California Security Deposits and Small Claims Court

March 28, 2021
California Security Deposits and Small Claims Court
People Clerk helps you with your small claims court lawsuit.

- Question: Can I take my landlord to California Small Claims Court because they didn't return my security deposit?

- Short Answer: Yes.

In this article, learn about:

  • Overview of California Security Deposit Law.
  • How to file a small claims lawsuit against your landlord and take your security deposit back.
  • Small claims cost 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.  

Overview of California Security Deposit Law

We have tried to summarize frequently asked questions regarding California Security Deposit Law. The relevant law section is Ca. Civ. Code § 1950.5. If you don't see an answer to your question below, leave a comment or contact us.

How much can a landlord charge for a security deposit?

  • If the unit is unfurnished, a landlord can charge up to two months' rent.
  • If the unit is furnished, a landlord can charge up to three months' rent.

Can a landlord charge non-refundable fees?

  • No. In California, a landlord cannot charge non-refundable fees.

How long does a landlord have to return a security deposit?

  1. Within 21 days after the tenant has moved out, a landlord must return the full security deposit or provide the tenant an itemized statement containing the security deposit deductions and the remainder of the security deposit.
  2. If the deductions are more than $125, the landlord must include copies of receipts for the deductions. 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 and the landlord 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).

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

  • If the landlord is keeping your security deposit in "bad faith," you can request up to twice the amount of the security deposit. If a tenant claims "bad faith," it then becomes the landlord's duty to prove the reasonableness of the deductions on the security deposit.

What to do if Landlord improperly withholds your Security Deposit?

Write an Intent to Sue Letter

A demand letter is a letter that outlines a set of requests. For example, you could request a refund and explain why you are requesting a refund.  

If you eventually decide to sue in California small claims court, you are required to first request your money or property back before you can file the lawsuit. While you can request your money or property back orally, it is recommended you do so in writing in the form of 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 14 days to respond.
  • State that if they don't respond, you intend to sue.

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

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

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.

People Clerk helps you with your small claims court lawsuit.

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