Moving In

By Alan Pentico, CAE, San Diego County Apartment Association

It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of finding an apartment and moving in, especially for first-time renters.

There are certain steps, however, that you should take before signing on the dotted line and handing over a security deposit as well as first and last month’s rent. There are additional steps you should take once you’ve signed a lease.

Make sure you know if you are paying first month’s rent, last month’s rent, security deposit, or all three. Indicate on the memo line of the check what you are paying for and get a receipt from the landlord.

You should carefully inspect the apartment with the landlord. Make sure the apartment has been well-maintained. Ask the landlord to use a written checklist so you both agree on the condition of the apartment before you move in.

Take this seriously, recording the smallest of problems like nail holes and taking pictures of significant damage. Look for the following problems:

  • Cracks or holes in the floor, walls or ceiling
  • Signs of leaking water or water damage in the floor, walls, or ceiling
  • Leaks in bathroom or kitchen fixtures
  • Any signs of mold or pests
  • Lack of hot water
  • Inadequate heating or air conditioning
  • Damaged flooring

If something is not to your liking asked to have it fixed before moving in, and ask for a copy of the checklist. Save it and use it to resolve differences when moving out and claiming your security deposit.

If you sign a lease, the landlord is required to give you a signed copy within 30 days. Keep your records in a safe and secure place.

You should consider purchasing renters’ insurance. The landlord’s insurance will generally not cover your belongings. Make sure to ask. Renters’ insurance will protect you against loss of your property by fire or theft and often helps with temporary housing. It also will protect you against liability if someone claims you injured another person or damaged that person’s property. Coverage in California for a two-bedroom apartment can be as low as $15 a month.

“Renter’s Insurance has become less of an option and more of a necessity these days,” says Christine La Marca, Supervisor at The Kevane Company.  “A landlords’ or owners’ insurance will cover damage caused by disasters like fire or flood, but unless the damage is due to the owner’s negligence, it won’t help the tenant replace items damaged in such cases. It may also help protect you in an instance where you are found to be at fault for damage to the property and the owner’s insurance seeks reimbursement for the loss. Quite often renter’s insurance can be combined with a tenant’s auto insurance policy for an even lower rate.”

La Marca points to recent news stories about house fires and cars driving into homes when noting many insurance-related issues stem from a tenant’s negligence, such as a cooking fire or an overflowed toilet, but sometimes it is caused by a third party. In situations like these, the owner’s insurance will pay for the building repairs but it will not replace the tenant’s damaged property.

When you move, it is important to notify the U.S. Post Office of your new address so that your mail can find you. Forms are available at any post office branch. You also may file your change of address online at

At least one week before moving into your apartment, contact the local utilities (gas, electricity, water, cable, telephone, sewer, etc.) in order to turn on the utilities in your name. Your landlord should be able to provide you with a list or may be able to do it for you. In many instances, the utility company may charge a deposit.

Here are some additional tips:

  • Pay for professional movers or ask friends and family to help you
  • Collect boxes a few weeks before moving
  • Label boxes with a marker
  • Buy cleaning supplies and expect to do some cleaning
  • Before doing any painting or repairs, check with the landlord to see what is and isn’t allowed
  • Figure out where you want to put your furniture before moving in
  • Ask your landlord where you are allowed to store your belongings, where you are allowed to park and what the property rules are
  • Lastly, enjoy your new place. It’s your home.

Pentico is the executive director of the San Diego County Apartment Association, which serves 150,000 rental housing units and 2,200 members in San Diego County.

The article also appeared in February 2012 in the Union-Tribune Renter Section, Lilly Leung, Reporter

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Security Deposits
  • Pets
  • Income Standards
  • Holding Deposits
  • Guests
  • Occupancy Limits
  • Rent

 Scroll down for more information on these topics.

Security Deposits

What is the maximum amount of security can an owner charge a tenant?
Residential owners can charge residents a maximum security deposit equal to two month's rent for unfurnished units and three month's rent for furnished units. Even if an owner designates some of the security deposit as "last month's rent," "cleaning deposit," or "pet deposit," the two or three month limit still applies.

Can owners charge a pet deposit?
Yes. However, the law considers all deposits, such as last month's rent, cleaning deposits, key deposits, and pet deposits as part of the overall security deposit. (The only exception is a waterbed deposit of one-half of one month's rent, which the owner can charge the resident in addition to the overall security deposit.) In other words, if an owner designates and charges separate deposits, these deposits together cannot total more than two times the monthly rent if the unit is unfurnished (no more than three times the monthly rent if the unit is furnished). It is better to charge one deposit rather than two or three separate deposits. The owner will have more discretion at the end of tenancy if damages are caused by the resident (or the resident's pet).

What can an owner use a security deposit for?
The security deposit can be applied to: (1) a resident's default in the payment of rent; (2) the repair of damages to the premises (exclusive of ordinary wear and tear); (3) the cleaning of the premises upon termination of the tenancy if necessary to bring the unit to the same level of cleanliness it was in at the inception of the tenancy; or (4) remedy future defaults by the resident in any obligations under the rental agreement to restore, replace, or return personal property to their original position (exclusive of ordinary wear and tear).

