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When Can a Landlord Keep Your Security Deposit in California?

security-deposit-lawsMoving from one place to the next can be a hassle. At least you get to look forward to finally getting back the security deposit you gave the landlord when you moved in. Usually you won’t get back the entire amount, but you’re probably wondering what your landlord is legally allowed to keep, and how much you should be getting back. This post will help you understand the California security deposit laws to help you determine when can a landlord keep your security deposit in California.

Security Deposit Basics

First, let’s dig deeper into what a security deposit is and what your rights are related to that deposit. A security deposit is money that a landlord takes from a new tenant as security for renting the place. The security deposit does not include any prepaid rent you paid before you moved in (such as paying first and last month’s rents upfront) or any fees associated with moving in (such as credit or check processing fees).

The security deposit exists to protect the landlord from unexpected damages to the apartment which might need to be fixed before the next tenant moves in. Under California law, you have the right to either:

1) receive back your entire security deposit, or

2) your landlord must provide you with a written letter and a list of itemized deductions explaining each expense that was covered by your security deposit, along with any additional money leftover.

Here is some additional info about laws to protect yourself as a tenant and save money when you move out.

When Can a Landlord Keep Your Security Deposit?

Now that you understand the purpose of a security deposit and your rights as a tenant, on to the million-dollar question of when can a landlord keep your security deposit in California?

As explained above, if your landlord does not return the full amount of the security deposit, you are entitled to a detailed explanation of the reasons why. In general, a landlord may deduct from your security deposit for 3 main reasons:

1. The cost of fixing damages

A landlord can deduct from your security deposit to cover damages to the apartment that you caused when you lived there. The landlord cannot charge you for improvements or for “reasonable wear and tear” caused by living there. Reasonable wear and tear can be a confusing and often misused term, but to put it into perspective consider the following examples:

  • Your carpet will inevitably get worn down from you walking around on it. The landlord can’t charge you to replace the carpet in your apartment if the carpet has not been replaced in the past 8 years. If you did not damage the carpet any more than the usual wear and tear, you can’t be stuck with the bill to replace the old carpet.
  • Your landlord cannot use a broken item as an opportunity to upgrade that item, e.g. if you broke a shower rod the landlord cannot replace it with a glass door and charge you for that upgrade.  The landlord can only charge you for the cost of replacing the item you broke, i.e. the shower rod.

2. The cost of cleaning the unit

A landlord can deduct from your security deposit the expenses required to clean the unit when you move out. However, the landlord will only be able to deduct the cost required to get the apartment back to the condition it was in when you first moved in. If you pay to have the apartment cleaned or clean it yourself and get it back to the same condition it was in when you moved in, your landlord should not be able to charge you for cleaning.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to take pictures, lots of them, before you actually move in. If you have record of what the apartment looked like when the pictures were taken, you will have proof that you cannot be charged a cleaning fee. Basically, if the apartment was dirty and would have cost $200 to clean when you first moved in, your landlord cannot charge you that $200 to clean the apartment once you move out.

3. Unpaid rent

Finally, a landlord can deduct any unpaid rent from the security deposit. So if you were short on your rent payments a few months, the amount you underpaid will be taken from your security deposit. Unpaid rent also includes extra rent money you have to pay in the event that you don’t provide proper notice to your landlord that you are moving out (usually leases require 30 days advanced notice).

Your Security Deposit Rights

Now that you understand the main points about security deposits and the reasons why a landlord can keep your security deposit, the next thing to understand is how the landlord is legally required to return the security deposit to you.

California (and most other states) requires your landlord to give you a refund of your security deposit within 21 days of moving out. If you do not receive the full amount back, you must also be given (1) a written letter explaining the amount withheld and the reasons for withholding the security deposit; (2) an itemized list of the deductions; (3) receipts for each of those expenses.

Unless your landlord kept the full amount of the security deposit to cover cleaning, damages, and rent, your landlord must also give you back the remaining balance of the security deposit within the 21 day period.

Most states also have laws that state if a landlord fails to give you the required information and refund back within 21 days, your landlord forfeits the right to your security deposit. If your landlord complies with the 21-day rule but holds your security deposit in bad faith, you may be able to sue your landlord for more than what you paid for your security deposit. Consult with a real estate attorney if you think your landlord handled your security deposit improperly.

How to Get a Maximum Security Deposit Refund as a Tenant

In order to ensure you receive your full security deposit back, consider doing the following things before you hand your keys over to your landlord.

  • First, make sure to take pictures of each room before you move in to a new apartment for evidence of the move-in condition.
  • Second, try to be careful to avoid unnecessary damage while you live there, and notify your landlord at least 30 days before you move out.
  • Third, when it’s time to move out, be sure to clean your apartment so it is in the same condition it was in when you first moved in.
  • Fourth, take more pictures of the apartment after it is cleaned and the furniture is moved out. This way if your landlord claims the apartment is damaged you have the pictures from the time you moved in and from the time you moved out to prove that it wasn’t you.
  • Fifth, make sure all your rent is paid before you hand over your keys and ask your landlord for a receipt.

If you think your landlord has wrongfully kept all or a portion of your security deposit, you have a few options available to get the deposit back. Make sure to write down all your concerns regarding your security deposit and mail the letter to your landlord, keeping a copy for yourself. If your landlord is unresponsive you can always hire a lawyer and file a claim in small claims court.

Always remember that the laws may vary from state to state. This post deals with California law, so it’s important to contact an attorney in your area to help quickly resolve your issues with your landlord.