16. Security Deposit for a Residential Rental Unit

Frequently Asked Questions

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California Civil Code Section 1950.5 is the only law which governs security deposits in the State. It is a relatively short law and if you are in a dispute with your landlord regarding your deposit we recommend that you read it in its entirety. You can sue for up to $10,000 in Small Claims Court and that is the best venue for attempting to recover any part of your security deposit which has been wrongfully withheld. You can sue for bad faith damages which is similar to punitive damages and a tenant can receive up to twice the amount of the security deposit which has been withheld as bad faith damages. Attorneys cannot appear in Small Claims Court on behalf of a client although they can represent a party on an appeal of a ruling in Small Claims Court.

California Civil Code Section 1950.5 in relevant part states: A security deposit can be used “for any purpose, including, but not limited to, any of the following:

  1. The compensation of a landlord for a tenant’s default in the payment of rent;
  2. The repair of damages to the premises, exclusive of ordinary wear and tear, caused by the tenant or by a guest or licensee of the tenant;
  3. The cleaning of the premises upon termination of the tenancy necessary to return the unit to the same level of cleanliness it was in at the inception of the tenancy…;
  4. To remedy future defaults by the tenant in any obligation under the rental agreement to restore, replace, or return personal property or appurtenances, exclusive of ordinary wear and tear, if the security deposit is authorized to be applied thereto by the rental agreement.

A landlord has 21 days to return your full security deposit or they must provide an itemized statement (accounting) for any part of the deposit which is not returned. Civil Code Section 1950.5 (g) states: “(g) (1) No later than 21 calendar days after the tenant has vacated the premises… the landlord shall furnish the tenant, by personal delivery or by first-class mail, postage prepaid, a copy of an itemized statement indicating the basis for, and the amount of, any security received and the disposition of the security, and shall return any remaining portion of the security to the tenant… Along with the itemized statement, the landlord shall also include copies of documents showing charges incurred and deducted by the landlord to repair or clean the premises, as follows: (A) If the landlord or landlord’s employee did the work, the itemized statement shall reasonably describe the work performed. The itemized statement shall include the time spent and the reasonable hourly rate charged; (B) If the landlord or landlord’s employee did not do the work, the landlord shall provide the tenant a copy of the bill, invoice, or receipt supplied by the person or entity performing the work. The itemized statement shall provide the tenant with the name, address, and telephone number of the person or entity, if the bill, invoice, or receipt does not include that information; (C) If a deduction is made for materials or supplies, the landlord shall provide a copy of the bill, invoice, or receipt. If a particular material or supply item is purchased by the landlord on an ongoing basis, the landlord may document the cost of the item by providing a copy of a bill, invoice, receipt, vendor price list, or other vendor document that reasonably documents the cost of the item used in the repair or cleaning of the unit.”

There is an additional, similar protocol “if the work cannot reasonably be completed within 21 calendar days after the tenant has vacated the premises.” In such a case, “the landlord may deduct the amount of a good faith estimate of the charges that will be incurred and provide that estimate with the itemized statement.”