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Security Deposit Facts You Should Know

by | Jul 12, 2022 | Get Started, Plaintiff | 0 comments

What is a security (rental) deposit?

A security deposit is money that a tenant gives to a landlord. This money can be returned if there’s no damage to the property. When moving in, tenants usually pay this deposit to cover potential damages during their stay.

The landlord has to refund the money if there’s no damage. If there’s damage, the landlord keeps only the money needed to fix it from the deposit. Some contracts list amounts for certain damage types. Usually, landlords don’t ask for deposits for rentals under 30 days, called short-term rentals.

 Sometimes, contracts call deposits a “pet fee,” “cleaning fee,” “move-in fee,” or “last month’s rent.” If the ‘fee’ in a contract matches the description in ‘What can a security deposit be used for?’ below, a court will often consider the fee as a security deposit.

Security Deposit Requirements

Laws in many areas specify how security deposits are used.

For example, in California:

  • Landlords must always refund security deposits unless exceptions apply (more on this below). A lease could be invalid if it states the deposit is non-refundable.
  • The security deposit can be up to two months’ rent if the property is unfurnished. The security deposit can be up to three months’ rent if the property is furnished.
  • Landlords may charge an additional deposit and administrative costs if tenants use a waterbed or other bedding with liquid-filled materials.
  • Special security deposit rules may also apply to certain military members.

What the Security Deposit Can Cover

A landlord can use the security deposit to restore the rental property. This means fixing damages, cleaning, and undoing changes, like repainting a room that was painted without permission.

  • Damages:  The security deposit covers the cost of repairing damages caused by the tenant or a tenant’s guest. This includes people invited to the home for a specific purpose, such as a plumber.
    • A landlord can only charge for damages beyond “ordinary wear and tear.”
    • Ordinary wear and tear describe small damage expected to happen when a property is lived in.
      • For example, a few nail holes would likely be covered. However, a large hole in a wall can be fixed with the money from the security deposit.
  • Cleaning:  Landlords can use the deposit for professional cleaning, but only to the same level as when the tenant moved in.
  • Rent Payment Issues: The deposit can be used to cover rent non-payment.
  • Additional items authorized by the rental agreement: Landlords can use the deposit for other things in the rental agreement. This includes restoring, replacing, or returning furnishings.

Avoiding Damage Charges

If a tenant moves out of their rented place, they can request the landlord’s presence during an inspection before moving out. This helps identify problems to fix. However, the tenant must ask for this inspection; otherwise, the landlord isn’t obligated.

Landlords should provide a list of repairs after the inspection. They deduct the costs from the deposit after the tenant moves. Tenants can also fix the problems before moving out.

When Will I Get My Deposit Back?

This depends on state and local rules.

In California:

  • The landlord must return the remaining security deposit, if any, within 21 days after the tenant moves out.
  • If the landlord uses any part of the security deposit for repairs and/or cleaning, they must provide the tenant with a list of the work done and its cost.
  • The landlord must also include receipts if they hired a professional and costs exceeded $125.
  • The landlord can also do repairs themselves or through an employee. If they hire an employee, they must include a description of the work, the hourly rate, and the length of time the work was performed.
  •  Landlords must only deduct good faith estimates if repairs take more than 21 days or receipts can’t be provided. They must provide an estimated account within 21 days.  

Not Considered a Security Deposit

Fees for processing tenant applications are non-refundable. They cannot cost more than the cost of gathering information about the applicant. These are not security deposits.

What should I do if my deposit is not returned?

First, get everything in order with the following steps:  

  • Keep a record of your deposit payment date and to whom you paid. A lease, receipt, or bank statement works.
  • Take pictures to show the property’s condition when moving in and out.
  • Ensure you have your former landlord’s correct contact info. This includes a phone number, email, and mailing address (if different from your rental address).
  • Find out what repairs were made and the returned amount. If unsure, ask the landlord to send you an itemized list of the damage and how much it costs to fix each item.  

Second, formally request the landlord to return your deposit. The best way to do this is by sending an official demand letter.

Demand Letter for Security Deposit

If you think your landlord unfairly kept your deposit, you might be able to take them to court. Use tools like JusticeDirect to send a demand letter or check out these resources about writing one:


The quest for justice is never easy, particularly when it comes to getting your money back. However, thanks to advances in technology, it has become easier. Quest for Justice’s first app, JusticeDirect, is the only app of its kind designed to support people without lawyers to resolve their disputes and get their money back, both in and out of court. The first step to getting money back is through a letter demanding payment from the other party JusticeDirect offers customizable demand letters for free. If the letter demanding payment does not work, then the next step is taking them to court. JusticeDirect* will guide users every step of the way through the small claims court process by helping them:


  1. Understand the legal process;
  2. Evaluate the pros and cons that come with taking someone to court;
  3. Generate small claims court forms; and,
  4. Avoid common mistakes when filing your forms and serving notice on the other side.
*Currently, JusticeDirect can only help litigants sue in California’s small claims court.

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