Security Deposits

In California, the amount that a landlord can deduct from a residential security deposit is governed by California Civil Code Section 1950.5(b). A landlord is allowed to deduct money only for unpaid rent (including utilities), damage beyond normal wear and tear, and reasonable cleaning costs. If she deducts over $125 from the security deposit, then she must provide the tenant with receipts for labor and materials used.

When you’ve rented an apartment or home for a number of years, your painted walls and carpet will wear out eventually. If you are afraid to approach your landlord for new paint and carpet because you feel he will pass the cost onto you, learn about your rights as a tenant. According to California law, landlords can only charge tenants for carpet and paint under certain conditions. Once you learn whether or not you, as a long-term tenant, will pay those costs, you can pursue the issue with your landlord.

Normal Wear and Tear

A tenant is not responsible for normal wear and tear to the walls and floor. Normal wear and tear is defined as moderate scuffs, marks, nicks, light stains or spotting. When the walls and carpet reflect damage beyond normal wear and tear, tenants become responsible because it is considered damage. Examples of damage to walls includes holes that must be patched or a child coloring with a marker. Carpet damage examples include serious and large stains, rips or burns. After 10 years of living in a rental property, normal wear and tear combines with age to more than justify new paint and carpeting.

Useful Life for Painted Walls

Painted walls are expected to have a useful life of two to three years, according to California landlord-tenant guidelines. Generally, the landlord will have the unit painted between rentals, but when you are a long-term tenant, a painting schedule becomes less obvious. Under these guidelines, a tenant who has lived in a rental unit longer than three years would not be charged for the cost of repainting for normal wear and tear. If the tenant caused damages to the walls in the first two to three years that required repainting, the cost of the work is the tenant’s responsibility. Therefore, if you have resided in a rental property for 10 years, the landlord cannot charge you for new paint.

Useful Life for Carpet

A landlord must expect a certain time period where paint and carpet have a useful life. Even if no damage to the rental property carpet has occurred, age and normal wear eventually triggers the need for replacement. Under California landlord-tenant guidelines, a carpet’s useful life is eight to 10 years. The cost of replacing the carpet after 10 years falls to the landlord.

Security Deposits


A tenant’s security deposit is used to reduce the potential financial losses for a landlord in case the tenant does not complete the lease agreement. Landlords often deduct the cost of damages to the rental property from the security deposit, then refund the remainder to the tenant. A landlord cannot deduct the cost of repainting or replacing carpet from the security deposit for normal wear and tear, or even when the walls and carpet have met the useful life terms. A landlord can only deduct from the deposit for damages. If you move out of a rental property after 10 years, don’t allow the landlord to deduct the cost of paint and carpet from your deposit — it’s against California law.

Calculating Deductions

If the carpet in a rental unit is damaged (beyond normal wear and tear) and must be replaced, the damage the tenant is responsible for must be prorated appropriately. For example, if the carpet had a 10-year life expectancy, but due to tenant damage had to be replaced after just seven years, the tenant is only responsible for the useful life of the carpet that has been lost. If the carpet originally cost $1,000 and had a life expectancy of 10 years, the depreciation charge would be $100 per year. Thus, if the tenant’s damage cheated three years out of the carpets life, the landlord, under California law, could only hold the tenant responsible for $300.

Returning Security Deposits

After a tenant moves out, a landlord has 21 days to:

  • Return the tenant’s deposit in full, or
  • Mail or personally give to the tenant:
    • A written letter explaining why he or she is keeping all or part of the deposit,
    • An itemized list of each of the deductions,
    • Any remaining refund of the tenant’s deposit, and
    • Copies of receipts for the charges/deductions, unless repairs cost less than $126 or the tenant waived (gave up) his or her right to get the receipts. If the repairs cannot be finished within the 21-day period, the landlord can send the tenant a good faith estimate of the cost of repairs. Then within 14 days of the repairs being done, the landlord must send the tenant the receipts.

Avoiding Disputes

Before you move into the rental and before you move out of the rental, it’s a good idea to do a walk-through with the landlord or property manager. Take photos of the carpet to evidence its condition. You can use the photos to show fair wear and tear if the landlord improperly withholds your security deposit.