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Overview of California Security Deposit Law

Camila Lopez - Security Deposit - December 13, 2022

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‍If your landlord doesn’t return your security deposit, you may be wondering if there’s any way to get it back. Below you’ll find a comprehensive guide that goes over everything you need to know about California security deposit law, California civil code section 1950.5, and how to go to California small claims over your security deposit.

Questions answered in this article:

  • How should I prepare before moving out?

  • What does California Security Deposit Law say?

  • What should I do if my Landlord improperly withholds my Security Deposit? 

  • How much can I sue for in small claims court?

Pre-Move Out Checklist to Increase your Chances of Getting your Security Deposit Back

The best offense is a good defense, so it’s important to make sure you do everything you can to ensure you’ll get your security deposit back ahead of time.

Take Photos

Photo evidence is one of the keys to keeping your security deposit because it can help you prove that specific damages may not have been your fault. When you first move in, make sure to have a camera so that you can make a record of what the unit looked like before you started living there. This is especially important if your unit has any pre-existing damage (scuff marks, stains, etc.) left by previous tenants. If it does, be sure to write down a list of everything you find and contact your landlord about getting the damage repaired. Since a move-in inspection is not required, having thorough documentation of any and all pre-existing damage can make the difference between winning or losing a small claims suit. No matter the situation, it is better to have the evidence and never need it than to have money deducted from your California security deposit for the damage a previous tenant caused and no way to prove that damage was already there.  

Announce Your Move-Out

You need to review your lease to see if there are any requirements regarding notice or timeline before moving out. You may be wondering what the best way to do this is, so we’ve broken it down. You may want to have your move-out notice include the following: 

  • The address you are moving from so that your landlord has a point of reference.

  • The date you write the letter.

  • The date you intend to move out.

  • When you’ll be available for a move-out inspection with your landlord (provide a range of times, just in case).

  • Your new forwarding address so that your landlord knows where to send your security deposit.

Clean Thoroughly & Fix Broken Items 

You can avoid unwanted conflict by making sure your unit is in the best condition possible when you leave. If your landlord has to spend money to clean the unit to the level of clean that it was when you moved in, they may be able to deduct a cleaning fee from your security deposit for cleaning. 

Here’s a task list to help you clean and repair your unit before you move out:

  • Patch any holes in your walls.

  • If you’ve painted your walls, repaint them to the pre-approved color they came in. You can do this by taking a chip of the original paint to a hardware store, where it can be precisely color-matched.

  • Clean any stains in rugs or carpet thoroughly. 

  • Remove water stains on window wills and wood floors.

  • Clean off all surfaces, including inside of drawers, cupboards, and cabinets.

  • Unclog shower and sink drains, as well as toilets.

  • Reattach any shutters or doors that have been taken off their hinges.

  • Treat wood floor scuffs and replace broken tiles.

  • Disinfect and deep clean areas like the bathroom and kitchen.

Anything beyond “ordinary wear and tear” will be your responsibility to fix before moving out, otherwise, the landlord will be able to deduct from your security deposit to fix the damage. Said differently, if something is considered normal wear and tear, you don’t have to fix it before moving out as it will be the landlord’s responsibility. 

Here are some examples of normal wear and tear (but ultimately, it will be up to a judge to decide what is normal wear and tear): 

  • Small nail holes tend to be normal wear and tear. 

  • If you live in an apartment for 5-7 years and the carpet got dirty, this is normal wear and tear. If you live in an apartment for 1 year and the carpet is dirty to the point it has to be replaced, this may not be considered normal wear and tear. 

California Civil Code Section 1950.5(b)(2) and1950.5(b)(3) discuss this: 

“The repair of damages to the premises, exclusive of ordinary wear and tear, caused by the tenant or by a guest or licensee of the tenant.” 

“The cleaning of the premises upon termination of the tenancy necessary to return the unit to the same level of cleanliness it was in at the inception of the tenancy.”

What does California Security Deposit Law say?

Here we’ve summarized some of the most frequently asked questions regarding California Security Deposit Law. If you don't see an answer to your question below, the relevant law for a security deposit refund is Ca. Civ. Code § 1950.5.

