Q. I was just informed that my landlord pulled a fast one on me. Is it against the law to require first and last months’ rent, a deposit, and a pet deposit? My rent is $850; the deposit is $500; plus a $450 pet deposit! Can my landlord do this?

– Danielle

A. The answer to this question depends on a few factors, including your definition of “pulled a fast one”! But, to answer your specific question as to whether it’s legal for a landlord to require fees at the beginning of the tenancy, which typically include the first month’s rent and a security deposit: yes, it is perfectly legal and in fact these are very common provisions in rental agreements and leases in California.

In regard to the cost of rent, there’s no state or federal law that restricts the amount of rent a landlord can charge; legally, he or she can charge whatever they want, unless the premises are under the jurisdiction of local rent-control ordinances. To find out if you live in a city with rent control, you can check out the California Courtslist of cities with rent control. You can also contact your local housing officials or rent control board, visit your local law library, or read your city or county ordinances online.

In contrast to rental rates, state laws do have something say about security deposits. In California, landlords may not charge more than twice the amount of rent as security if the unit is unfurnished; if the unit is furnished, the landlord can charge up to three times the amount of monthly rent as a deposit [Civ. Code Section 1950.5(c)]. So, if you’re renting an unfurnished apartment at $850 per month, the maximum your landlord can require as a security deposit is twice that amount, or $1700. You can read more about security deposits on the California Courts Self-Help Center or the California Department of Consumer Affairs’s Guide to Residential Tenants’ and Landlords’ Rights and Responsibilities. Now, the next question is: what does state law define as “security”?

According to Civil Code Section 1950.5(b), security is any payment or deposit “that is imposed at the beginning of the tenancy to be used to reimburse the landlord for costs associated with processing a new tenant or that is imposed as an advance payment of rent,” and subsections 1-4 go on to list specifics, like rent, repair of damages, cleaning, or any other obligations listed in the rental agreement. You can read California laws online at http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes.xhtml

If a landlord chooses to “earmark” security funds for a specific purpose, say, a security deposit for cleaning, a pet deposit for possible pet damages, and the last month’s rent as security for default, that’s his or her prerogative. But–the total of the deposits still cannot exceed the state limit of two or three times the amount of monthly rent. Earmarking only serves to limit the landlord’s use of the funds in certain circumstances, though it also muddies the waters for tenants who may not be aware of state laws regarding security deposits.

Some rental agreements lay out these earmarks in detail, while others simply ask for a security deposit and list the ways in which it could potentially be used. Either way, it is important to know if your deposit fee meets or exceeds the state-mandated maximum. Ultimately, I recommend closely reviewing your agreement or lease and, if you still have questions, consulting “California Tenants’ Rights" or “California Landlord’s Law Book: Rights and Responsibilities,” two very helpful self-help law books published by Nolo Press. These books are written with California landlords and tenants in mind and include citations to state statutes and regulations. You can find these books at your local public law library or for sale online at Nolo Press or Amazon. In addition, this Landlord-Tenant guide created by the Sacramento County Public Law Library lists numerous local and state resources available to landlords and tenants.

Lastly, you say that your landlord has “pulled a fast one” though it’s unclear as to what, exactly, has occurred. If your landlord withheld the true costs from you until after you signed the rental agreement, this is a problem and I’d recommend visiting your local public law library for further research, or consulting an attorney who specializes in landlord-tenant issues. SCPLL has compiled a helpful list of attorney locator resources.

Do you have a question for the County Law Librarian? Just email sacpress@saclaw.org. If your question is selected your answer will appear in next Thursday’s column. Even if your question isn’t selected, though, I will still respond within two weeks.

Coral Henning, Director
@coralh & @saclawlibrarian