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A landlord can withhold from the security deposit only those amounts that are reasonably necessary for these purposes. The security deposit cannot be used for repairing defects that existed in the unit before you moved in, for conditions caused by normal wear and tear during your tenancy or previous tenancies, or for cleaning a rental unit that is as clean as it was when you moved in. Civil Code Section 1950.5(b),(e).
Under California law, 21 calendar days or less after you move, your landlord must either:
(1) Send you a full refund of your security deposit, or
(2) Mail or personally deliver to you an itemized statement that lists the amounts of any deductions from your security deposit and the reasons for the deductions, together with a refund of any amounts not deducted. Civil Code Section 1950.5(g)(1).
Tell the landlord or the landlord's agent why you believe that the deductions from your security deposit are improper. Immediately ask the landlord or agent for a refund of the amount that you believe you're entitled to get back. You can make this request by phone or e-mail, but you should follow it up with a letter. The letter should state the reasons that you believe the deductions are improper, and the amount that you feel should be returned to you. Keep a copy of your letter. It's a good idea to send the letter to the landlord or agent by certified mail and to request a return receipt to prove that the landlord or agent received the letter. Or, you can deliver the letter personally and ask the landlord or agent to acknowledge receipt by signing and dating your copy of the letter.
If the landlord or agent still doesn't send you the refund that you think you're entitled to receive, try to work out a reasonable compromise that is acceptable to both of you. You also can suggest that the dispute be mediated by a neutral third person or agency. You can contact one of the agencies in the following link for additional help: http://www.dca.ca.gov/publications/landlordbook/appendix3.shtml
The other option is to sue the landlord in small claims court for return of your security deposit. However, the landlord then can file a counterclaim against you. In the counterclaim, the landlord can assert a right to make deductions from the deposit, for example, for unpaid rent or for damage to the rental that the landlord alleges that you caused. Each party then will have to argue in court why he or she is entitled to the deposit. See Granberry v. Islay Investments (1995) 9 Cal.4th 738, 749-750 [38 Cal.Rptr.2d 650, 656-657]; Portman and Brown, California Tenants' Rights, page 236. (NOLO Press 2010). In simplest terms, the landlord must convince the judge that the damage occurred, and that the amount claimed is reasonable and is a proper deduction from the security deposit. The tenant then must prove that the landlord's conduct makes it unfair to allow the deductions from the deposit (for example, because the landlord waited too long to claim the damage and the delay harmed the tenant in some way).
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