California Security Deposit
This guide is a summary of California landlord-tenant laws that cover the use and return of security deposits.
Security DepositA security deposit is any money a landlord takes from a tenant other than the advance payment of rent. The security deposit serves to protect the landlord if the tenant breaks or violates the terms of the lease or rental agreement. It may be used to cover damage to the property, cleaning, key replacement, or back rent.
Security Deposit Amount LimitationsIf the security deposit is for a residential property without furniture, the security deposit may equal 2 times the rent. If the residence is furnished, the landlord may charge up to 3 times the rent. There is no restriction on the amount of the security deposit for the rental of a commercial property.
Usually a Small Claims MatterCases seeking return of a security deposit are usually handled in small claims court. They cannot generally be dealt with in an eviction (unlawful detainer) case since, in an eviction, possession of the property is still at issue.
Landlord Must Return Within 21 Days OR...According to the California Supreme Court decision in the case of Granberry v. Islay Investments (1995) 9 Cal.4th 738, 745, after the 21 days have transpired, the landlord loses the right to keep any of the security deposit and must return the entire deposit to the tenant. Thus, after a tenant moves out, a landlord has 21 days to return the tenant's deposit in full. OR they must mail or personally give to the tenant: a written letter explaining why he or she is keeping all or part of the deposit, an itemized list of each of the deductions, any remaining refund of the tenant's deposit, and copies of receipts for the charges/deductions, unless repairs cost less than $126 or the tenant waived (gave up) his or her right to get the receipts. If the repairs cannot be finished within the 21-day period, the landlord can send the tenant a good faith estimate of the cost of repairs. Then within 14 days of the repairs being done, the landlord must send the tenant the receipts.
Deductions A Landlord Can MakeA landlord can make the following deductions from the tenant's security deposit: the cost of fixing any damages to the property caused by the tenant or the tenant's guests. This does not include ordinary wear and tear. The cost of cleaning the unit when the tenant moves out, but only to make the unit as clean as it was when the tenant first moved in (less reasonable wear and tear). Unpaid rent (including rent owed if the tenant does not give the landlord the proper notice that he or she is moving out). The landlord can withhold from the security deposit ONLY those amounts that are necessary and reasonable, and NOT a result of "ordinary and reasonable wear and tear." For example, a landlord may not make tenants pay for painting, new carpets, or curtains unless they are damaged beyond ordinary and reasonable wear and tear. And the landlord cannot use the tenant's security deposit to repair problems that existed in the unit before the tenant moved in.
Does Your Landlord Have The Right To Keep Your Security Deposit?
If you have not received your deposit back most likely the landlord is claiming you damaged the property.
If you in fact did damage the property, the landlord can likely deduct the repair cost from the deposit. If the so-called “damage” is actually normal wear and tear, the landlord by law can’t deduct the repair cost from your deposit. The problem is that what is “normal wear and tear” is often in the eye of the beholder. Fortunately, court rulings in California have clarified its meaning.
Essentially, a landlord may not charge the tenant for deterioration of items inside the property due to natural ageing or fading. No deposit deduction can be made if: the carpet becomes worn because of ordinary use; appliances need replacing because of routine use or age; there are minor nicks or marks on the walls. Clearly, deductions can be made if the tenant damages the property. Examples include: damage from cigarette burns; wine stains on carpet; damage caused by guests of the tenant or pets; tenant’s failure to notify the landlord of leaks, electrical or plumbing problems (if the tenant knew or should have known about those problems).
If you caused damage that the landlord is entitled to make a deduction for, how much can the landlord deduct? Most items have a natural shelf life. They would need replacing after a certain amount of time even if you hadn’t caused any damage. Carpeting, for example, is generally considered to need replacing every 5 years. It would be unfair if you spilled wine on a 4 year old carpet and then had to pay to replace it even though the landlord would have had to replace it next year anyway. The law steps in to protect you in those scenarios.
If A Dispute ArisesIf a landlord does not return the entire amount of the tenant's security deposit within the 21 days required by law, and the tenant disputes the deductions from the deposit: the tenant can write a letter to the landlord explaining why he or she believes he or she is entitled to a larger refund. The tenant should keep a copy of the letter for his other records. If the tenant and landlord cannot reach an agreement on the amount of the security deposit returned, the tenant can file a lawsuit against the landlord for return of the security deposit. The tenant can sue for the amount of the deposit, plus twice the amount of the security deposit in damages. The judge may give the tenant these additional damages if the landlord retained the deposit in bad faith. The tenant can sue the landlord in small claims, which is informal and inexpensive, as long as the total amount sued for is $10,000 or less.
What if the Landlord Changed?Civil Code 1950.5 (h)-(i) explains the landlord and successor's liability for your security deposit. If the landlord has not informed you in writing that the security deposit has been transferred to the new owner, then both are liability for your security deposit. You can sue both in small claims to recover your security deposit and request double damages for bad faith retention of your security deposit under Civil Code 1950.5(I).
(h) Upon termination of the landlord*s interest in the premises, whether by sale, assignment, death, appointment of receiver, or otherwise, the landlord or the landlord*s agent shall, within a reasonable time, do one of the following acts, either of which shall relieve the landlord of further liability with respect to the security held:
(1) Transfer the portion of the security remaining after any lawful deductions made under subdivision (e) to the landlord*s successor in interest. The landlord shall thereafter notify the tenant by personal delivery or by first-class mail, postage prepaid, of the transfer, of any claims made against the security, of the amount of the security deposited, and of the names of the successors in interest, their addresses, and their telephone numbers. If the notice to the tenant is made by personal delivery, the tenant shall acknowledge receipt of the notice and sign his or her name on the landlord*s copy of the notice.
(2) Return the portion of the security remaining after any lawful deductions made under subdivision (e) to the tenant, together with an accounting as provided in subdivision (g).
(i) Prior to the voluntary transfer of a landlord*s interest in the premises, the landlord shall deliver to the landlord*s successor in interest a written statement indicating the following:
(1) The security remaining after any lawful deductions are made.
(2) An itemization of any lawful deductions from any security received.
(3) His or her election under paragraph (1) or (2) of subdivision (h).
This subdivision does not affect the validity of title to the real property transferred in violation of this subdivision.
(j) (1) In the event of noncompliance with subdivision (h), the landlord*s successors in interest shall be jointly and severally liable with the landlord for repayment of the security, or that portion thereof to which the tenant is entitled, when and as provided in subdivisions (e) and (g). A successor in interest of a landlord may not require the tenant to post any security to replace that amount not transferred to the tenant or successors in interest as provided in subdivision (h), unless and until the successor in interest first makes restitution of the initial security as provided in paragraph (2) of subdivision (h) or provides the tenant with an accounting as provided in subdivision (g).
(2) This subdivision does not preclude a successor in interest from recovering from the tenant compensatory damages that are in excess of the security received from the landlord previously paid by the tenant to the landlord.
(3) Notwithstanding this subdivision, if, upon inquiry and reasonable investigation, a landlord*s successor in interest has a good faith belief that the lawfully remaining s