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How to get your security deposit back

Home » How to get your security deposit back

If you live in a rental, there’s a very good chance your lease required at least one month’s, if not two months’ rent as a security deposit before your landlord allowed you to move in. With Bay Area property rents climbing as high as $3,500 a month, getting that security deposit back could help renters move into a new place.

If you search the internet, you’ll read all kinds of stories of horrible landlords who use every possible excuse to withhold security deposits from renters, but California is fairly tenant-friendly, and if you adhere to a few rules, read your lease, write everything down and take pictures, you should be able to get all of most of your security deposit back on your rental property.

Protecting your security deposit before moving in

Read your lease
Before moving in, read over your lease. Search for everything that might be relevant to your life. Does your landlord allow a roommate at the property? If you rent a room in a house, are you allowed overnight visitors and what are the other rules? Can you paint the walls or hang pictures? If you are renting a house, are you required to maintain the yard? Are you allowed to have pets? Are there pet deposits?

Inspect the apartment

Do a full walk through with photos
Do a full walk through of the apartment with the landlord before you move in. Document all damages and things like dirty walls, floors and appliances. Be sure to take photos.

Preferably, you should have your landlord sign off on the noted damages. At the very least, you should date stamp everything and send copies to your landlord. Be sure to put them in a safe file in your apartment or on your computer. You’ll need it when you move out.

Here is an inventory check list. Make sure you get everything in writing if you want your landlords to pay you your money back before you move to your new address.

Protecting your security deposit after moving in

Follow the lease agreement rules to get your money back or it will cost you
It will be a lot less stressful after you move out if you follow the terms in your lease. Keep your apartment relatively clean. Fix damages as soon as they occur and be sure to give your landlord 30 days notice before you move.

Don’t be afraid to ask your landlord for help if you want to protect your deposit
Your landlord is responsible for keeping all appliances, etc. in working order. If you have a problem, call your landlord right away, otherwise you may have to pay the repair bills or your landlords can take it out of your deposit when you move.

Here’s an example
I once knew someone whose toilet started running and wouldn’t stop. The tenant let it go so long that the landlord noticed a through the roof water bill. Needless to say, because the tenant didn’t call the landlords, the cost of the water bills were taken out of the tenant’s security deposit and they didn’t get a refund at all, despite the fact that their apartment was spotless and they had given 30 days advanced notice before the move. That single mistake of not calling the landlord to make the repair cost the tenant thousands of dollars.

Get your security deposit back from your landlord after moving out

Give your landlord proper notice to get your refund
In order to get your security deposit refund, your lease will likely require proper notice of at least 30 days before moving out. It’s a good idea to send a letter. Generally, the 30 days notice period starts on the day you pay your rent. Once you’ve given your 30 days notification before you move, your landlord may show your apartment, but your landlord must give at least 24 hours notice.

Give your landlord your last month’s rent
Unless your lease specified that you can use your security deposit as your last 30 days’ rent, you still must give your landlord the last month’s rent before you move. If you don’t, your landlord can sue you through mediation, small claims court or regular court. Be sure you don’t have any unpaid rent before expecting your money back from your deposit.

Do all repairs and cleaning, as specified on your lease agreement, to get your security deposit back
Before you give your landlord the keys, make sure your apartment is at least as clean as when you moved in if you expect your security deposit back. Clean all the appliances. Fill holes and repaint the walls if you painted without your landlord’s approval. Wipe down scuff marks. Replace anything you’ve damaged.

Take photos
Once you’re done, take photos. Here is a list of what’s considered normal wear and tear, which your landlord cannot deduct from your security deposit refund.

Schedule a final inspection
Ask your landlord about scheduling a final inspection of your apartment once you’ve moved out and it’s time to return the keys.

Provide your forwarding address
Be sure to give your landlord your forwarding address so they know where to return your deposit.

Know your rights; what are the landlords’ responsibilities?
In California, your landlord has 21 days to return the security deposit from your apartment or rental in full after you return the keys.

If your landlord does not return the security deposit within 21 days, they must return all but deductions from the security deposit and provide, in writing:

  1. The reason why they’re keeping all or part of the security deposit
  2. An itemized list of deductions from your security deposit
  3. Receipts of all repairs. If repairs cannot be made within 21 days, the landlord can provide a good faith estimate of repairs, which should be completed within 14 days after the initial 21 days. At which point, the landlord must send the tenant copies of the receipts. The landlord cannot deduct normal wear and tear from your security deposit.

How to handle security deposit disputes

If your landlord doesn’t return your security deposit within 21 days and doesn’t provide a reason for it, the first thing you should do is write a letter to the landlord explaining why you feel you deserve your security deposit back. Send it via certified mail.

What to do if your landlord still refuses to return your security deposit

If you’re still having trouble getting your security deposit back after moving and after you’ve written a demand letter to your landlord, it may be time to sue.

Can tenants demand payment in court after moving?

Tenants can sue for up to twice the amount of the overdue security deposit reimbursement plus interest. You can sue in small claims court if you are suing for up to $10,000, including interest. The advantage to small claims court is that neither party can use a lawyer, which puts both parties on equal legal footing.

If you intend to sue for double the security deposit amount plus interest, and it’s more than $10,000 total, you might be up against an expensive legal team. Hiring a lawyer might not be worth the money for you.

The other law option to get your landlord to return the security deposit

If you and your landlord don’t want to go to court to get your deposit back, you’ve followed the laws, and you’ve already sent the demand letter to your landlord, you can try getting your security deposit back after moving through mediation. Both you and your landlord will make your cases in front of a neutral party. Both parties will then be held to the findings of the mediator.

What to do if your landlord refuses to return your deposit?

If you’ve tried everything to get your deposit back after your move, you’ve followed the laws and you don’t want to go to court, here is a list of other legal options and tips you could have. While it may seem like your landlord has all the advantages over tenants, like the money needed to fight, if you have followed the letter of the law before moving, the law is on your side.

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