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Security Deposit Facts You Should Know

Updated: Oct 29

Cross out icon over a security deposit. Secondary icon of a dollar sign hovering over the palm of a hand.

What is security (rental) deposit?

A renter pays a deposit at the time of move-in to cover the costs of any future damages they may cause during their time in the rented property. A renter is entitled to that money back when they leave the property damage-free, but there are important rules to know.

Many state and local laws will have requirements on how much security deposits can be and how they must be returned to the tenants upon moving out. In California, security deposits are always refundable when the exceptions do not apply (more on this below); in fact, a lease could be invalid if it says the deposit is non-refundable. The deposit also can’t be more than two months’ rent (if the property is unfurnished) or three months (if furnished). Special security deposit rules may also apply to certain military members.

If you’re having an issue with your landlord about the deposit, start collecting information to explain how, when, and who you paid your security deposit. The best place to look is your lease or rental agreement. If you don’t have that, look for some type of receipt or other evidence you may have that you paid, this could be a bank statement showing a withdrawal from your account for the amount equal to the security deposit paid, or an email thread discussing the details.

What can a landlord use the security deposit for?

Just because security deposits are refundable, this doesn’t mean you’re always going to get the entire amount back. A landlord can legally use the security deposit to restore the rental property to its original condition. This includes repairing damages, cleaning, and removing or restoring changes made to the property (ex: repainting a room painted without the permission of the landlord).


A landlord can use a renter’s security deposit to fix damages caused by the renter, a renter’s guest, or someone else invited to the home for a specific purpose (like a plumber). However, the important rule about damage is that a landlord can only charge for damages that go beyond “ordinary wear and tear.”

Ordinary wear and tear describe small damage that is expected to happen when a property is lived in. For example, a few nail holes would likely be covered, but a large hole in a wall can be fixed with the money from the security deposit.


A landlord can also use a security deposit to professionally clean rental property. However, a landlord can only charge you to clean the property to the same level of cleanliness it was when the renter moved in.

As you can imagine, there are lots of disagreements as to what counts as ordinary wear and tear or just how clean a rental property was at move-in. A renter can avoid a potential issue and try to save money by making repairs themselves.

Is there a way to lessen the damage?

A tenant can request an inspection with his or her landlord, and the tenant can be present for the inspection. This gives the tenant an opportunity to fix the issues pointed out by the landlord and save the renter some money from the deposit. The renter must ask for an inspection. If a renter doesn’t ask, a landlord isn’t required to do a pre-move-out inspection.

At or soon after the inspection, a landlord next gives the renter a list of repairs or cleanings which would be deducted from the deposit by the landlord after moving out. After the inspection, but before the renter moves out, the renter has a chance to fix the issues.

When will I get back the security deposit?

This will depend on your state and local rules. In California, the landlord has 21 days after the tenant moves out to return the remaining security deposit if any. If the landlord uses any of the security deposit for repairs and/or cleaning they must give the renter a list of what work was done and how much it cost. Along with the list, the landlord also must include receipts if a professional was hired. The landlord can also make the repairs themselves or through an employee; but if this option is taken, the landlord must include a description of the work done, the hourly rate, and the length of time work was performed. If the repair work can’t be completed in 21 days, or a receipt can’t be provided, the landlord can make a “good faith” estimate.

What should I do if I believe the landlord owes me money?

Before going to court, start doing your research. Be sure of the following:

  • You have the contact information of your former landlord including phone number, email, and address (if different from your rental address).

  • The landlord has your contact information so the security deposit can be sent to that address.

  • You have formally asked the landlord to return the remaining security deposit to you using a demand letter.

Lastly, you will want to confirm how much you are really owed by taking into account the repairs the landlord has made and the amount that has already been returned to you.


  • You paid a $2,000 security deposit at move-in.

  • $500 was returned to you after your move-out.

  • The landlord provided receipts for the $500 cleaning cost, and indicated $1000 was used for "damages", but unidentified.

  • You dispute that $1,000 in damages. You want to be sure that you deduct the $500 returned to you and $500 from the $2,000, so your demand says $1,000 owed to you.

If you believe a landlord has unlawfully withheld all or a portion of your security deposit, you may seek recovery in small claims court. In California, the disputed amount must be more than $125 in order to recover anything.

To learn about other important information that should be in your demand letter read 10 Steps to a Strong Demand Letter



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 resolve their dispute 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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