Getting Your Security Deposit Back

Your landlord must return your security deposit when you move out given the unit is the way it was when you moved in.

Chances are that you have handed over a lot of money in order to move into your apartment. Keep in mind that this is your money. Your landlord must return your security deposit to you when you move out given the unit is the way it was when you moved in –including normal wear and tear.

If your landlord does not return your security deposit, you will need to sue in small claims court.

Moving In

When you move in, your landlord will ask for some type of deposit. Whatever it’s called, the law treats this initial payment as security deposit subject to California Civil Code Section 1950.5.

According to this state law:

  • There is no such thing as a “nonrefundable” security deposit. No matter what it’s called—a key deposit, cleaning fee, move-in fee, closing costs, last month’s rent, etc.—all money you pay in addition to your first month’s rent is refundable. Since “nonrefundable” deposits are illegal, don’t worry if your rental agreement includes a section about a “nonrefundable” deposit. This section will not be valid even if you have signed the rental contract or agreed to it.
  • No matter what it’s called, the total amount the landlord can charge for all the deposits (including last month’s rent) is twice the amount of one month’s rent for an unfurnished rental home or apartment or three times one month’s rent for a furnished rental home or apartment.

Protecting Your Security Deposit When Moving In

Take some of these basic precautions when you move in. Many tenants end up going to Small Claims Court to get their deposits back and these precautions can give you needed evidence for that day in court.

  • Get an itemized receipt for your deposit. This receipt will identify each charge ( for example, pet deposit, last month’s rent, cleaning fees, etc.).
  • When moving in, take careful inventory of the condition of the place. Record any existing damage and check all appliances to make sure they work properly. Ask the landlord to sign and date the inventory and be sure to keep a copy (if s/he won’t sign, send a copy to them and mail one to yourself—which you save unopened). Pictures or videos of the existing condition of the apartment can also be helpful later.

Document the Move-In Condition

Document the Move-In Condition

Moving Out

The law stipulates that a landlord must perform a pre-move-out inspection with you, and then provide you with a written list of and deficiencies so that you can take care of them. It law is also clear about how long the landlord has to return your money and what he must do to justify any withholding.

According to California Civil Code Section 1950.5:

  • The landlord must notify you in writing that you have the right to an inspection and must conduct an inspection of the rental home or apartment unit with you. The inspection should be done in the last 2 weeks of tenancy. The landlord must let you fix anything which is wrong and the landlord is limited to taking deductions for un-repaired deficiencies, damage which occurred after the inspection, or damage not found at the time of the inspection.
  • Your deposit must be returned to you within 21 days after you move out. Your landlord must give you a written, itemized statement of the reason for any amount withheld from your deposit. Money can be withheld only for:
  1. Unpaid Rent
  2. Damage caused by you beyond normal wear and tear.
  3. “Reasonable” cleaning charges.
  • If your security deposit is not returned or accounted for within 21 days, you can sue the landlord in Small Claims (limit is $7,500; if higher, then lawsuit would be in Superior Court Limited Jurisdiction) court for the amount of the deposit, plus twice the amount of the deposit if you can show bad faith, plus any actual damages.

Landlords must also provide you receipts documenting the actual costs of claimed repairs or estimates, unless the landlord does the work themselves –in which case they must describe the work that was done. In either case, if materials are purchased, copies of the purchase receipts must be provided (or estimates if the work was not yet completed).

Protecting Your Deposit When Moving Out

As when moving in, you can take some basic precautions when you move out.

  • Be sure to give at least 30 days written notice before you move out. Technically, you are responsible to pay rent for these 30 days and your landlord can deduct “unpaid rent” from your deposit. If you need to move quickly because of conditions in your apartment or if you are breaking a lease, you absolutely should talk to a Tenant’s Rights Attorney.
  • On the day you move out, have the landlord or manager do a final inspection of the apartment with you. Try to arrange an exchange of your keys for your security deposit. Or have the landlord/manager sign and date a statement that the place is clean and in good condition. If the landlord won’t exchange keys or sign a statement, take pictures/videos of the condition of the rental home or apartment (hold up a copy of the day’s newspaper to show the pictures weren’t taken any earlier than the actual date ).

Document the Move-Out Condition

Document the Move-Out Condition

Stubborn Landlords

If your landlord does not return your money on time or if he unjustly withholds some of it, be prepared to fight for your rights. Remember, many landlords withhold all security deposits knowing that many tenants will simply not take any action whatsoever to get their money back.

Contact an Experienced Attorney

Oftentimes in situations such as these, a strong demand letter from a Tenant’s Rights Attorney will persuade the Landlord to follow through and return the security deposit money. Vincent W. Davis has been a tenants’ lawyer since 2001, and is ready to help you deal with an security deposit matter. We will use the law to help you protect your tenants’ rights.

Please call our California Tenant's Rights Law Office at (888) 506-6810
OFFICE HOURS: Monday - Friday 9:00 am to 7:00 pm.
TELEPHONE HOURS: We attempt to connect you with an Attorney up to 10 PM ~ 7 Days a Week!

Law Offices of Vincent W. Davis

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