What is considered normal wear and tear under the security deposit law?
The law does not define "normal wear and tear." The most important thing to remember is that in California no deposit can be defined as "nonrefundable"-not even a cleaning deposit-so a property owner should be reasonable and prudent when deciding not to return a portion-or all-of a resident's security deposit. The owner should always take into consideration the amount of time the resident lived in the unit. The law is clear that the owner may charge the tenant for the cleaning of the premises upon termination of the tenancy necessary to return the unit to the same level of cleanliness it was at the inception of the tenancy.

What are some examples of Normal Wear and Tear for which a Security Deposit should NOT be kept?

  • Minor chipped, peeling or worn paint
  • Rusty fixtures in kitchen or bathroom
  •  Wear on carpets
  •  "Bubbled" or raised carpets or linoleum
  •  Loose or missing grout around tile in kitchen or bathroom
  •  Discolored/faded kitchen or bathroom linoleum
  •  Sun damaged curtains or shades
  •  Lack of finish on hardwood floors
  •  Water damage caused by leaky roof

What are some examples of Damage that may Warrant the Retention of All or Part of the Security Deposit?

  • Holes in walls or doors
  • Burns in carpet, linoleum, or counters
  • Ripped linoleum
  • Crayon marks on walls or fixtures
  • Missing or broken fixtures, doors, or appliances
  • Missing or damaged window screens
  • Damage caused by pets
  • Flea infestation caused by pets
  • Torn drapes, blinds, or shades
  • Lost or broken keys
  • Water damage caused by tenant possessions such as fish tank or plants
  • Toilet clogged with unflushable items
  • Broken tiles in the kitchen or bathroom
  • Damaged furniture provided in furnished rental unit
  • Mildew caused by lack of proper cleaning
  • Excessively greasy parking space

As a resident, how many days does the owner have to return a resident's security deposit after move out?
Civil Code Section 1950.5 requires that within three weeks (21 days) after the resident has vacated the unit, the owner must furnish the resident with a copy of an itemized statement indicating the basis for, and the amount of, any security received and the disposition of the security, and the owner must return any remaining portion of the security to the resident.


Can owners prohibit pets at rental properties?
A "no pets" policy is permissible with the following exception: Owners must allow reasonable accommodations for residents with a disability. Property owners must allow an animal that assists a resident in his/her day-to-day living.

Income Standards

Can owners refuse to rent to roommates because individually their incomes do not meet their established income standard?
No. If owners allow married couples to combine their income, they must allow the roommates to combine their income in order to meet their income standard requirements.

Holding Deposits

If I put down a holding deposit on a unit, but now have decided not to move in. Can the owner keep the entire deposit?
In California , there is no such thing as a non-refundable deposit. However, an owner who has taken the unit off the market and held it for the prospective resident (presumably turning away other applicants), can deduct a reasonable amount from the deposit to cover costs of keeping the unit vacant (usually in the form of a daily rental charge) or costs associated with advertising stops and starts. Caution should be used when deducting from holding deposits, however, since the potential amount withheld must be stated up front, and if challenged, the onus falls on the owner to prove deductions are reasonable. If owners choose to take holding deposits, the transaction should be put in writing.


Does the law define guests and can a rental property owner set rules governing their stay?
The law does not define the difference between a guest and a resident. The owner can set reasonable standards by which a guest will be considered a resident and set limitations on the duration of a guest's stay. Owners should ensure that all policies are clearly set out in the rental agreement.

Occupancy Limits

Can an owner limit the number of people allowed to live in a unit?
Owners must be reasonable when setting occupancy limits for their rental units.

They cannot set unreasonable occupancy limits to avoid renting to a class of people- such as families with children or immigrants. Occupancy standards that are based on objective criteria, such as square footage, facilities, or open space are more likely to be viewed as reasonable by the courts.


Can an owner charge a late fee when a resident is late in paying rent?
There is no state law that specifically addresses late fees, and court judges vary in their rulings on late fees. Some courts have allowed $5 or $10 while others have allowed up to $30. The rule of thumb appears to be that an owner's late fee must be reasonable; the owner must be able to show that he or she derived the late fee through a reasonable endeavor to estimate fair compensation for the owner's time and expense.

Can an owner raise the rent during a tenancy? How?
In month-to-month tenancies, the rent can be raised after giving the resident appropriate advance notice. The amount of notice required depends on the level of increase. In the case of a fixed-term lease, provisions regarding rent cannot be changed during the term of the lease. There is no state law that limits the amount or percentage of increase. Some local communities however regulate rent increases.

What type of notice does an owner have to give to a resident who has not paid rent?
When a resident fails to pay rent, an owner can serve a Three-Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit. If the resident does not pay rent after the third day, the owner can proceed with an Unlawful Detainer Complaint.

If a resident fails to pay rent, can an owner change the lock on the unit door or turn off the electricity?
No. These activities, referred to as "constructive evictions" or "self help evictions," are illegal.

If an owner wants to terminate a month-to-month tenancy with a resident, how much advance notice must the owner give the resident?
California law requires an owner to give a resident a 60-day notice prior to terminating a month-to-month tenancy, if the resident has been in possession of the unit for one year of longer. The owner can give a 30-day notice if the resident has been in possession of the unit for less than one year.

Different notice laws apply, however, if the owner wishes to terminate the tenancy due to the resident's failure to pay the rent or when the resident violates the lease provisions or any local, state, or federal laws.

For more information regarding frequently asked questions and answers, contact SDCAA.