top of page

Security Deposit Know-How Can Save You Money and Headaches

      By Nancy M. Conway

     Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Times, October 3, 2013 (read original article)

Security deposit complaints top the list of landlord tenant disputes year after year. A well-planned exit can ensure you get your deposit refunded in full. A well-planned entrance will protect you in the future, and make it much simpler to get your deposit back.

At the inception of the tenancy, a landlord can ask for a security deposit. No matter what its nomenclature, be it cleaning deposit, last month’s rent, key deposit, or non-refundable application fee, the law treats payments above the first month’s rent as refundable security deposits, governed by California Civil Code Section 1950.5.

A security deposit can be withheld only for specified reasons. It can be used to cover unpaid rent, to pay for repairs due to tenant caused damage, or to clean the premises. It cannot be used to repair ordinary wear and tear. It cannot be used to pay for deferred maintenance. It cannot be used to clean to a level better than the unit’s condition at the time of the rental, or to repair things that were in disrepair when the tenants moved in.

Inspect and document the condition of the rental unit upon move in, as well as at time of move out. Do not sign a paper saying the premises are in perfect condition when in fact they are not. It might be uncomfortable, but it will save you time and money down the road when you move out. If you signed something that all was fine when you moved in just to get in the place, then a short note with the rent pointing out some problems that you noted upon move in, may protect you down the line and possibly get the conditions repaired. Keep the correspondence in a landlord tenant file along with your lease, your photos and all other communications. Be sure to keep a record of the security deposit payment.

Tenants who give the landlord 30 days notice, or are in receipt of a landlord notice to vacate of 30/60 days, are entitled to written notice prior to the turnover of conditions that the landlord believes need to be repaired. Landlords must notify tenants that they have the right to an inspection. If the tenant requests an inspection, it must be done within 14 days prior to the vacate date and the landlord must provide the tenant with a list of any conditions that need to be corrected in order to get the full deposit. These might include such simple things as replace the missing hardware on kitchen cabinets, repair and paint nail holes, remove crayon marks from the floor or clean the oven.

The tenant can choose to either fix or clean, or let the landlord to do it and take it from the deposit. Landlords can be liable for penalties of up to twice the amount of the deposit in addition to attorney fees and actual damages for bad faith retention of the security deposit.

San Francisco and some other municipalities require that landlords pay the tenant interest annually on the deposit. In San Francisco, interest rates vary and can be found on the San Francisco Rent Board website. ( If it has not been paid for a few years, you may have some money coming.

bottom of page