main image

California Security Deposits and Small Claims Court

Camila Lopez - Security Deposit - August 26, 2022

People Clerk helps you with your small claims court lawsuit.

Get Started

At People Clerk, we make the small claims process easy. Here’s 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. 

If your landlord doesn’t return your security deposit, you may be wondering if there’s any way to get it back. Luckily, People Clerk is here to help. So, is it possible to get your security deposit returned in California? The short answer is: possibly! Below you’ll find a comprehensive guide that can help you keep your deposit, goes over California rental deposit laws, and will help you decide if it’s time to take your landlord to small claims court. 

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?

How should I prepare before moving out?

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 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 damaged 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 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 a 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 (for mail) 

Find a Sublet 

If you’re moving out with time left on your lease, you may want to find a sublet. Maybe you’re relocating for a job, or you found a new place that you want to move into right away — no matter the reason, it’s best for you and your landlord if you find someone trustworthy to take your place. A sublet means that someone else will take over your lease for the remainder of its duration, so you don’t have to break your lease agreement and damage your credit score. Be sure to check your lease agreement first, though, because some lease agreements don’t allow for sublets or have specific rules for new tenants taking over a lease. In some cases, they may have to pay their own security deposit in order for you to get yours back.

Clean Thoroughly

Landlords often hire a cleaning service after you move out, but this isn’t always the case. Even still, 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 more than a reasonable amount of money cleaning up after you, they can use part of your California security deposit to pay for it, and you won’t get that money back. 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

In some lease agreements, all minor repairs are the renter’s responsibility. However, “normal wear-and-tear” such as nail holes and older, broken appliances are not the renter's responsibility.

California Civil Code Section 1950.5(b)(2) and 1950.5(b)(3) discusses 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 section 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 charge non-refundable fees?

In California, a landlord cannot charge non-refundable 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 in California. 

If a landlord doesn’t return your full security deposit, then they must provide an itemized statement with a list of security deposit deductions.

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

If the repairs will take longer than the 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 per the California deposit return law:

  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 inspectionless 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 they 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?

Security Deposit Demand Letter 

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

If you eventually decide to sue your landlord in California small claims court over your security deposit return, you are required to first request your security deposit back before you can sue your landlord. 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 so that there is a physical record.

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

  • How much money are you owed? 

  • Why are you owed money?

  • What is your contact information? 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. 

Try Mediation as an Alternative

If you’re hesitant to start a lawsuit, you can also suggest mediation, which can help ease tension between  you and your landlord and you may come to an agreement. Some state and local agencies offer mediation services specifically for landlord-tenant issues, so make sure to check and see if that might be an option for you. It’s also usually a good idea to file a report with those state and local agencies, especially if you believe that your landlord isn’t following security deposit rules. Investigations can motivate an otherwise unwilling landlord to respond to your concerns, and they can also help to hold them accountable.

Why sue in California Small Claims court?

If you’re reading this article, you may think that suing in small claims court over security deposit sounds complicated and unnecessary. If you are unable to settle your dispute with your landlord out of court, you may want to consider taking your landlord to Calfornia small claims over your security deposit. California Small Claims Court provides a public forum for quick, efficient, and affordable resolution of disputes and it ensures that your Landlord is held accountable for any wrongdoings they commit. Additionally, small claims judges tend to be very experience with California rental security deposit law as security deposit cases are very common in small claims

How much can I sue for and what does it cost me?

Going through with a California small claims lawsuit can seem intimidating, especially if you’re new to the court system. Court fees and lawsuit payouts are important to keep track of, so we’ve broken it down for you — now you can easily figure out what your small claims lawsuit will cost, and what you could win from it.

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: $10,000 for an individual and $5,000 for corporations or an LLC.

How much does it cost to file a lawsuit in California Small Claims Court?

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 you cannot afford to pay court fees, you can ask the court to waive the fees.  You will also need to pay serving costs, which can range from $0 – $125, per person you’re trying to sue. “Serving” is the act of properly notifying your landlord  that they are being sued, and is done in-person by a server. 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

People tend to think of court hearings as complicated, confusing, and emotionally intense events — but in the case of Small Claims Court, it’s quite simple and straightforward. Here we’ve laid out everything to expect at your security deposit hearing.

First, you do not need a lawyer for your security deposit lawsuit. In fact, lawyers aren’t even allowed at the initial hearing! 

If you and your landlord both show up to the hearing, the judge will ask you both to show each other the evidence you’ve brought before the hearing officially begins. Then, the judge will ask you why you are suing, and your landlord  will get the opportunity to present their side of the story. The judge will then ask you to show them your evidence. In some cases, the judge will keep the evidence, so make sure you’re not showing them screenshots or photos on your phone. The entire small claims hearing should only take about 15 minutes. 

If you show up, but your landlord does not , you do not automatically win your case. You will still need to prove to the judge why you should win, but your landlord won’t get the opportunity to present their side of the story in court. 

No matter what, it’s very rare that a judge will tell you which side won right away. Typically, the judge’s decision will be mailed to you, which most of the time takes a few days. Be patient!

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.

Subscribe for Small Claims Tips

Related Articles