Security Deposits

When you move into a new unit you are typically required to pay a security deposit. One of the most common disputes tenants encounter involves the return of security deposits. The return of security deposits is governed by state law – California Civil Code Section 1950.5. California state law limits the amount a landlord can charge for security deposits.

​In California, a landlord is only able to demand a security deposit of up to two months’ rent for an unfurnished apartment or three months’ rent for a furnished unit in addition to first month’s rent.​Landlords cannot require a non-refundable deposit, and your landlord is required to return your deposit or otherwise account for how it was spent within 21 days of vacating the unit.

How your security deposit can be applied

Your landlord can only charge you for damage to your unit beyond ordinary wear and tear. What is ordinary wear and tear? I’ll put it this way – if you caused the damage with a bat, a ball, or a golf club, it’s probably a safe bet that it’s not “ordinary.” Put another way, it boils down to those things that are inevitable – paint won’t stay fresh for ever, carpets wear out, etc. etc. Sometimes landlords can be sneaky about this and try to charge you for a new carpet or to replace old appliances but as a general rule this is not something you are responsible for unless you caused the damage yourself by other than regular use.

Procedure for Return of Your Security Deposit

In addition to the requirement that your landlord return your deposit within 21 days, they have to provide you with a full accounting if they withhold return of any portion of it. That means they are required to send you receipts for replacement items they had to purchase, invoices for services they had to pay for, etc. If your landlord does not provide you with documentation, call them out by writing them an email or letter (remember, always keep copies) demanding to see the proof. If they refuse, or ignore you, you can use this as proof of bad intent later on (see below for details on what happens if they don’t give you the deposit back). Likewise, if your landlord submits a receipt/invoice that looks outrageous – $500 for a new towel rack? You should consider asking for an explanation in writing.

Remedies if Your Landlord Refuses to Return Your Security Deposit

If your landlord fails or refuses to return all or part of your deposit, and/or to provide an itemized statement and proofs for any deductions, We suggest writing your landlord a letter requesting an explanation and reminding them of their duties before escalating the situation on the off chance they forgot or sent it somewhere else. If you still don’t get it back, or if you disagree with the accounting, your best option is generally to file an action in Small Claims Court. In addition to the disputed money, your landlord may be liable for penalties for improperly withholding your funds. Because most deposits are less than $10,000 Small Claims court is your ticket.

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