How to get your deposit returned: What security is behind it?

Although Lanlord/Tenant is not one my areas of expertise, I do have friends who ask me for advice on legal issues that they face. Recently, a friend contacted me to discuss charges against her former landlord for taking her securities law deposit. She felt these were unreasonable.

This post will discuss landlord/tenant issues. You will find a sample letter to send your landlord regarding the return of your deposit at the end.

All information in this blog post is California-specific. Different laws may apply in different states or regions. Renter’s guides are offered by many states. For more information, you can contact an attorney licensed within your jurisdiction.

– L.J.


The return of the security deposit is the most frequently disputed issue between landlords and tenants. The landlord and tenant often disagree over the return of security deposits. This is money the tenant pays in advance for a tenancy to cover any damage the tenant may cause to the property. Section 1950.5 of California’s civil code deals with security deposits and tenants’ rights to return the deposit.

Security Deposits

The maximum security deposit that a landlord can request is two months’ rent if the apartment is unfurnished or three months for a furnished unit. The security deposit acts as a deposit to ensure the security of your unit. It is not a rent payment or a fee.

You are entitled to a walkthrough inspection of your unit by the landlord when you move out. You must request one. If you are not satisfied with the landlord’s claims regarding damage or depreciation, you will be able dispute them. The walk through will give you the chance to correct any problems.

The landlord will deduct the cost of cleaning and repairs from the security deposit and return the remaining amount to you if there is any damage to the unit. You may not be charged for basic cleaning or repairs due to ordinary wear and tear. Carpets are subject to wear and tear over time. Carpets usually have a lifespan of 5-10years with 7 year being the longest. Your landlord will not deduct the cost for ordinary wear and tears from your security deposits. If 300 of your closest friends invited you to walk around in your muddy shoes, and your once white carpet is now black, your landlord could charge you for the cleaning or depreciation.

Your landlord should send you a detailed list of repairs and costs to return your deposit. If repairs are made by a third party (cleaning firm, painter contractor, etc.), you should include a copy of the invoice. You should also include a copy the invoice. The landlord must provide details, such as total cost, hourly fee, and time required for repairs by the landlord or his/her personnel. All charges must meet reasonable standards.


A landlord can also deduct depreciation fees from a tenant’s deposit. Depreciation can be defined as the value loss due to wear and tear. The majority of items lose value after a certain time period, although heavy usage can decrease their useful life. Some items in a rental property that might depreciate include tiles, carpets, flooring, doors, cabinets, appliances and doors. Let’s take for example a dishwasher.

Terry Tenant used the dishwasher to her rental unit for many purposes. Terry even cleaned her car engine with the “pots, pans” cycle. The dishwasher sustained irreversible damage due to oil, grease, grime, and engine vibrations. Terry Tenant moves out. Larry Landlord learns that he needs to buy a dishwasher in order to rent it. Terry is requesting that he charge Terry for the dishwasher. However, it is unfair to charge Terry the full cost of the dishwasher. The dishwasher will be used by future tenants. Terry is only responsible to depreciate the dishwasher’s cost and life expectancy.

Dishwashers have a five-year depreciation period according to the IRS. Let’s say Terry lived there for 1 year. However, the dishwasher was already 2 years old when Terry moved-in. The dishwasher must be replaced at three years old. However, it should have lasted five years. The dishwasher should have last 2 more years (5-3), but Terry’s constant use has caused it to need to be replaced. Terry will pay the remaining cost of the dishwasher or just 2/5 of its life. Terry is responsible for $400.00 (2/5×1,000.00) if the dishwasher was $1,000.00.

What should you do?

If you feel your landlord has unfairly charged you for repairs or withheld a portion (or all) your security deposit without explanation, you should first write a letter stating why and what charges you consider unreasonable to your landlord. Talking to your landlord may be an option, but you should also send a certified mail letter with return receipt requested. Make sure the letter is clear and respectful. You can see the sample letter below.

If your landlord doesn’t respond to you or refuses your return of the deposit, you can file a California small claims case to have your deposit returned, costs and penalties paid. California law provides that you can recover twice the amount you paid for your deposit if you believe your landlord has acted in bad faith by refusing to return your deposit. You should consult a lawyer if you have any questions.

Before you file a claim in small claims court you need to stop and examine the landlord’s damage claims. Do you think the unit was in the same state as when you moved it in? Are you confident that the unit was left in its original condition? Sometimes tenants make unreasonable claims about the property and end up paying more in court.