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If you are a renter, you’ve probably given your landlord a hefty sum of money as a security deposit. For those of you who are concerned about whether your landlord will return this money at the end of your tenancy, you’re not alone. Security deposits are one of the most common things that landlords and tenants fight about. The good news is that there are steps you can take to increase the likelihood that your landlord will return your deposit to you.

Before You Move In

Before you move into a new rental unit, you should ask the landlord to perform an initial inspection of the unit. You and your landlord should take note of any damage to the unit. It can be a good idea to take photos of any problems you find during this inspection so that you can prove that those problems existed before you moved into the unit. It is helpful if the photos are date stamped, so you can show when you took the photo. A rental agreement may not state that your security deposit is nonrefundable.

Before You Move Out: The Initial Inspection

Before you move out an apartment, you should ask your landlord to perform another inspection of your unit. If you make this request, your landlord is required to arrange a time to inspect the unit. You should make this request at least two weeks before you are due to move out of the unit. You have the right to be present at this inspection. Your landlord cannot inspect your unit unless you request one, making it imperative that you be proactive and make this request. This inspection is important because it will prevent your landlord from charging you for additional, unidentified repairs later on.

Your landlord must give you 48-hours advance notice in writing of the time and date of the inspection. Unless you have withdrawn your request for the inspection, your landlord may enter the unit to conduct the inspection at the time and date specified in the written notice whether you are home or not. Even if you cannot be present at the time of the inspection, it is still important to request that your landlord conduct this inspection.

The Itemized Statement

After inspecting your unit, your landlord is required to leave you an itemized statement that lists any damages or other conditions that could result in deductions from your security deposit. The purpose of this is to give you time to correct and repair any damages or poor conditions before you move out. By correcting or repairing damages, you can help ensure that your landlord will not withhold a portion of your deposit for these problems. In general, your landlord may only make deductions for conditions or damages that are listed in this itemized statement. The exception to this rule is if the conditions were not visible at the time of the inspection or if they occurred after the inspection. You should always take before and after photos of any problems noted on the inspection statement.

When Can Your Landlord Deduct Funds from Your Security Deposit?

The itemized statement your landlord gives you after their initial inspection of your unit must also contain language about the lawful reasons to deduct from or withhold security deposits. You should review your rental agreement for any specific expectations or requirements about the state of your unit when you move out.

Unlawful deductions include:

  • Deduction simply because you lived in the unit
  • Normal wear and tear, such as a carpet worn by ordinary use.
  • Conditions that existed when you moved in.
  • Your landlord may not automatically deduct the cost of a full cleaning of the unit unless the unit is less clean when you move out than it was when you moved in.
  • Your landlord is not permitted to automatically deduct a charge for new paint.

Lawful deductions include:

  • To cover unpaid rent
  • Cleaning the rental unit, but only to make it as clean as it was when your moved in. In these circumstances, you may be charged a reasonable cleaning fee.
  • Damages like chipped counters or carpet stains that you or your guests caused
  • Flea infestation
  • Mildew
  • Nail holes
  • If the rental agreement permits, your landlord may deduct for the cost of restoring or replacing furniture, furnishings, or other items of personal property, such as keys. This is only allowed for damage beyond normal wear and tear.

After You Move: The 21-Day Deadline

When you return your keys, make sure to give your landlord your new mailing address. Your previous landlord has 21 days after your tenancy ends to refund whatever portion of your security deposit you are owed. If you landlord withholds any of your deposit, they must also provide you with an itemized statement listing any deductions from your security despot and the reason for the deduction. If the deductions are worth more than $125, the landlord must also send you any invoices or receipts for cleaning or work that was done or an estimate of any repairs that will take longer to finish. If 21 days passes and your landlord does not give you an itemized statement of deductions, your landlord cannot withhold money from your deposit and must return your entire deposit.

What Can You Do If Your Deductions Seem Unreasonable?

If your landlord has not complied with the requirements discussed above or you feel your security deposit refund is less than it should be, what can you do? You can start by writing a letter to your landlord explaining why you believe that any deductions were improper. You should provide documentation, such as photographs or receipts, to support your assertions. You can refer your landlord to the security deposit rules in California Civil Code § 1950.5 and ask for a refund of the specific amount you feel you are owed. Be firm, but polite and send the letter by certified mail or get proof of mailing.

If your landlord disputes your claims, you can seek legal assistance. If you are 60 and older and live in Contra Costa County, Contra Costa Senior Legal Services may be able to assist you. Ultimately, you have the option of suing your landlord in small claims court. If you win your case in small claims court, a judge may order your landlord to refund some or all of your security deposit and may order that your landlord pay for your legal costs and a penalty.


If you understand your rights and are prepared, you can be in a better position to protect your security deposit. To help protect your deposit, remember to do the following:

  1. Request that your landlord inspect your unit before you move in and at least two weeks before you move out
  2. Take good notes
  3. Take photos of the condition of the unit when you move in and when you are preparing to move out
  4. Keep your receipts


For more information on security deposit rules, click here..