I Haven’t Gotten My Security Deposit Back – What Do I Do?

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The most common disagreement between landlords and tenants is over the refund of the tenant's security deposit after the tenant has moved out of the rental unit.

California law allows the landlord to use a tenant's security deposit for 4 purposes: 

  • For unpaid rent; 
  • For late fees; 
  • For cleaning the rental unit when the tenant moves out -- but only to make the unit as clean as it was when the tenant first moved in; and 
  • For repair of damages, other than normal wear and tear, caused by the tenant or the tenant's guests.

NOTE:  If the lease or rental agreement allows it, the landlord can also use a tenant’s security deposit for the cost of restoring or replacing furniture, furnishings, or other items of personal property (including keys), other than normal wear and tear.

The tenant’s responsibility: notify the landlord before you move out. 

  • If you pay rent once a month, you have to give your landlord 30 days' notice in writing. If you don't, the landlord can charge you for the unpaid rent. Unless a new tenant pays the rent, you'll have to pay for those 30 days. 
  • If you pay rent every week, you have to give 7 days' notice.

The landlord’s responsibility: inspect the rental unit and allow the tenant to repair any damage. 

  • Within 2 weeks of the date that the tenant is going to move out, the landlord must advise the tenant, in writing, of the right to be present at a walk-through with the landlord. The purpose of the inspection is to allow the tenant an opportunity to repair damage pointed out by the landlord.

After the tenant moves out, the landlord has 21 days to return the security deposit -- or send a list of repairs and receipts or estimates. 

  • The tenant has a right to receive a copy of all receipts for the work done and materials purchased. 
  • If the repairs are going to take more time due to extensive work needed, the landlord should provide copies of the estimates for the work and materials within 14 days. After the work is complete, the landlord has to provide copies of the receipts to the tenant.

If you, the tenant, don't get your deposit back within 21 days write a letter to your landlord. 

  • State the amount of the security deposit that you paid, and ask the landlord to return it all to you – or send you a list of repairs made and how much each cost. Ask for copies of the receipts for each repair. 
  • Keep a copy of the letter for your records

For help writing a letter asking a landlord to return a security deposit, click here. Opens new window

If the landlord does not honor the 21-day rule -- or if the tenant thinks the landlord is keeping too much money for repairs -- the tenant has two options. 

1.  Ask for mediation.
Mediation is a process for resolving disputes informally. It is voluntary and confidential. In mediation, the landlord and the tenant would meet with a third person – a neutral, trained mediator. That person would help the two talk things over in an attempt to resolve the dispute. Many disputes that go to mediation are settled outside of court because the people involved have control over the outcome.

2. File a lawsuit in small claims court
If mediation doesn’t help and there is still no agreement, the tenant can sue the landlord in small claims court. He or she can ask for the deposit plus twice the amount of the security deposit in damages (if the landlord kept the deposit in bad faith Opens new window).  To learn how to do this, click here.




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