Security deposits are a vital aspect of the landlord-tenant relationship, offering financial protection for property owners while also posing legal challenges. Understanding the nuances of security deposit laws is crucial for any landlord, particularly those operating in California. Here are key takeaways and tips to help ensure you manage security deposits effectively and legally.

1. Understanding Security Deposit Limits

Before July 1, 2024, California landlords can charge up to two months’ rent for unfurnished units and three months’ rent for furnished units as a security deposit. However, significant changes are set to take effect from July 1, 2024, under AB 12 (Haney). The new regulation will limit security deposits to one month’s rent for both furnished and unfurnished units, except for small landlords who meet specific criteria. Small landlords, defined as natural persons owning no more than two residential properties, may still charge up to two months’ rent.

2. What Can Security Deposits Be Used For?

Landlords can use security deposits for:

  • Unpaid rent.
  • Repairing damage to the premises beyond ordinary wear and tear.
  • Cleaning the unit to restore it to the initial level of cleanliness.

It’s important to note that the law strictly prohibits declaring any portion of the security deposit as non-refundable in lease agreements.

3. Returning the Deposit

Landlords must return the security deposit or provide a detailed itemization of deductions within 21 calendar days after the tenant vacates the premises. This should include receipts or vendor documents justifying the deductions, except when the total for repairs and cleaning is under $125 or the tenant waives their right to receive these documents.

4. Legal Precedents and Tips

Legal cases have clarified aspects of security deposit regulations. For example, charging above the standard rent as an initial payment has been deemed illegal, as it constitutes a security deposit. To avoid disputes, landlords should:

  • Conduct thorough walk-through inspections with tenants both at the beginning and end of the tenancy.
  • Document the condition of the property meticulously.
  • Understand and comply with legal stipulations regarding security deposits.

5. Special Considerations for Military Personnel

Landlords must not inquire about the military status of potential tenants. For military service members, security deposits are capped at one month’s rent, reflecting the unique provisions under the California Civil Code.


Properly managing security deposits requires a deep understanding of the law and meticulous documentation. As changes in legislation like AB 12 come into effect, staying informed and compliant is more important than ever for landlords. For those unsure about specific details or exceptions, consulting with a legal expert is advisable.

For more detailed guidance, landlords can refer to resources provided by the California Apartment Association, including various forms and detailed insights into the legal requirements and best practices in handling security deposits.