Suggestions for Recovering Your Security Deposit

The following is meant as a guide for tenants who are in the process of moving out of their apartments and seeking to recover their security deposits. While all situations are different and require analysis specifically tailored to address them, this guide will provide a foundation for dealing with move-out and deposit recovery issues. The model letters can be used as templates for tenants to fill in their specific information or as a framework around which tenants can structure an individually tailored letter.

Many of the links below lead to PDF files that require Adobe Acrobat Reader to be installed on your computer.  You can download Acrobat Reader for free. 

30-Day written notice

A landlord is not obligated to return a security deposit, or any portion thereof, until the tenancy ends and all original tenants have permanently moved out of the rental unit. The last original tenant to vacate the unit must provide at least 30 days' written notice that s/he will be vacating the unit. Your landlord is required to offer a walk-through inspection of your rental unit during the last two weeks of your tenancy to identify any items that require repair/cleaning in order to avoid deductions from your security deposit. The landlord must provide you with this list in writing immediately following the inspection. Since many landlords do not offer this inspection, we recommend that you request it.

Download this linked letter to use as a template for a 30-Day written notice to your landlord. 

Clean unit and repair any damage caused by tenants

In order to avoid deductions from your security deposit, you should make sure to leave the rental unit in the same condition as it was delivered to you. If the landlord provides you with a list of items to repair/clean after the walk-through inspection, you would be wise to focus your attention on that list. Remember that landlords are not permitted to charge for ordinary wear and tear on the rental unit, but they can charge for any damage that the tenants caused or for any cleaning that is required to return the unit to the condition it was in at the start of the tenancy.

Hold onto all receipts and invoices for money spent on cleaning or repairing your rental unit. For example, if you hire a cleaning service before moving out, make sure to keep a copy of the invoice for your records. Also, if you are concerned that there are conditions that exist that you did not cause, write your landlord a letter that identifies these conditions and explain why you are not responsible for their cleaning/repair.

Take date-stamped pictures of your unit before moving out. You will want to keep copies of these in your records in case there is any dispute as to the landlord's justification for deducting from your deposit after you vacate the unit. You should also invite other witnesses who will be able to testify as to the condition of the rental unit when you moved out of it (preferably witnesses who did not live in the apartment but can testify competently regarding the condition of the rental unit before the last tenant permanently vacated).

Notify your landlord of your new address before moving out of your rental unit

California law provides that a landlord must return your security deposit (minus any authorized deductions) or written justification for why s/he is not returning it within 21 days of the day you permanently vacate the rental unit. In order to avoid any unreasonable delays in recovering your deposit, it is recommended that you provide your landlord with a new address where s/he can send you a check. If you do not yet have a new address, you can inform the landlord to send it to a friend or relative (preferably one who lives in the Bay Area or near where you plan to live).

Download this linked letter to use as a template for a letter to your landlord notifying him/her of your new address. 

What to do if your landlord does not return your security deposit

If you do not receive your security deposit -- or written justification for why it is being withheld -- within 21 days of the day that you permanently move out of the rental unit, you should write a letter to your landlord requesting immediate return of your deposit. The letter should very clearly spell out why you are entitled to the return of your security deposit. Remember to keep a signed copy of this letter. You might also include photos of the unit and/or witness declarations that show that you left the rental unit in good condition.

Download this linked letter to use as a template for a letter to recover your security deposit if the landlord has not returned it or provided written justification for withholding it within 21 days of the day the last original tenant moved out.  

Filing a claim to recover your security deposit

If after receiving your security deposit demand letters, your landlord still refuses to return the money, you will have to file a claim at the Small Claims Court or Rent Board (if the rental unit is covered by rent control). Here are the petition links for units covered by rent control: "T" petition and Schedule A petition. When you file your petition or lawsuit you should include copies of any and all photos and witness statements regarding the condition of the rental unit when you moved out and copies of signed letters that the tenants sent the landlord regarding return of the deposit. You will need to prove that you left the apartment in a condition that required the landlord to refund the security deposit that s/he retained.

For more information on the state law governing the return of security deposits, please review California Civil Code Section 1950.5 (search California Law for Civil Code section 1950.5).

If you want to pursue the recovery of your security deposit in Small Claims Court, here are important links and information:

As always, Rent Board Housing Counselors are available to answer any questions you may have regarding this process. Please call us at 981-7368 (981-RENT) for assistance.