Topic No. 102: Security Deposits - General Information
Security deposits are governed by state law, not the Rent Ordinance. Under Section 1950.5 of the California Civil Code, a landlord may generally collect up to the equivalent of two months rent for deposits on unfurnished apartments and up to three months rent for deposits on furnished apartments. State law requires the landlord to refund deposits within 21 days of the tenant vacating the unit.
Before a tenant moves in, a landlord may ask for some type of deposit. No matter what it is called—a key deposit, a cleaning fee, a move-in fee, or last month’s rent—the law treats this initial payment as a security deposit subject to Section 1950.5 of the Civil Code. There is no such thing as a “non-refundable” security deposit—all money paid in addition to the first month’s rent is refundable. There is nothing in the law that specifically allows the landlord to raise the security deposit amount over time, although some landlords believe that the deposit can be brought up to reflect two months of the current rental amount with proper notice. Since this is a matter of state law, the Rent Board does not handle such disputes.
State law requires landlords to notify tenants that they have the right to an inspection of the unit within two weeks before they vacate, to determine what costs, if any, will be deducted from their security deposit. If the tenant does not request an inspection, no inspection before the move-out is required. If the tenant requests an inspection, but the parties cannot agree on a date and time for the inspection, the landlord must serve the tenant with at least a 48-hour notice of the time and date of the inspection. If the tenant requests an inspection, and both parties agree on a date and time, the landlord must still serve the tenant with at least a 48-hour notice of the time and date of the inspection. However, the parties can agree in writing to waive a 48-hour notice. If the tenant objects or withdraws the request for inspection, the inspection will not take place and is not required until after the tenant has vacated.
At the time of the inspection, the landlord must leave the tenant with an itemized statement specifying repairs or cleaning that could result in deductions from the security deposit if not corrected by the time of move-out. If the tenant is not present, the statement must be left inside the premises. The statement must also contain specific statutory language reminding the tenant of his or her rights and obligations regarding the security deposit. The law also allows the tenant to fix any identified deficiencies.
State law allows the landlord to make deductions from a security deposit for certain reasons including: unpaid rent or bills; “reasonable” cleaning charges to bring the unit to the same level of cleanliness as at the inception of the tenancy; failure by the tenant to restore, replace, or return personal property or appurtenances; and/or damage to the unit caused by the tenant or the tenant’s guest that exceeds normal wear and tear. What constitutes normal wear and tear is not clearly defined and we cannot help you determine that. The landlord may be liable for penalties of up to twice the amount of the deposit, in addition to actual damages, for bad faith retention of a security deposit.
If you are a tenant and feel that the amount of your security deposit refund is not correct, you will either need to go to Small Claims Court in order to attempt to recover the amount, use a mediation/arbitration service, contact the District Attorney’s Consumer Fraud Unit and/or consult an attorney.
If you choose to go to Small Claims Court, be aware that your claim cannot exceed $10,000.00 and that California law prohibits attorneys from representing another person at a Small Claims Court hearing.