California Security Deposit Returns & Deductions

California Security Deposit Returns & Deductions

Last Updated: December 29, 2022 by Ashley Porter

Quick Facts Answer
Acceptable Deductions
  • Unpaid rent
  • Costs of damage
  • Cleaning costs
  • Restoration costs
Return Deadline 21 days
Itemized Deductions Required
Penalty for Late Return 2x Deposit

For laws on security deposit collections and holdings in California, click here.

Security Deposit Deductions in California

In California, the following things can be deduced from security deposits:

  • Unpaid rent
  • Costs of damage excluding normal wear and tear
  • Cleaning costs to return the unit to its condition at the start of the tenancy (only applicable to leases beginning after January 1, 2003)
  • Restoration costs mentioned in the lease agreement

Most states, such as California, do not have a legal limit on how much a landlord can charge for damages except that the charges must be reasonable.

If the cost of the damages exceeds the amount of the security deposit, landlords are entitled to seek additional damages from the former tenant.

What is Considered Normal Wear & Tear vs Damage in California?

Normal wear and tear is damage that is expected when a rental unit is used in a normal way, such as gently worn carpets and faded walls. Damage is the destruction caused by abusive or negligent use of a rental unit, like ripped carpets and heavily stained walls.

“Normal wear and tear” is deterioration that occurs naturally as a result of the tenant using the property as it was designed to be used.

Examples include:

  • Gently worn carpets
  • Lightly scratched glass
  • Faded paint and flooring
  • Lightly dirtied grout
  • Loose door handles
  • Stained bath fixtures

Damage” means destruction to the rental unit that occurs because of abuse or negligence by a tenant during the course of the tenancy.

Examples include:

  • Heavily stained, burned, or torn carpets
  • Broken tiles or windows
  • Holes in the wall
  • Missing fixtures

Can the Landlord Charge for Replacing the Carpet in California?

Yes, landlords can charge for replacing the carpet if it is damaged beyond ordinary wear and tear. However, California law requires that landlords only charge for the remaining useful life of furnishings. At the end of a ten-year tenancy, a tenant cannot be charged for a carpet expected to last eight years despite the level of damage.

As another example, suppose a tenant damages a nine-year-old carpet beyond repair that would cost $1,500 to replace and had an estimated useful life of ten years. The tenant can only be charged $150 to replace the carpet, which is the value of the one remaining year of use.

Some wear and tear on a rental unit’s carpet is expected after normal day-to-day use of the property. For example, carpets typically become discolored, indented, or gently worn, when used in a normal way. However, non-typical, abusive use of carpet results in rips, visible stains, or burns.

note

West Hollywood’s Municipal Code establishes a useful life of carpets by requiring that landlords replace carpets every seven years. Check your local laws to see if there are habitability standards that exceed state law.

Can the Landlord Charge for Nail Holes in California?

Yes, landlords can charge a tenant for nail holes if they damage the walls in a way that is not a result of ordinary enjoyment of the rental unit.

Tenants have the right to use the walls within their unit in a reasonable way. This includes inserting small nails or thumbtacks to hang posters or pictures. However, large holes from drilling, multiple nail holes, large nail holes, and holes made for hanging heavier things may be considered damage and thus, chargeable to the tenant.

Can the Landlord Charge a Cleaning Fee in California?

In California, landlords are allowed to deduct reasonable cleaning charges from the security deposit but only as necessary to bring the unit to the state it was in at the start of the lease term. Landlords cannot routinely charge a cleaning fee to each tenant.

These reasonable costs might include the cost of removing mildew in bathrooms, cleaning the oven, washing the kitchen floor, or removing tape residue from the walls, as long as the conditions did not exist when the tenant moved in.

Can the Landlord Charge for Painting in California?

Yes, in California, landlords can charge for painting, but only if the tenant causes damage, rather than ordinary wear. However, California law requires that landlords prorate the useful life of the paint. If a landlord uses paint expected to last six years, tenants cannot be charged for painting after a seven-year tenancy, despite the level of damage.

