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Security Deposit Regulations for California Tenants

What Is a Security Deposit?

It is common practice for a landlord to charge a “security deposit” before renting out a property to a tenant.

This is paid by a tenant before moving in and can be used by the landlord to cover repairs to the property or to make up for unpaid rent. The remaining balance must then be returned to the tenant once they stop living at the property. Terms such as “cleaning fee,” “animal deposit,” or “key deposit,” would all be considered a type of security deposit.

Is There a Limit to How High a Security Deposit Can Be in California?

Yes, California does place a limit on how high a security deposit can be, and this depends on if the property is furnished or not. Landlords can charge up to the amount equal to 2 months of rent for an unfurnished property, and for 3 months of rent for furnished ones.

What Rights Do Tenants Have in Regards to Security Deposits?

First, it is required that all California security deposits be refundable. Under no circumstance can a landlord require you to pay a nonrefundable security deposit upfront in addition to rent. 

Next, once it is time to refund the security deposit, the landlord must do so within 21 days of the tenant moving out. When the remaining amount is returned, the landlord must include an itemized list that describes all of the deductions to the security deposit.

What Rights Do Landlords Have in Regards to Security Deposits?

Civil Code section 1950.5 (b) covers the 4 reasons that California landlords may deduct money from a security deposit. They include: 

  • Paying for unpaid rent
  • Fixing damages beyond ordinary “wear and tear,” caused to the property by the tenant/their guests.
  • Paying cleaning fees that restore the property to its level of cleanliness before the tenant moved in. (I.E. “move-in ready)
  • Covering future costs for repairs of damages caused by the tenant. (This must be explicitly mentioned in the contract)

What Are the Common Ways That Parties Start Disputes Regarding Security Deposits?

As mentioned earlier, there are many different terms that refer to fees that are classified as security deposits in California (cleaning fee, animal deposit).

No matter what the landlord calls the upfront payment, it is subject to the same regulations and limits as security deposits. This means that if a landlord already collected a security deposit in the amount equal to 2 months of rent for an unfurnished dwelling, he could not charge any more in different types of fees because it would put him over the limit. The point is that upfront fees cannot combine to exceed the California limit even if they are seemingly not a part of the security deposit.

Many disputes arise from tenants claiming that their landlord is making illegal deductions to their security deposit. Some examples of this could include:

  • A landlord deducts half of a tenant’s security deposit because they want to fix a leak in the roof. In no way was the leak caused by the tenant, and the dwelling has a history of getting leaks in the roof.
  • A landlord charges a $3,000 cleaning fee to a tenant so they can buy brand new kitchen countertops for the property.
  • A landlord takes a month of rent out of the security deposit because the tenant was made paid their rent 3 days late in the month of August
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