What Can My Landlord Deduct From My Security Deposit?

The past year has been an unprecedented time in history. As millions of people became reliant on unemployment both tenants and landlords were left wondering: Will the rent get paid? Historically, spring has been the busiest time in the industry and I have been working hard to help clients find rental properties throughout April. One thing I have noticed is that in some areas (e.g. Irvine) landlords are asking for the maximum two months rent as the security deposit.

California’s landlord-tenant laws limit how much a landlord can charge for their security deposit. If the rental is unfurnished, the landlord can charge a maximum of two months’ rent. For example, if the rent is $3,500, then you can charge a maximum of $7,000 for the security deposit. If the rental is furnished, the landlord is allowed to charge a maximum of three months’ rent for the deposit. However, if the tenant is an active duty member, you can only charge a maximum of one month’s rent for an unfurnished rental and two months’ rent for a furnished property. 

When your lease is up and its time to vacate the property, have you ever been surprised by the amount deducted form your security deposit? I have! Back in 09 I lost my security deposit, as the landlord sold the property and asked me to vacate. To help you I want to explain the ins and outs of what a landlord can deduct from your security deposit based on security deposit laws. The lease and the Move In Move Out (MIMO) form are key to understanding the condition of the property and expectations for when you move out. I always make sure new occupants take pictures when they move in to the property and store them along with the MIMO.

What a landlord can legally deduct

Generally speaking, landlords will want to return your full security deposit, because that means there was no damage or extra cleaning that needed to be done to the property. Damage takes time, money and energy to repair and prevents landlords from filling rental vacancies as quickly as possible. Most landlords will happily return your security deposit if you kept the rental in good condition and followed all of the terms spelled out in your lease.

Specifics as to what your landlord can legally deduct from your security deposit vary from state-to-state based on different landlord-tenant laws, but there are some general rules that apply across the board. Landlords cannot charge for normal wear and tear, but they can charge for undue damage or excessive filth. Landlords can also make deductions for unpaid rent or to cover fees related to breaking the lease agreement. Here are some common items that the landlord can charge to renters when they leave:

  • Non-Payment of Rent – This should seem obvious; if the tenant leaves before the lease is up or simply owes back rent, the landlord can deduct or keep the deposit to compensate.
  • Unpaid Utilities – Utility companies will hold the landlord responsible for unpaid bills, so if the water or electric bill has been unpaid, they will deduct this from the security deposit.
  • Unusual or Excessive Cleaning – While normal wear and tear are not deductible, excessive cleaning can be charged to the renter.
  • Damage – This also should be obvious. This was the main purpose of the deposit.
  • Trash and Other Items Left Behind – Renters should think twice about leaving that old patio furniture behind. Any cost to remove and dispose of anything left in the property can be charged against the deposit.

Wear and tear vs. damage

Some wear and tear is naturally going to occur as tenants occupy a space for an extended period of time. Things like minor nicks in the wall, sun-faded curtains or minimal spotting on a carpet are usually considered normal wear and tear and should not result in a deduction from your security deposit.

Renters are responsible for damage that’s out of the ordinary, such as cigarette burns in curtains or carpets, large holes in the wall, rips in the carpet or urine stains from pets. This kind of excessive damage can be deducted from your security deposit as it was an expense your landlord was not planning on. Laws regarding what’s considered normal wear and tear can vary, so be sure to research your state and local regulations if you and your landlord disagree on a deduction.

Use your lease as a roadmap

Many renters miss specific guidelines spelled out in their lease agreement regarding move-out expectations and security deposit deductions. Landlords will state exactly what their expectations are in the lease agreement, so make sure you understand and agree with these conditions before you sign a lease.

For example, if a tenant leaves a small collection of cleaning supplies in the cupboard under the sink, a portion of the security deposit can be deducted if the lease specified that nothing was to be left behind. At times it may not seem fair, but it’s up to you to pay close attention to what’s in your lease.

Keep an eye out for terms that discuss charges that aren’t due to direct abuse of property. Your landlord can charge for any work required to make the property look exactly as it did before the start of your tenancy, including unauthorized painting, changed lighting fixtures or removed doors.

You may also be charged as a result of negligence. If you didn’t care for an appliance properly and it requires repairs or replacement as a result, your landlord may be able to deduct this charge from your security deposit. Some landlords also automatically deduct carpet cleaning or other cleaning fees from your security deposit, which will be outlined in the lease.

Don’t just forget about your lease agreement after you sign. Be aware of the terms of your lease and take care of the property throughout your tenancy — not just when you decide to move out.

Move-out best practices

If you’ve decided to move, the first thing you can do to ensure a good chance of receiving your full security deposit back is to give your landlord proper notice of your move out date. Make sure you give notice in accordance with your lease agreement to avoid any extra fees.

Once you’ve given your notice, ask your landlord if they would be willing to conduct a pre-move-out inspection with you. Request that your landlord walks through the property and examine the condition, making note of any issues that may cause a deduction from the security deposit if they aren’t addressed. This way, you’ll have a chance to clean or repair list items that you may have otherwise missed.

Your lease and your landlord will have specific move out instructions for you, but most often you’ll benefit from giving the property a deep clean and touching up any minor damage you caused. It’s always a good idea to take photos of existing damage immediately when you move in, and repeat the process when you move out so pre-existing damage isn’t blamed on you.

What to do if your security deposit is deducted

If you find yourself in the position where you receive only a portion, or even none of your security deposit back, and are unsure why, it’s important to understand your rights in relation to your local landlord-tenant laws.

In California your landlord is required to explain why deductions were made and needs to itemize any charges in writing. If your landlord has deducted from your security deposit without explanation, this is the first thing to ask for. This explanation can help you ensure your deposit was not erroneously deducted and also help you learn what damages you need to avoid at your next rental. If your landlord attempts to charge you an unreasonable amount for a minor issue, you may have legal grounds to fight the charge.


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