Easily one of the biggest sources of disputes between a landlord and a tenant, security deposits are actually well regulated and protected by law. Your landlord can only use your security deposit for specific reasons, and he must do so in accordance with law. Read our security deposits guide for answers to your questions regarding this issue.

Facts you should know:

1. Under the California Civil Code 1950.5 the landlord is required to return your security deposit within 3 weeks of the date you end your tenancy. An exception to this time limitation may be made if your landlord has not been able to complete repairs that you’re responsible before the three-week limitation is up. Your landlord must, however, let you know why she or he is delaying the return of your security deposit.

2. In cities under rent control ordinances, such as Berkeley, the landlord is required to pay you any interest earned on your deposit since the last time the interest on your deposit was refunded.

3. If the landlord withholds any part of your deposit, he/she must provide you with an itemized list of deductions, including the dollar amounts for each item, and return any unused portion of your deposit. This itemized list and/or your deposit must be mailed to you by your landlord either by first class mail or delivered in person.

4. If your landlord required you to pay the last month’s rent in advance, she or he cannot use that portion of your deposit for anything other than last month’s rent. That is to say, your landlord cannot deduct from your last month’s rent to compensate for damages if the cost of those damages exceed the amount your landlord charge as a security deposit. Your landlord may, however, sue to recover for additional damages.

If your landlord fails to return your deposit:

If your landlord fails to either return your deposit or provide an itemized list of the reasons why your deposit was not returned, here are some of the actions you could take:

  1. Write a letter demanding that your landlord comply with the California Civil Code 1950.5. This letter should state that if your deposit is not returned within a “reasonable” period of time (two weeks, for example) you will take legal action. Sample letters are available here.If your landlord does not respond satisfactorily to this letter, two other legal options are available:
  2. You can ask an attorney to write your landlord a letter demanding your deposit back. Although this solution costs money, it is often sufficient to get your landlord to return your deposit.
  3. If the amount of money in dispute is less than $5,000, you may sue your landlord in small claims court. If you decide to use this option, you can ask the court to grant you up to twice the amount of the security deposit in addition to actual damages due to the landlord’s bad faith retention. While punitive damages and interest are seldom granted in these cases, it is a good idea to sue for the maximum possible amount in order to inspire your landlord to return your deposit rather than risk losing additional money in court. In any case your landlord must prove that any amount he/she deducted was reasonable.

Remember, unless your landlord makes legal deductions from the security deposit, he/she is holding your money. If you must use the court to get your deposit back or need further information about deposits, contact Renters’ Legal Assistance.

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