California law requires that landlords give tenants their security deposits back within 21 days of move out. If only life were that simple. For many renters, that 21 day mark comes and goes with no sign of any money. When the deposit check doesn’t show up in the mail, renters are often left depressed and anxious. Is the landlord just going to keep my security deposit? How can I get it back?
Here are 10 things you can do now to try to avoid or fix a security deposit dispute.
1. Ask for it back.
This sounds simple but many renters feel intimidated or they just assume the landlord is planning to keep the security deposit if it isn’t returned to them. It could just be an oversight by the landlord. Keep a written record of your deposit return request.
2. Ask for written explanations.
The landlord must, according to California law, provide the tenant with an itemized list of any deductions being made from the deposit. This list must be provided within 21 days of move out if the deposit is not being returned in full. The landlord is also required to provide the tenant with copies of receipts for any repairs made, unless the repairs were for less than $126. If the repairs can’t be completed within the 21-day period, the landlord should send the tenant a good faith estimate of the repair cost. Then within 14 days of the repairs being done, the landlord must send the tenant the receipts.
3. Keep detailed records!
Make sure that you take photos and record the state of the property when you move in. Do the same before you move out. If you believe that the landlord is wrongfully making deductions from the security deposit and you have photos or other evidence that would help make your case, send that evidence to the landlord. He is more likely to do the right thing if he sees that you have actual evidence of his wrongdoing.
4. Request a walk-through with the landlord.
You can request a walk-through with the landlord when you move in and when you move out. You are also entitled to request a walk through two weeks before you leave so that the landlord can inform you of any deductions he intends to make. That gives you an opportunity to fix the problems yourself so that he doesn’t charge you for repairs. A checklist should be completed following each walk-through and the landlord should give the tenant a copy of the checklist.
5. Did your original landlord sell the property during your tenancy?
Sometimes landlords sell the house or apartment while you’re living there as a tenant. This can often create confusion: is the original landlord responsible for return of the tenant’s deposit, or should you ask the new landlord? The answer is that the original landlord should have transferred the deposit to the new landlord. The new landlord should return to you any part of the deposit that you are entitled to. But if the original landlord did not transfer the deposit to the new landlord, the original landlord remains liable for deposit return.
6. Check the cleaning charges.
The landlord is only entitled to charge for cleaning to restore the property to the same state as it was in at the start of your tenancy. If he chooses to do a deep clean of the carpets, for example, and the carpets were in a poor state when you arrived, tell your landlord that he can’t charge you for that. Equally, if he decides to use a high end, award winning cleaning company that charges $500 to clean a one bed apartment, tell your landlord that you are only liable for whatever amount is “reasonable.”
7. Don’t allow deductions for “wear and tear.”
You have to pay for any damage you did, but not ordinary wear and tear. Click here for our blog on “ordinary wear and tear” means.
8. There is no such thing as a non-refundable deposit.
Even if the lease says the deposit is non-refundable, that is not allowed under California law.
9. Sue in small claims court.
If the landlord doesn’t return your deposit or explain why he hasn’t within 21 days of move out, he loses the right to deduct anything from the deposit. If he acted in bad faith, you can sue for up to 3 times the amount of the deposit. You can sue in small claims court for any amount up to $10,000. It’s relatively inexpensive and proceedings are less formal than normal court proceedings. You would need to prepare the court documents that need to be filed. A lawyer can assist with preparing the forms. A lawyer can also represent you in court, though many litigants in small claims courts choose to represent themselves to reduce costs.
10. Get a lawyer to send a demand letter.
If you’ve contacted the landlord but are getting no response, or you’re not getting the response you are looking for, you could have a lawyer send a demand letter on your behalf. Having a lawyer send the letter shows the landlord that you’re serious. If the landlord backs down, you can avoid the inconvenience of filing small claims forms and going to court.