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About Security Deposits and Withholdings

Learn about security deposits, when they can be withheld, and what to do if you think you've been treated unfairly.

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About security deposits

Before moving into a rental unit, you may be required to pay a security deposit (sometimes referred to as "last month's rent" or "cleaning deposit"). When you move out, your landlord may withhold all or part of your security deposit to offset any cleaning costs, repair costs, or any amounts you owe under the lease agreement. The remainder will be refunded to you.

The cost of your security deposit depends on the rental property. The total amount charged for any type of security deposit can't be more than the amount of 2 months' rent for an unfurnished rental unit or 3 months' rent for a furnished unit. It may combine the last month's rent plus a specific amount for "security" in the event of damage to the rental unit or rent left unpaid.

When can your landlord keep all or part of your security deposit?

In California, it is unlawful for a security deposit to be "non-refundable." However, the law allows landlords to retain part or all of your deposit under certain circumstances, such as if you move out and still owe rent, or if you leave the rental unit in damaged condition. (Note: Your landlord can't use your security deposit for cleaning or repairing items damaged only by normal wear and tear, for repairing defects that existed in the unit before you moved in, or for cleaning a rental unit that is as clean as it was when you moved in.)

Within 21 days after you move, your landlord must either send you a full refund of the security deposit, or deliver or mail an itemized statement that lists reasons and amounts of any withholdings from the deposit. Any amounts not deducted must be refunded.

How to get your security deposit back?

  • If you are preparing to move out, ask the landlord or property manager what cleaning is expected of you and what standards are used for evaluating.
  • Be sure to vacuum, mop, dispose of all trash and clean the property thoroughly, including:
    • All appliances, inside and ou
    • Cabinets, woodwork, counters, walls, and floor
    • Exhaust fan and range hoods, all bathroom fixtures, closets, windows, blinds, and screens
  • Ask your landlord if he or she wants you to putty nail holes puttied and do touch-up painting.
  • Remember to turn in all keys. If you take the keys with you, extra rent may be charged until they are returned.
  • After you've cleaned the property thoroughly, ask the manager for an inspection of the premises, and get a written estimate of charges.
  • Be sure to leave a forwarding address with the manager, and complete a change of address card at the post office.

What to do if you think you're being treated unfairly?

  • Immediately ask for a refund of what you believe you're entitled to. In a letter, tell the landlord why you believe it's improper for him or her to keep part or all of your deposit. See a sample letter (PDF) requesting a return of your deposit. Send it to the landlord by certified mail, and ask for a return receipt to prove that the landlord received the letter. Be sure to keep a copy of your letter and the receipt.
  • If the landlord doesn't send you the refund, consider contacting Student Legal Services.
  • If all else fails, take your dispute to small claims court. The amount in question may not exceed $1,500. Neither party may be represented by an attorney. Instead, you and the landlord personally present your side of the dispute. After considering, the judge will come to a decision.

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