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What to do if Landlord improperly withholds your Security Deposit?

Camila Lopez - Landlord - August 26, 2022

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Do you have a dispute with your landlord over your withheld security deposit? What can I do to get my deposit back?  You have several options, including suing your landlord in Small Claims Court.

In this article, learn about:

  • First, let's review the California Security Deposit Law

  • How to write a demand letter.

  • How to Sue your Landlord in California Small Claims Court

  • Small claims court limits.  

  • Fun fact, lawyers are not allowed at the initial small claims hearing! This is to even the playing field so that each party has an equal chance of obtaining justice.  

Review of California Security Deposit Law

Within 21 days from when the tenant moves out, a landlord must:

  • return the full security deposit


  • make deductions to the security deposit and mail (1) the remainder of the security deposit, (2) an itemized statement of the deductions, and (3) receipts if the deductions are for more than $125.

If the repairs are $125 or less and the landlord does not include copies of the receipts, the tenant can request copies of the receipts within 14 days of receiving the itemized statement from the landlord. The landlord then has 14 days to provide the receipts.

What CAN be deducted from a security deposit?

  • Unpaid rent.

  • The cost of fixing damage to the property caused by the tenant. This damage must be in excess of "ordinary wear and tear."

  • The cost of cleaning the unit to return the unit to the same level of cleanliness as it was when the tenant moved in.

Is a walkthrough of the unit required prior to moving out?

  • The landlord is required to notify the tenant in writing of the tenant's option to request an initial inspection before the tenant moves out.

  • The tenant has a right to be present at the inspection unless there isn't a mutually agreeable time for the tenant to be present during the landlord's inspection.

  • If the tenant requests an inspection, the landlord is required to make an initial inspection of the premises less than two weeks before the tenant moves out. At this time, the landlord can notify the tenant of any potential deductions to the security deposit. The tenant can then fix any damages to the unit before they move out (unless the lease agreement states that certain repairs cannot be done by the tenant).

The landlord in bad faith keeps your security deposit

  • If the landlord is keeping your security deposit in "bad faith,"

    you can request up to twice the amount of the security deposit.

Write an Intent to Sue Letter

"Intent to sue letters" are also known as "demand letters." They can be very effective at outlining your rights and making sure someone takes you seriously.

How to write a demand letter 2

How to write a demand letter

Important points to include in the letter:

  • How much money you are owed.

  • Why you are owed money.

  • Your contact information.

  • Where to send payment.

  • Give them a few days to respond.

  • State that if they don't respond, you intend to sue.

Sue your Landlord in California Small Claims Court

Before you can sue in California Small Claims Court, you must first ask your landlord to return the security deposit. We suggest you ask for your security deposit in writing and save that writing as evidence.

How much can I sue for in a Small Claims Court California?

This is also known as the "small claims court limits." In California Small Claims you can sue for the following maximum amounts:

How to write a demand letter 3

California Small Claims Court Limits

What are the California Small Claims Court Filing Fees?

The amount you will pay to file a small claims lawsuit in California depends on how much you are suing for. You will pay between $30 to $75 to file the lawsuit. If cannot afford to pay court fees, you can ask the court to waive the fees.

What are other costs for Small Claims Court?

In most small claims cases, you can expect to pay:

If you win, you can request that the losing party pay for your court fees and serving costs.

To know more about how to File a California Small Claims court lawsuit Check out our How to File your California Small Claims Court Case article.

The Hearing

If both parties show up:

  • Right before the hearing, the judge will ask you and the person you sued to show each other the evidence that they have brought with them.

  • The Judge will ask you why you are suing.

  • Then the person who is being sued will get to present their side of the story.

  • The hearing will last around 15 minutes.

  • The judge will ask you to show the judge the evidence you brought with you. Sometimes the judge will keep the evidence. Otherwise, you will get the evidence right back.

  • Very rarely a judge will tell you who won or lost immediately after the hearing. Instead, the judge will tell you that their decision will be mailed to them (usually takes a few weeks to two months or so).

If only you show up but the person you sued does not show up:

  • You still have to prove to the judge why you should win.

If only the defendant shows up:

Why sue in California Small Claims court?

California Small Claims Court provides a public forum for quick, efficient, and affordable resolution of disputes. In California, your landlord will not be allowed to have an attorney at the small claims hearing. This is done so that there is an even playing field.

Chief Legal Architect & Co-Founder @ People Clerk. Camila is an attorney, consumer advocate, and certified mediator. Her passion is breaking down complicated legal processes so that people without an attorney can get justice.

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