After migrating to California from the Philippines, I decided to immerse myself on the rental laws regarding renting a place to live. I have found out that the law that was once a paragraph has grown to several pages throughout the years. The particular California Civil Code that explains this law is Code 1950.5 – Security Deposits. It defines security deposits as money that the landlord holds to protect his or her property in case the tenant breaks the rental agreement by not paying rent, causing damage to the property or leaving the place dirtier than when the tenant received it. If the property is returned to the landlord better or the same as the tenant received it, the whole security deposit should be returned no later than 21 calendar days after the tenant has vacated the property.
Code 1950.5 states that a “landlord may not demand or receive security, however denominated, in an amount or value in excess of an amount equal to two months’ rent, in the case of unfurnished residential property, and an amount equal to three months’ rent, in the case of furnished residential property, in addition to any rent for the first month paid on or before initial occupancy.” The landlord cannot use the security deposit for damages that were present before the tenant’s occupancy, and to repair or upgrade any property that has suffered the effects of ordinary wear and tear.
If a tenant leaves other than by a 3-day eviction notice, he or she is entitled to an “initial inspection” two weeks before the departure date, in which the landlord hands the tenant a written list of the proposed deductions from the security deposit. The tenant then has the remaining time to clean and repair, or take pictures and make notes if the proposed landlord deductions are being disputed, before the tenant leaves. After tenant leaves, the landlord does a “final inspection,” and sees what is left to be done from the preliminary inspection list. Within 21 days after the tenant leaves, the landlord must give the balance of the security deposit back, and should include a list of the deductions applied towards the security deposit, as well as copy of receipts for any money needed to repair and clean the property needed to bring the property back to the condition it was in before the tenant’s occupancy.
If a tenant needs to prepare a case because of a landlord’s failure to return a deposit, the tenant needs obtain proof of the existence and the amount of the security deposit, which may come in the form of a canceled check, a receipt or a lease indicating the requirement of a security deposit. The tenant should file a lawsuit against the landlord for the security deposit in small claims court. If the landlord misses the 21 day deadline, the landlord forfeits the right to deduct anything. If the landlord keeps the money in bad faith, the tenant can sue for up to 3 times the amount of the deposit. The process is usually quick, easy, and inexpensive. The maximum amount the tenant can receive in the security deposit lawsuit is now $10,000, and each person can sue separately for that amount.
Needless to say, life here in California has been an eye opener.