How long can a California landlord hold your security deposit after you move? Here’s the law

Renée C. Byer/

Picture this: It’s been a month since you moved out of your apartment and your landlord still hasn’t returned your security deposit.

What can you do?

Here’s what you should know, according to a guide from California Courts:

What is a security deposit for?

A security deposit is usually one or two months of rent that tenants pay to landlords when they move into a unit in case of damages or breaking the lease, according to Investopedia. The landlord holds onto it and generally must return it when the tenant leaves.

California lawmakers this month approved a bill that caps security deposits at one month with exceptions for those who own up to two properties with a total of four units — they can ask for two months. That bill headed to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk, who must sign or veto by Oct. 14. It would go into effect July 1, 2024.

Currently, California law limits security deposits to two months of rent for an unfurnished unit or three for a furnished property, in addition to first month’s rent paid on or before moving in.

The average rent in California is $3,115, according to a September report from

How long do landlords have to return a deposit?

Landlords in California have 21 days to either return the full deposit or return the deposit minus deductions with an itemized statement. That statement must include what was deducted and why, according to California law.

They must mail or personally deliver this. Your landlord shouldn’t email this to you unless you’ve already agreed to that. Make sure you give your landlord your forwarding address and let the U.S. Postal Service know to forward your mail as well. If you don’t give your landlord your new address, they’re only obligated to mail it to your last known address — which would be the rental you just moved out of.

If the itemized statement is more than $125, the landlord also has to attach any invoices or receipts. If the landlord or their employee did the work, they also have to include a description of the work, the time it took, and a reasonable hourly rate.

If the repairs aren’t completed in 21 days, the landlord can send a reasonable estimate of the costs, followed by receipts within 14 days of completed repairs.

What can landlords deduct from the deposit?

Landlords can deduct for the following items:

  • Cleaning when you move out — but only to make it as clean as it was when you got there.

  • Repairing damage other than normal wear and tear.

  • Restoring or replacing personal items such as furniture, if it was included in the lease and any damage is not from normal wear and tear.

  • Landlords can also generally keep part of the deposit for owed rent, with exceptions such as they can’t use security deposits to cover COVID-19 rental debt.

What can you do if they don’t return your security deposit?

Your first step: Ask for it back. You should tell your landlord why you think deductions are improper and immediately ask for a refund. You can do this orally, but follow up with a letter. Keep a copy for your records.

California Courts provides a program to help you write a demand letter. You’ll provide the following:

  • The date you moved out

  • If you’ve received your security deposit or itemized statement

  • The address

  • Is your landlord a corporation, partnership, trust or private organization, a government such as a state agency or local government, or a person? (If it’s a government, you need to file a claim with the agency you want to sue.)

  • Provide information such as name and address of the person or organization

  • Provide information about yourself

  • Specify if you’d like payment within 10 days or another timeframe

Then, you’ll choose how you’ll send the letter, decide if you want to copy anyone else on the letter, and you’ll be able to print or save it.

If that doesn’t work, try to compromise with them. You can suggest a neutral third person or agency mediate the dispute.

If the 21-day period is over and the landlord has not provided a full refund or a statement of deductions and a refund of the rest, they lose the right to keep the deposit.

Your next step: suing.

You can sue in small claims court or Superior Court, but you have to file in a court that has jurisdiction over where the property is or where you signed the rental agreement.

For written rental agreements, you have up to four years to sue. For oral ones, you have two years.

The landlord could file a counterclaim against you.

If you have evidence of “bad faith retention” of your deposit and decide to go to court, the court could award you the full deposit, plus up to twice the amount of your security deposit.

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