In California, a landlord generally has 21 calendar days after you move out in which to return your deposit. The best case is that there are no deductions from the deposit, in which case both landlord and tenant move on with their lives. However, sometimes your landlord (a) fails to return your deposit, or (b) makes deductions that are unreasonable or not properly documented.
If your landlord doesn't return or refuses to return your deposit, you should—if you can—ask the landlord to return whatever amount is in dispute. It is possible that the landlord didn't return your deposit due to a misunderstanding. If you ask the landlord and he still refuses, you may have to sue him in small claims court to force him to return it. Small claims courts are in each California county. Small claims court is not difficult, but it can be intimidating. You should seek advice and guidance on the small claims process if you have never done it before.
If you do decide to sue, it will be your job to prove to the judge that you should have gotten your deposit back and did not. Your landlord might claim that you damaged the rental unit so be prepared to dispute that. In California, a lease cannot state that a security deposit is non-refundable.
If you can prove your landlord failed to return your security deposit for an improper purpose, the small claims court **may** order the landlord to return the deposit and also pay a penalty to you of twice the deposit amount.
In California, a landlord can deduct from your deposit for a limited number of things. The three most common are (1) unpaid rent, (2) the cost of cleaning the rental unit, and (3) damage to the rental unit above and beyond normal wear and tear.
If your landlord does deduct from your deposit, those deductions have to be both reasonable and properly documented. For example, if you break a window, the landlord can only force you to pay for replacing the window with a comparable one. The landlord cannot upgrade the window to a much better one and make you pay for the whole cost. A landlord can also not make you pay to replace an item that just happens to be at the end of its normal useful life (such as a roof that needs to be replaced after 30 years).
If the landlord makes reasonable deductions from your deposit, you may be entitled to see evidence such as receipts and estimates from contractors.
It can sometimes be difficult to prove after you move out whether an item (such as the carpet) was damaged or pristine when you moved in. The best way to solve this is to do a thorough walk-through of the rental unit before you move in. It may be helpful to take digital pictures or video and to thoroughly inspect and document the condition of your rental unit.
It is quite common to have problems getting a security deposit back after you move out. The process to get the deposit back is often the tenant's first experience with going to court. With proper preparation and guidance, however, the problems are quite easily solved.
Andy I. Chen is a general practice lawyer based in Los Altos, California. Fluent in Mandarin-Chinese, Andy takes a variety of transactional and litigation cases all throughout Northern California. Andy has been practicing law since 2009 and is licensed in California and New York. He also maintains an active pro bono practice helping both current and former members of the US military.
This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.