Guide to security deposits in California

This guide includes information about

  • When a landlord must return a security deposit
  • What a landlord can deduct from a security deposit
  • What a tenant can do if their landlord doesn't return the security deposit

Security deposits

Most landlords require tenants to pay a security deposit

A security deposit is money, usually 1 to 2 month's rent, that a landlord holds in case the tenant causes any damage to the rental unit or breaks the lease and doesn't pay rent. When the tenant moves out the landlord must return the deposit but can keep some of it to pay for certain items, like damage to the rental unit.

After the tenant gives notice, the landlord must tell the tenant in writing that they have the right to ask for a pre-inspection. This gives the tenant a chance to repair things before moving out so they get their security deposit back. Get more information about how to give notice and  inspections before moving out from the California Department of Real Estate.

Returning security deposits

After a tenant moves out, a landlord has 21 days to either

  • Return all of the security deposit
  • Return the security deposit minus any deductions along with an itemized statement. The itemized statement must list what was deducted and why. 

If the deductions are for more than $125.00, the landlord must attach a copy of any invoices or receipts with the itemized statement. If the landlord or their employee did the work themselves, they must include a description of the work, how long it took, and the hourly rate they charged. Any rates must be reasonable.

If the repairs aren't finished within the 21-day period for a good reason, the landlord can send the tenant a reasonable (good faith) estimate of the repair costs. Then, within 14 days of the repairs being done, the landlord must send the tenant the receipts.

A landlord can only deduct certain items from a security deposit 

The landlord can deduct for:

  • Cleaning the rental unit when a tenant moves out, but only to make it as clean as when the tenant first moved in
  • Repairing damage, other than normal wear and tear, caused by the tenant and the tenant's guests
  • Restoring or replacing furniture or other personal items, but only if this was included in the rental agreement and the damage isn't from normal wear and tear 

Generally, a landlord can keep part of the security deposit for rent owed. But there are some exceptions when a landlord can't do this. For example, a landlord can't use a security deposit to cover COVID-19 rental debt.

COVID-19 rental debt

A landlord can't use a security deposit to cover unpaid COVID-19 rental debt (rent or other money owed under a rental agreement, like parking fees, due from March 1, 2020 to September 30, 2021). If rent is due from another time, the landlord can use the security deposit to cover the unpaid rent. 

Ending a rental agreement early due to violence

If a tenant sends a written notice under Civil Code section 1946.7 that they are ending the rental agreement early because they or someone they live with was a victim of violence in the last 180 days, the landlord can't use the security deposit as a penalty for ending the lease early or to cover the rental period after the tenant ended the lease. 

If a landlord doesn't return a security deposit

1. Write the landlord a letter and try to reach an agreement

If the landlord doesn't return the entire security deposit within 21 days or the tenant doesn't agree with the deductions they can write a letter asking the landlord to return the security deposit. The tenant should keep a copy of the letter for their records.

2. Sue in small claims court (or civil court)

If the tenant and landlord can't agree the tenant can sue the landlord about the security deposit return.  They can sue for both

  • The amount of the deposit
  • Two times 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. A person who's a tenant can only sue for up to $12,500 in small claims court.

illustration of a book

Get more information about security deposits and moving out from the California Department of Real Estate's A Guide to Residential Tenants' and Landlords' Rights and Responsibilities. Or read the law in California Civil Code sections 1950.5.