Check with your paint manufacturer to determine how long it is expected to last, as there is a wide range in durability. Divide the cost of repainting by the number of years of life expectancy. A tenant that damages the paint beyond repair can only be charged for the years remaining in the paint’s useful life.

note

West Hollywood’s Municipal Code establishes a useful life of paint by requiring that landlords repaint every four years. Check your local laws to see if there are habitability standards that exceed state law.

Can a Security Deposit Be Used for Last Month’s Rent in California?

California law does not forbid the security deposit from being used for last month’s rent.

Landlords can include a provision in the lease agreement that the security deposit cannot be used for the last month’s rent until the tenant vacates the rental unit.

Security Deposit Returns in California

In California, landlords must give tenants the option of an initial inspection before the end of the lease, allow the tenants to repair any damage, as permitted by the lease, then return the security deposit, if due, with a written list of damages, if any, no later than 21 days after the tenant has moved out.

Step 1: Written Notice. The landlord must send written notice to the tenant giving them the option to request an initial inspection. The notice must be sent to the tenant within a reasonable time before the fixed-term lease expires or after the landlord learns that the lease will end.

Step 2: Initial Inspection. If a tenant requests an inspection, it must take place within the last 14 days of the lease term and they must be given 48-hour written notice.

Step 3: Itemized Statement of Repairs. If an initial inspection is conducted, the landlord must provide the tenant with an itemized statement of repairs or cleaning the tenant may complete, as permitted by the lease agreement, to avoid security deposit deductions.

The itemized statement must be hand-delivered to the tenant or left in the rental unit and include the text of Sections 1950.5(d) and (b)(1)-(4) of the California Civil Code.

The tenant is not obligated to clean or make repairs, but if they do not do so before the end of the lease, the landlord can deduct the charges from the security deposit. The landlord may make additional deductions from the security deposit if:

  • Damage occurs after the initial inspection
  • Damage was not identified during the inspection because it couldn’t be seen due to the tenant’s belongings
note

Although California law does not require a specific format for the itemized statement, other than the required code language, a template of an inspection form is provided on page 123 of the California Tenants’ Guide.

How Long Do Landlords Have to Return Security Deposits in California?

Landlords have 21 days after the tenant vacates the premises to return the security deposit with a written list of damages, if any, to the tenant.

Do Landlords Owe Interest on Security Deposits in California?

California law does not require landlords to provide interest on held security deposits, but some cities require that landlords pay interest, including BerkeleyLos AngelesSanta Cruz, and San Francisco.

Check your local laws to determine if tenants are entitled to interest on their security deposits in your area.

How Do Landlords Give Notice / What Information Do They Have to Provide in California?

Written notice must be hand delivered or mailed to the address provided by the tenant and must include the amount of the security deposit due, if any, to the tenant, plus a written statement, if deductions are made, including documentation of payment for repairs and/or cleaning.

If the tenant does not provide a forwarding address, the landlord can mail the written statement to the vacated unit. The written statement can be sent by email if the tenant agrees.

Unless the deductions are less than $125 or the tenant agrees in writing to waive the right to a written statement, the written statement must include:

  • An itemized list of deductions made from the security deposit
  • A description of the cleaning and repairs with invoices, receipts, etc.
  • Contact information for the person/company that completed the work

Security Deposit Disputes in California

If landlords do not return the security deposit within the 21-day period, tenants can file for damages in court up to the amount of the deposit.

If the landlord is found to have acted unreasonably in withholding the amount or in “bad faith”, the landlord may be made to pay two times the security deposit in damages, in addition to returning the amount originally withheld.

Tenants can also take legal action against a landlord for failure to provide a written statement when deductions are made from a security deposit, or unreasonable deductions.

How Can Tenants File a Dispute for a Security Deposit in California?

If a landlord fails to properly return a security deposit, the tenant can file a dispute in Small Claims Court, but only after sending a demand letter, if feasible to do so, and if the amount of damages is less than $10,000. If the amount is greater, the tenant must file a civil case in Superior Court.

A landlord-tenant dispute in Small Claims Court must be filed within 2 to 4 years depending on the type of claim, and an attorney is not allowed in most situations. Cases are filed in the Small Claims Court where the defendant lives or the lease agreement was entered into. Filing fees are $30 to $75 depending on the claim amount.

Our website provides more information about the process of filing a dispute in Small Claims Court.

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