A security deposit is a specified amount of money that a tenant pays upfront before renting property. It can be used to pay for any damage that the tenant does to that particular property. The amount of the security deposit is usually the same as the cost of one-month’s rent. In most cases, security deposits are refundable once the tenant moves out of the rental unit. The time it takes to return the security deposit varies by state.

Specifically, under California security deposit refund law, a tenant should expect to receive their security deposit refund no later than 21 days after they have moved out of the rental unit. If the tenant does not receive it within this time frame, the landlord must send the tenant a letter stating the following:

  • The reason why the security deposit is being withheld or why it has not been returned yet;
  • An itemized statement of deductions;
  • The remaining amount of the security deposit; and
  • Copies of receipts that correspond with the deducted amounts on the itemized statement (unless repairs or cleaning cost less than $126 or the tenant has waived their rights to obtain receipts).

Ideally, a security deposit will be returned in full, but this is not always the case. According to California state law, a landlord may use the tenant’s security deposit to fix any property damage caused by the tenant or their visitors, to pay for the costs of cleaning the apartment, or to offset unpaid rent.

What are Move Out Inspection Rights?

Some states require a landlord to conduct a “move out inspection” before a tenant vacates the premises. A move out inspection simply means that the tenant and landlord will go through the tenant’s rental unit, checking for any damages or significant alterations done to the unit by the tenant that were not approved by the landlord. A move out inspection can occur either before the tenant leaves or after.

The purpose of a move out inspection is so that the landlord can document the condition of the rental unit and can provide reasons why they may have deducted the tenant’s security deposit to pay for damages. Briefly, security deposit deductions refer to the amount of money that a landlord subtracts from a tenant’s security deposit to pay for any damages or repairs of the unit caused by the tenant.

If the inspection happens while the tenant is still living in the unit, then it will also give the tenant a chance to fix any damages prior to moving out. This can help the tenant recover more or all of their security deposit when they leave. It also helps both parties to avoid future disputes over security deposit deductions.

California laws require a landlord to do a pre-inspection before the tenant moves out. The landlord must provide written notice to the tenant that informs them of their right to request an initial inspection and also to be present during that inspection. Notice should be given within a reasonable time after the tenant informs the landlord they do not intend to re-sign their lease or when the landlord terminates the tenant’s lease.

If a landlord fails to inform a tenant of their right to request a pre-inspection and deducts damages or repairs from their security deposit, then the tenant has a right to take legal action against the landlord. Thus, providing notice ensures that the landlord will have a right to make deductions after the tenant moves out.

If a tenant requests a pre-move out inspection, the parties should schedule a mutually agreed upon time and date. If the parties do not discuss scheduling the inspection, a landlord is required to give the tenant written notice at least 48-hours in advance of the inspection. A tenant may also waive their right to be present at the inspection if the parties cannot find a time that works for both of them.

Additionally, a tenant may also request that the landlord provide them a list of the items that need to be cleaned or repaired during the inspection. Some landlords will even create a form that has a checklist identifying certain areas in the rental unit that they plan to inspect. For example, the form may include a column for “living room.” Beneath the living room area, it will say what portions of the living room the landlord will inspect (e.g., walls, carpeting, floor, etc.).

One final thing that should be noted is that a landlord may still deduct portions of the security deposit if during their cursory inspection damages were hidden by the tenant’s personal property or done after the landlord’s inspection of the rental unit.

How Long Does a Landlord Have to Return Your Security Deposit?

According to California law, the standard timeframe for a return of security deposit is 21 days after move out. In other words, a landlord is legally required to return a tenant’s security deposit no later than 21 days in California.

However, some lease terms may provide a period that is shorter than 21 days. The parties may also decide to agree upon a different date, so long as it falls below the 21-day maximum.

What Can Be Deducted From Your Security Deposit?

As discussed above, landlords may deduct a portion of a tenant’s security to deposit to pay for certain expenses, such as unpaid rent, the cost to clean to the apartment, or to repair any damages caused by a tenant.

A lease agreement may also specify other reasons why a security deposit may be deducted. For example, the lease terms may state that a tenant is responsible for damages caused to appliances (e.g., light fixtures, dishwashers, microwaves, etc.).