How much can my landlord charge for a security deposit in California?

California deposit law states that if the apartment is unfurnished, then a landlord cannot charge more than 2 months' rent for the security deposit. 

If the apartment is furnished, then a landlord cannot charge more than 3 months' rent for the security deposit.

California Civil Code Section 1950.5(c)(1) discusses this: 

“...a landlord may not demand or receive security, however denominated, in an amount or value in excess of an amount equal to two months’ rent, in the case of unfurnished residential property, and an amount equal to three months’ rent, in the case of furnished residential property…”

Can a California landlord require a non-refundable security deposit?

In California, a landlord cannot require a non-refundable security deposit.   

California Civil Code Section 1950.5(m) discusses this: 

“No lease or rental agreement may contain a provision characterizing any security as “nonrefundable.”

How long does my landlord have to return my security deposit in California?

California security deposit law states that your landlord has 21 days from when you move out to return your security deposit. 

If a landlord makes deductions to your security deposit, they must return unused portions of your security deposit within 21 days and provide an itemized statement with a list of the deductions they made. 

If the total deductions are more than $125, then the landlord must provide receipts or proof of charges.

If the repairs will take longer than 21 days, then the landlord has to make deductions to the security deposit based on a “good faith estimate.” Once the repairs are complete the landlord has 14 days to provide you with the final itemized statement and receipts or proof of charges. 

Make sure you provide your landlord with your new address as they are required to mail your security deposit and the itemized statement to that new address. Otherwise, your landlord is allowed to send you your security deposit and itemized statement to the unit you just moved out of.

California Civil Code Section 1950.5(g) discusses this: 

(g) (1) No later than 21 calendar days after the tenant has vacated the premises, but not earlier than the time that either the landlord or the tenant provides a notice to terminate the tenancy under Section 1946 or 1946.1, Section 1161 of the Code of Civil Procedure, or not earlier than 60 calendar days prior to the expiration of a fixed-term lease, the landlord shall furnish the tenant, by personal delivery or by first-class mail, postage prepaid, a copy of an itemized statement indicating the basis for, and the amount of, any security received and the disposition of the security, and shall return any remaining portion of the security to the tenant. After either the landlord or the tenant provides notice to terminate the tenancy, the landlord and tenant may mutually agree to have the landlord deposit any remaining portion of the security deposit electronically to a bank account or other financial institution designated by the tenant. After either the landlord or the tenant provides notice to terminate the tenancy, the landlord and the tenant may also agree to have the landlord provide a copy of the itemized statement along with the copies required by paragraph (2) to an email account provided by the tenant.

(2) Along with the itemized statement, the landlord shall also include copies of documents showing charges incurred and deducted by the landlord to repair or clean the premises, as follows:

(A) If the landlord or landlord’s employee did the work, the itemized statement shall reasonably describe the work performed. The itemized statement shall include the time spent and the reasonable hourly rate charged.

(B) If the landlord or landlord’s employee did not do the work, the landlord shall provide the tenant a copy of the bill, invoice, or receipt supplied by the person or entity performing the work. The itemized statement shall provide the tenant with the name, address, and telephone number of the person or entity, if the bill, invoice, or receipt does not include that information.

(C) If a deduction is made for materials or supplies, the landlord shall provide a copy of the bill, invoice, or receipt. If a particular material or supply item is purchased by the landlord on an ongoing basis, the landlord may document the cost of the item by providing a copy of a bill, invoice, receipt, vendor price list, or other vendor document that reasonably documents the cost of the item used in the repair or cleaning of the unit.

(3) If a repair to be done by the landlord or the landlord’s employee cannot reasonably be completed within 21 calendar days after the tenant has vacated the premises, or if the documents from a person or entity providing services, materials, or supplies are not in the landlord’s possession within 21 calendar days after the tenant has vacated the premises, the landlord may deduct the amount of a good faith estimate of the charges that will be incurred and provide that estimate with the itemized statement. If the reason for the estimate is because the documents from a person or entity providing services, materials, or supplies are not in the landlord’s possession, the itemized statement shall include the name, address, and telephone number of the person or entity. Within 14 calendar days of completing the repair or receiving the documentation, the landlord shall complete the requirements in paragraphs (1) and (2) in the manner specified.

