to verify the condition of the house before refunding a security deposit. For that final inspection, two weeks notice must be given under California law.

In reality, the “inspection” by the owner and her cousin was a trespass, in my legal opinion.

Small Claims Court

A landlord is entitled to withhold from the security deposit only those amounts needed to repair damage, or for unpaid rent. As the owner has a resident property manager in Hanford, she has no legal claim to any expenses incurred in her unannounced inspection.

I had the “pleasure” of speaking to Dimitri. At first he admitted collecting the rent and being the property manager. Then, after I explained that he could find himself sued if the couple did not get what was owed them, he denied being the property manager! Suddenly, Dimitri didn’t know much of anything referring me to his cousin in San Jose.

“Sure, may I have her phone number?” I replied. “No! Get it yourself!” “Did you wake up Craig early in the morning?” “Yes, I did. My cousin was coming to see the house and he was supposed to be up.” “Did you actually set up an appointment with the tenants for this visit?” “No. They should have known!”

He was very good at hanging up on my calls – twice.

I located the owner in San Jose, explaining that I was researching this story and cautioned her that there was no right to withhold rental car expense, mileage or wages and that she could be sued for a significant penalty. She hung up. I placed a message on her voice-mail providing all of my contact information and encouraged her to call. I am still waiting for that phone call.

Under California law, as I explained to everyone mentioned in this story, if the landlord makes improper deductions or unjustifiably withholds money from a security deposit, the tenant may sue for the deposit plus a penalty of twice the amount of the deposit.

Both Dimitri and Sarah are asking for a lawsuit. People like this need to be faced down, especially bullies like Dimitri. I told both Craig and Becky that I would be very disappointed if they let the matter drop. The only way to deal with a bully is to stand up and be willing to fight.

I will keep you posted as to what happens.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.