Many tenants feel they are unfairly treated when the landlord keeps more of their security deposit than seems fair when they move out.
The fact is, the Security Deposit is the Tenant’s Deposit (not the Landlord’s) and the law leans in favor of tenants when there is a dispute between the landlord and tenant. You do not need an attorney to fight for your deposit – small claims court does not allow attorney representation. If the court finds that your landlord held your Security Deposit unfairly and in “bad faith”, they MAY award you up to 3x the amount that you were owed.
Know the Law
Civil code 1950.5 covers this process in detail but here are the highlights:
The landlord has 21 days from the time you give them full possession of the property to account for (and refund the balance of) your security deposit. If the landlord is unable to complete the process in 21 days, they must, in writing, inform you that they need and extension and provide you an estimated refund. Then they must complete the process as soon as is reasonable. Property Owners who do their own work (rather than using an outside vendor) must break down materials cost and time/labor amounts on their receipts.
Security Deposits may only be used for these 3 items:
1. Unpaid rent.
2. Damage beyond normal wear and tear.
3. Cleaning. NOTE: Late fees, utility bills… may NOT be deducted from your security deposit.
7 Tips for Getting a Fair Amount of Your Security Deposit Back
1. Take pictures before you move in and after you move out and clean.
Pictures are much more convincing than anything you say. In many cases your landlord will have marketing photos from before you move in – but they may not show the dirty oven…
2. Do a good written Move-in Condition Report.
This document is your opportunity to note pre-existing dirt, damage… Too many tenants move in and sign that everything is “OK” then later try to claim their was pre-existing damage and that will never work well for the tenant.
3. Ask for a pre move-out inspection.
When you are within the last couple weeks of living in the home, ask the landlord (always in writing) for a pre move-out inspection. The landlord must then provide you with a written list of all you need to do to get your deposit back (there are exceptions for hidden damage). This limits the scope of what landlords can later charge you for – if it was not on their list and it was not hidden – they cannot withhold for it.
4. Do the needed repairs and cleaning BEFORE you move out.
Clean it at least as good as you received it. Haul away ALL of your personal property and/or trash. Hire someone to fix any damage that happened while you were there. Once you are out you have no control over who the landlord chooses to hire or what they charge to fix or clean things you could have done before you gave keys back.
5. Be realistic.
Crayon marks on the walls is damage even if the house needed paint. Holes in the walls are not normal wear. If you damaged the home, be willing to fix it or pay to have it done.
6. Do not withhold rent for fear that the landlord will use all your deposit.
The landlord may start an eviction on you even if you are (in theory) within the last 30-60 days of living in the home. An eviction on your record is a DISASTER to your ability to rent homes for the next 7+years.
7. Submit a request in writing.
If the landlord has not given you a written accounting of how your deposit was used (and an appropriate refund) within 21 days, request what is fair in writing to him/her. Do not use hot and angry words – just the facts. A judge may be looking at the same letter later and deciding how reasonable you are. If the landlord does not correct the situation fairly within 21 days, file a small claims action and get your photos, paperwork in order.