(4) The landlord need not comply with paragraph (2) or (3) if either of the following applies:

(A) The deductions for repairs and cleaning together do not exceed one hundred twenty-five dollars ($125).

(B) The tenant waived the rights specified in paragraphs (2) and (3). The waiver shall only be effective if it is signed by the tenant at the same time or after a notice to terminate a tenancy under Section 1946 or 1946.1 has been given, a notice under Section 1161 of the Code of Civil Procedure has been given, or no earlier than 60 calendar days prior to the expiration of a fixed-term lease. The waiver shall substantially include the text of paragraph (2).

(5) Notwithstanding paragraph (4), the landlord shall comply with paragraphs (2) and (3) when a tenant makes a request for documentation within 14 calendar days after receiving the itemized statement specified in paragraph (1). The landlord shall comply within 14 calendar days after receiving the request from the tenant.

(6) Any mailings to the tenant pursuant to this subdivision shall be sent to the address provided by the tenant. If the tenant does not provide an address, mailings pursuant to this subdivision shall be sent to the unit that has been vacated.

What can my landlord legally deduct from my security deposit?  

There are a few things that can easily cut into your California security deposit, meaning you’ll get less (or none) of it back.  Here is a list of what your landlord can deduct from your California security deposit:

  1. Unpaid rent.

  2. Damages to the unit you rented (but they cannot deduct for “normal wear and tear” or anything that was damaged before you moved in).

  3. Cleaning the unit so that it was as clean as it was when you moved in.

California Civil Code Section 1950.5(b)(1-4) discusses this:

“(1) The compensation of a landlord for a tenant’s default in the payment of rent.

(2) The repair of damages to the premises, exclusive of ordinary wear and tear, caused by the tenant or by a guest or licensee of the tenant.

(3) The cleaning of the premises upon termination of the tenancy necessary to return the unit to the same level of cleanliness it was in at the inception of the tenancy. The amendments to this paragraph enacted by the act adding this sentence shall apply only to tenancies for which the tenant’s right to occupy begins after January 1, 2003.

(4) To remedy future defaults by the tenant in any obligation under the rental agreement to restore, replace, or return personal property or appurtenances, exclusive of ordinary wear and tear, if the security deposit is authorized to be applied thereto by the rental agreement.

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

Your landlord is required to notify you in writing of your option to request an initial inspection before you move out. You have a right to be present at the inspection unless there isn't a mutually agreeable time for you to be present during the landlord's inspection. If you request an inspection, the landlord is required to make an initial inspection less than two weeks before you move out. At this time, the landlord can notify you of any potential deductions to the security deposit. You can then fix any damages to the unit before you move out (unless the lease agreement states that you cannot make certain repairs).

California Civil Code Section 1950.5(f)(1) discusses this:

“Within a reasonable time after notification of either party’s intention to terminate the tenancy, or before the end of the lease term, the landlord shall notify the tenant in writing of the tenant’s option to request an initial inspection and of the tenant’s right to be present at the inspection. The requirements of this subdivision do not apply when the tenancy is terminated pursuant to subdivision (2), (3), or (4) of Section 1161 of the Code of Civil Procedure. At a reasonable time, but no earlier than two weeks before the termination or the end of lease date, the landlord, or an agent of the landlord, shall, upon the request of the tenant, make an initial inspection of the premises prior to any final inspection the landlord makes after the tenant has vacated the premises. The purpose of the initial inspection shall be to allow the tenant an opportunity to remedy identified deficiencies, in a manner consistent with the rights and obligations of the parties under the rental agreement, in order to avoid deductions from the security. If a tenant chooses not to request an initial inspection, the duties of the landlord under this subdivision are discharged. If an inspection is requested, the parties shall attempt to schedule the inspection at a mutually acceptable date and time. The landlord shall give at least 48 hours’ prior written notice of the date and time of the inspection if either a mutual time is agreed upon, or if a mutually agreed time cannot be scheduled but the tenant still wishes an inspection. The tenant and landlord may agree to forgo the 48-hour prior written notice by both signing a written waiver. The landlord shall proceed with the inspection whether the tenant is present or not, unless the tenant previously withdrew their request for the inspection. Written notice by the landlord shall contain, in substantially the same form, the following:” 

What if the landlord is withholding my deposit in bad faith?

