What Is a Housing Security Deposit and How Do I Get It Back?

Tips and tricks about your security deposit

You may see mentions of a “security deposit” in apartment listings or in your apartment lease. Read on for more information about a security deposit and how you can get all that money back!

What is a Security Deposit?

You pay this sum of money (usually equal to about one month worth of rent) when you move into an apartment. You pay this in addition to your first month’s rent.

In Berkeley, this money is held in a bank account for you, and then returned to you—minus the cost of any damages—when you move out. In Berkeley and in San Francisco, you earn interest on your security deposit, and you should get a notice every December giving you the interest you have earned or it will be given to you when you move out if you live there for less than a year.

Note: The security deposit cannot be increased after you move in unless it is a pet deposit to add a pet to your apartment when one was not previously allowed.

This does not include any application fee the landlord charges (usually $15-$30, USD). Some landlords do not ask for a security deposit but instead ask for “last month’s rent.”

The following information applies to both Berkeley and the city of San Francisco.

How Do I Get My Security Deposit Back?

Step 1: Provide a 30-day written notice (such as an email) to your landlord that says that you are moving out.

Step 2: Clean the apartment and repair any damages (such as submitting repair requests to your landlord if needed).

Step 3: Request a walk-through inspection with your landlord less than 14 days before moving out so that you can verify together any damages or cleaning needed.

Step 4: Take photos when you move into the apartment of any existing damage to prove you did not cause it. Take photos when you move out to verify the apartment's condition as you left it.

Step 5: Notify your landlord of your new address so he/she can mail you the check! It can take up to 21 days to get your security deposit back.

Do I Get My Whole Security Deposit Back?

That depends. There are certain things that are allowed to be deducted from your security deposit by your landlord.

  • Your landlord can deduct money from your security deposit for:
  • Unpaid rent
  • Any damage you cause that is more than normal wear and tear
  • Necessary cleaning to return the apartment to its original condition.

How Long Does My Landlord Have to Return My Security Deposit?

Your landlord is required to:

  • Offer a walk-through inspection within 14 days of your intended move-out.
  • Return the security deposit within 21 days of your move-out.
  • Provide an itemized list of deductions with invoices/receipts if deductions from the security deposit are greater than $125 (USD).

What If I Am Subletting or My Name Is Not on the Lease?

The landlord is not obligated to return the security deposit until the apartment is completely vacant. So if you are replacing someone on the lease or someone is replacing you, the new roommate should pay his or her share of the security deposit to the departing roommate.

What If I Have a Dispute About My Security Deposit?

If you have a dispute with your landlord about your security deposit—such as not receiving it back within 21 days of moving out or disagreeing with the amount the landlord has deducted—there are steps you can take.

  • Write a letter to your landlord with documentation (photos you took when you moved in and when you moved out, records of repairs, emails exchanged, written inspection reports from walk-throughs, etc.).
  • If you are living in Berkeley: File a Berkeley Rent Board petition.
  • If you are living in Oakland: Read about renter's assistance information
  • If living in San Francisco: Read about renter's assistance information.
  • If living somewhere else in Alameda or Contra Costa Counties: Get assistance from ECHO.
  • Pursue the issue in Small Claims Court. This means you are suing your landlord to return the money to you. You can consult the East Bay Community Law Center for help.

Need More Assistance?

If living in Berkeley: Berkeley Rent Board or East Bay Community Law Center

If living in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties: ECHO

If living in San Francisco: Bay Area Legal Aid or San Francisco Tenants Union

If you are living somewhere else in the Bay Area—such as El Cerrito, Albany, Oakland or Emeryville— you should look up what the law is in those cities. Here is general renters' rights information for those cities:

If any security-deposit disputes come up during your time here, please email us at extension-intl@berkeley.edu or make a housing consultation appointment so we can assist you.

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