You Have Rights When It Comes to Your Security Deposit

As every renter knows, a security deposit is the amount of money a landlord usually requires at the beginning of a lease, in order to protect him or her in the event that a tenant breaks the terms of a lease agreement. Depending on the terms of the lease, the security deposit is usually held for any kind of damage to the property. 

Here are questions clients often ask regarding their security deposits.

Can the amount of the security deposit be anything the landlord asks for? 

No. In California, there are limits to the amount of the security deposit required with regards to a residential lease (commercial properties have completely different rules). 

How long can a landlord hold onto the security deposit before either using it for repairs or returning it to the tenant?

According to California Civil Code 1950.5, a landlord has 21 days to either return a security deposit in full or to provide a written explanation (delivered in person or by mail), explaining the reasons for any deduction from the deposit. This explanation must include an itemized list of each deduction (and documentation to back them up) and the landlord must return the balance of the deposit that wasn’t deducted. 

One exception: if work is done on the residence but a receipt for those services hasn’t been received in the allotted time-frame, the landlord is obliged to send a good faith estimate of the repairs and then send the actual receipt to the tenant promptly after it’s been received. 

The documentation I referred to must include copies of receipts for any third-party work and any supplies or materials used. If the landlord does the work himself, he is entitled to enter a “fair market” labor rate for his hours spent. 

What things don’t get charged as part of the security deposit?

  • Ordinary wear and tear. Say a tenant has occupied an apartment for a year or so and it was clear that a new coat of paint should have been applied when the tenant first moved in, but nothing was done. In this case, when the tenant moves out, the landlord can’t charge for the cost of new painting. She can only charge for cleaning the unit, in order to make the residence as nice as it was when the tenant first arrived. Upgrades like new carpeting or a new paint job must come out of the landlord’s pocket.
  • Unpaid rent. Unless stated specifically in the lease agreement, a landlord can’t deduct unpaid rent from the security deposit.

Note: A landlord can deduct rent monies from the security deposit if the tenant fails to give proper notice of intent to move out.

What can tenants do if they feel a security deposit agreement has been broken?

If a landlord doesn’t comply with Civil Code 1950.5 or just plain overcharges on various deductions, a tenant can sue for damages in court. “Damages” in these cases generally means the amount of the deposit withheld, plus up to twice that amount in additional damages.

What should a tenant do to prevent this from happening?

Prepare yourself for a possible dispute from day one. Before taking up residence, conduct a thorough “move-in inspection” with the landlord. Note anything that needs repair. Take photographs of any questionable conditions or visibly damaged areas. Keep a copy of this move-in inspection. 

Throughout the time you lease the residence, always document anything that happens that might affect the condition of the rental unit. For example, a hole appears in a wall and you fix it. Provide a notice to the landlord and take photos of the wall after repairs are completed. 

When the time comes to leave, give proper notice in writing. Also ask for and schedule a “move-out inspection,” again documenting conditions of the premises, and get a copy of the inspection report. Also be sure to give the landlord a forwarding address.

Most importantly, if you believe your landlord is in violation of the return of your security deposit, promptly submit a written demand for whatever sums you believe are due and contact a lawyer. Any delay in responding to this situation can severely impact your right to collect whatever sums are owed you.

Are you in a situation affecting your rights as a tenant? The Law Offices of Ian S. Topf offer free consultation in a variety of issues, ranging from family law, estate planning, bankruptcy, and DUIs and landlord/tenant disputes.  

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