Question: My wife and I moved out of a house that we were renting. We gave the owner a proper 30-day written notice. It has now been more than 30 days since we vacated and turned over the keys to the owner. We knew that we were supposed to receive the refund of our security deposit within 21 days after we vacated, so we recently contacted the owner. He apologized and said he hadn't returned our deposit because he had lost our forwarding address. Is this an acceptable excuse for ignoring the 21-day rule? He still hasn't sent any refund to us.
Answer: The short answer is no.
Security deposit procedures are covered in California Civil Code Section 1950.5, which is very explicit about the timing for a security deposit refund. Subsection (g) of this statute requires the landlord to account for a security deposit no later than 21 days after the tenant vacates. Within this 21-day period, the landlord must send an accounting by personal delivery or first-class mail. The accounting must include the amount of the security deposit, a description of any permissible deductions made from the deposit, such as cleaning or damage, or unpaid rent. The accounting must also include payment for the remainder of the deposit due to be refunded to the tenant.
Since the landlord says he lost your address, we assume he was referring to a forwarding address that you gave him. But even if you didn't provide a forwarding address, the statute specifies an alternative method for compliance.
Subsection (g)(6) says that the accounting should be sent to any address provided by the tenant for this purpose, but if the tenant does not provide an address, the landlord is required to send the accounting to the last known address, which can be the rental unit the tenant just vacated. As you can see, losing your forwarding address is not an excuse for failing to comply with the 21-day deadline. Your landlord should have sent the accounting to your prior rental address within the 21 days.
Some Small Claims Court judges treat the failure to comply with the 21-day rule as a waiver by the landlord of any right to make deductions from your deposit. In addition, some judges treat the failure to comply as "bad-faith retention" under Subsection (l) of Section 1950.5, and assess a penalty of twice the amount of the security deposit. This penalty may be more likely in your case since your landlord still failed to refund your deposit after you contacted him.
We suggest you bring these rules to the attention of your former landlord and urge him to settle with you immediately. If you are unsuccessful, you can contact your local mediation program or file in Small Claims Court.
Eichner is director of Housing Counseling Programs for Project Sentinel, a Bay Area nonprofit. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.