Getting Your Security Deposit Back

Landlord-tenant disputes about security deposits are a common problem. Inventory Checklists (available in OCHS Resources) are an excellent protection against such conflicts. Deposits have many names: “security deposit,” “last month’s rent,” “cleaning fee,” etc. Regardless of title, any deposit the landlord takes from you is refundable. Non-refundable deposits are not lawful in the state of California.

Deposits can be retained by the landlord to cover only three types of expenses:

  • Due and unpaid rent
  • The cost of repairing damages incurred by the tenant
  • Cleaning costs exclusive of reasonable wear and tear.

Expenses that are associated with “reasonable wear and tear” must be paid by the landlord.

What is "reasonable wear and tear"?

It’s open to interpretation, and that’s why so many disputes occur. Cleaning performed by the landlord, in preparation of new tenants, regardless of the move-out condition of the rental, should be paid by the landlord. On the other hand, cleaning made necessary by tenants who unreasonably dirtied the rental property and failed to leave it in move-in condition is appropriately your responsibility. Be sure to discuss these criteria if your landlord charges you for the cost of cleaning. (i.e. carpets/drapes – such items are often cleaned automatically regardless of the rental’s condition, in which case you should not be charged).

Three Weeks After You Move Out...

Three weeks after you move out, under CA law, landlords are required to refund your security deposit, or a portion thereof with an itemized list of the deduction made. If the deposit or the written explanation does not arrive within 21 days, contact the landlord immediately to inquire about your refund. It is wise to send a letter. It might look like this:

July 5, 2011

Linda Landlady
123 Some St.
Somecity, CA 90000

Dear Ms. Landlady:

I am writing in regards to my rental/lease agreement at 1234 Mission St. On June 15, 20XX, after giving 30 days advance notice of my intention to vacate, my roommates and I cleaned our rental thoroughly and vacated according to the timeline we agreed upon.

To date, I have not received my Security Deposit money, in the amount of $_______. I am aware that under CA law, you are required to return my security deposit (and/or send me a detailed description of any portion withheld) within 21 days after the date I vacate. This has not been done.

Please return the Security Deposit to me within the next 7 days at the address below.


Tenant Tenant Somebody
56789 Busy St.
Somecity, CA 90000

If You Still Receive No Response...

Send a second letter. You may wish to mention some of the legal penalties the landlord could suffer if a court finds that he withheld your deposit “in bad faith”. In addition to the amount the landlord owes you, the court can order that he pay you up to $200 in punitive damages. Further, the court may order him to pay you up to 2% per month in interest charges.

For further information and help, please see the California Department of Consumer Affairs.

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