If your landlord is keeping your security deposit in "bad faith," you can request up to twice the amount of the security deposit (plus your actual security deposit) in California small claims. If you claim "bad faith," it then becomes your landlord's duty to prove the reasonableness of the deductions on the security deposit.

 “Bad faith” is often hard to prove, particularly since it's a term that has no official definition. This means you have to prove bad faith with evidence. Here are some examples of what may be considered bad faith in California: 

  • Your landlord sends you an email and says “I’m not returning your security deposit because I simply don’t want to”. 

  • Your landlord doesn’t respond to your requests to return your security deposit. 

While the California security deposit law states that you don't need to specifically request bad faith damages, you may want to consider including it in the amount you sue your landlord for as the judge may not be experienced in California security deposit law.

California Civil Code Section 1950.5(l) discusses this:

“The bad faith claim or retention by a landlord or the landlord’s successors in interest of the security or any portion thereof in violation of this section, or the bad faith demand of replacement security in violation of subdivision (j), may subject the landlord or the landlord’s successors in interest to statutory damages of up to twice the amount of the security, in addition to actual damages. The court may award damages for bad faith whenever the facts warrant that award, regardless of whether the injured party has specifically requested relief. In an action under this section, the landlord or the landlord’s successors in interest shall have the burden of proof as to the reasonableness of the amounts claimed or the authority pursuant to this section to demand additional security deposits.” 

What should I do if my Landlord improperly withholds my Security Deposit?

Send Your Landlord a Demand Letter

A demand letter is a letter that outlines a set of requests. For example, if your landlord doesn’t return your security deposit, you could write them a demand letter requesting your security deposit back. 

If you eventually decide to sue your landlord in California small claims court over your security deposit, you are required to first request your security deposit back before you can sue your landlord. While you can request your security deposit by phone or email, it is recommended you do so by sending a demand letter so that your landlord takes you seriously and this letter can be part of your evidence for your small claims case. 

In order to be effective, your letter should answer the following questions:

  • How much money are you owed? Are you owed your full security deposit or a portion?

  • Why should your landlord return your security deposit?

  • How can your landlord reach you?

  • Where should your landlord send payment? 

Finally, you may want to consider giving your landlord 14 days to respond to you. Include this in your letter, and state that if they do not respond within that time, you intend to sue them. 

Need help writing a security deposit demand letter to your landlord? Learn more here. 

Sue Your Landlord in California Small Claims Court

Security deposit lawsuits are one of the most common types of lawsuits in California small claims court. Small claims is a type of court that provides the public with a forum for quick, efficient and affordable resolution of disputes and it ensures that your landlord is held accountable for any wrongdoings they commit. 

Here is a quick California small claims 101: 

  • How much can I sue my landlord for? The maximum you can sue for is $10,000.

  • How much are the filing fees? It depends on how much you are suing for, but it ranges from $30-$75. If you are low-income, you can apply for a waiver of your court filing fees and pay $0. 

  • How long does the process take? You usually will receive a hearing date within 45-75 days after your lawsuit is filed. 

  • What happens after my lawsuit is filed? You will need to notify your landlord about the lawsuit. This is called serving. 

  • What is the small claims hearing like? Hearings last around 15 minutes. You will need to be prepared with the evidence you have against your landlord. For example, you will have pictures of when you moved out and any communications you have had with your landlord over the return of your security deposit. You will have an opportunity to share your side of the story and then your landlord will also have an opportunity to speak. The judge will ask you any follow-up questions they have. The judge may decide your case at the hearing or they will mail you their decision in the mail. 

People Clerk makes the process of going to California small claims easy and affordable. If you need help with taking your landlord to small claims over your security deposit, we are here to help. 

Author

Camila Lopez

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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