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Working as a landlord in California can sometimes seem like a thankless job. You have a constant stream of tasks related to maintenance and upkeep to manage while handling tenant complaints and ensuring that all mortgage payments and tax payments reach the necessary parties on time. You also take on substantial risk when you let people move into a property that you own.

These people could refuse to pay rent or could cause substantial damage to the unit. When you discover that tenants who have either recently left or gotten evicted cause extensive damage to your rental unit, you may have no choice but to hold them accountable for the cost of repairs or cleaning.

When can you retain a tenant’s security deposit?

In general, the security deposit that you hold must be in an escrow account to ensure it doesn’t get misused. When the tenant leaves, you have an obligation to provide them with an itemized list of any damages to the property. The tenant has the right to respond to these accusations, potentially by providing documentation that the damage existed prior to their tenancy or with claims that the damage you want to charge them for is actually reasonable wear and tear.

Landlords can’t hold security deposits for the aging of the unit or the amenities inside. The fading or discoloration of the paint, carpets and blinds is not the responsibility of the tenant. Neither is the need to repair or replace fixtures that no longer work properly or look unattractive because of their age. However, damage caused through neglect or wanton acts of destruction, like holes punched in drywall, certainly justify a landlord retaining some or even all of a tenant’s security deposit.

What to do when the security deposit doesn’t cover it all

Since the state limits how much of a security deposit you can collect based on the amount of rent you charge, the potential always exists for a tenant to do damage that far exceeds the security deposit they put down on the unit. In that situation, documenting the damage and keeping records of the costs you incurred to repair the damage will help you build a case to bring a civil suit against your former tenant.

Taking them to court may be the only way to recoup losses you incurred because of their improper behavior while living in your unit.