Thus, it is important that a tenant review or have an attorney review the terms of their rental agreement before signing. Tenants should also check lease terms for additional items that can be deducted from a security deposit prior to filing an action in small claims court.

Can I Get a Copy of the Bills for Items Deducted?

According to California law, a landlord is required to send a tenant copies of receipts for proof of how much it cost the landlord to repair or clean the rental unit. However, a tenant is only entitled to such copies if the amount to clean or repair the unit exceeds $126. The tenant must also not have waived their right to receive these copies.

On the other hand, if a tenant did waive their right to receive copies of repair and cleaning receipts or the charges amounted to less than $126, then a landlord will not have to send them copies of the receipts. Instead, the landlord will be required to send the tenant an itemized statement of the charges within 21 days after the tenant has vacated the rental unit.

Along with this itemized statement of charges, the landlord must also return any remaining portions of the tenant’s security deposit. After the tenant receives the itemized statement and whatever is left of their security deposit, they may also request that the landlord send them copies of documents related to the itemized statement.

Should the tenant decide they want the copies of the documents tied to the itemized statement, the tenant must submit their request to the landlord within 14 days from when they received the itemized statement.

Finally, if repairs cannot be done within the 21-day period or a third party is performing the repairs, then the landlord must provide a reasonable estimate of the costs or give the tenant the contact information of the third party doing the work.

What Can I Do about Improper Security Deposit Deductions?

If a tenant believes that their right to have a security deposit returned has been violated, then they may be able to seek recourse in one of the following ways:

  • The tenant may send a written letter to the landlord requesting an explanation for the deductions and any supporting materials (e.g., copies of receipts, itemized statements, etc.);
  • Alternatively, the tenant may also send a letter to the landlord explaining why they should receive more than the amount that was refunded;
  • The tenant and the landlord can try to settle the security deposit dispute using a mediation program;
  • The tenant may sue the landlord in their local small claims court (only if the total amount is for $10,000 or less); or
  • The tenant can file a lawsuit against the landlord to recover the full amount of the security deposit along with any additional damages (e.g., if the landlord kept their deposit in bad faith).

What Damages are Available?

In security deposit return lawsuits, a tenant may recover the full amount of their security deposit and any additional damages. If the court orders a landlord to pay additional damages, it usually means that the tenant will receive twice the value of the original security deposit.

Additional damages are typically awarded when a landlord retains a security deposit in bad faith. In such cases, the court may also order a landlord to pay hefty fines or issue a punitive damages award.

What Defenses Might be Raised?

Some potential defenses that a landlord may be able to raise during a lawsuit include that:

  • They had a good faith reason to retain the tenant’s security deposit;
  • The landlord did not intentionally mean to keep the tenant’s security deposit;
  • The tenant failed to provide proper notice of the legal action;
  • The statute of limitations expired;
  • The tenant did in fact cause damage to the apartment; and/or
  • The tenant failed to pay rent.

There may be other defenses available depending on the facts of a case. As such, a landlord who is being sued for a security deposit return should speak to a lawyer about the specific defenses that may apply to their case.

Should I Hire a Lawyer for Help with a Security Deposit Issue?

If you believe that your landlord has wrongfully deducted a portion of your security deposit, then you must notify the landlord of the issue immediately. In your notice, you should also request a refund for the amount that you believe you are owed. Although you can handle this matter on your own, you should consider hiring a California attorney to draft and send the notice on your behalf.

Oftentimes, landlords do not enjoy legal entanglements and thus are more likely to reply to someone with legal authority.

If you choose to handle the issue without the help of an attorney and your landlord is still denying you your refund, then you should contact a local real estate lawyer for further assistance as soon as possible. Your lawyer can send an official follow-up letter to your initial request that advises the landlord of the potential security deposit laws they may be violating.

Your lawyer can also help you initiate a lawsuit against your landlord, prepare arguments for your case, and represent you in court. Additionally, your lawyer will be able to answer any questions you may have about your case and can discuss the potential remedies you may be entitled to if your case is successful.