What Can A Landlord Use A California Residential Tenant’s Security Deposit For?

Many California renters are unaware of what the law allows landlords to apply tenants’ residential security deposit.  To ensure tenants are not taken advantage of by unscrupulous landlords who wrongfully withhold residential security deposits, it is important to understand the circumstances that do not represent wrongful withholding.

Tenants are often surprised to learn that under California law, a landlord may use a residential security deposit “for any purpose.”  Cal. Civ. Code § 1950.5(b).  However, the law also outlines four specific applications of a tenant’s residential security deposit by a landlord:

  • For any unpaid at the termination of the tenancy (such as the last month’s rent, if unpaid),
  • For any damage to the rental unit caused by the tenant or his or her guest beyond “ordinary wear and tear,”
  • For any cleaning costs necessary to bring the rental unit to the same level of cleanliness as when the tenant first moved in, and
  • If the lease permits it, for restoring, replacing, or returning personal property (e.g., refrigerators, stoves, etc.) or appurtenances (e.g., fans, window shades, automatic garage doors, etc.) beyond “ordinary wear and tear.”

See California Civil Code section 1950.5(b)(1)–(4).

California renters reading this law often ask what “ordinary wear and tear” means.  Unfortunately, this phrase is not defined, leaving it to the landlords and tenants to decide for themselves.  That said, minor carpet stains, discoloring of the wall, minor nail holes in the wall probably fall under ordinary wear and tear.  (However, an aggressive landlord could take the position that all fall beyond ordinary wear and tear.)  Similarly, large, gaping holes in the wall, broken windows, and removed/damaged door handles most likely fall outside ordinary wear and tear.  Again, reasonable landlords and tenants can disagree as to who should be financially responsible.

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