A security deposit is money held by the landlord so that if the tenant damages or leaves the place a mess, the landlord can use the money to make repairs. In recent years, as the costs of rentals have gone up, so have the amounts of the deposit requested by landlords. Security deposits are both a major investment for the tenant, and potentially a major headache for both tenant and landlord if there is a disagreement.

Security Deposit Rules

For a residential property without furniture, the maximum security deposit is the equivalent of two months’ rent. If furnished, it’s three months.

After a tenant moves out, the landlord has 21 days to return the deposit in full or provide the tenant with a list of deductions. If repairs cannot be finished within 21 days, the landlord should send the tenant an estimate of the repairs.


There are three primary reasons for landlords to deduct from the deposit:

  1. Fixing damage caused by the tenant or tenant’s guest. (Yep, never should have let your brother have that party when you were out of town.)
  2. Paying a cleaning service because the tenant left the property dirty.
  3. Unpaid rent.

If the landlord and tenant can’t agree on how much was removed from the deposit, the tenant can sue the landlord in small claims court, as long as the damage is less than $10,000.

Avoiding Disagreements

The two biggest potential disagreements regarding the return of security deposits relate to what is the definition of the phrases “normal wear and tear” and “leaving it as clean as you found it.”

Tenants are not responsible for normal wear and tear. But what is considered wear and tear? Lots of scuff marks and a new hole in the wall would be the tenants’ responsibility. The need for the first paint job in 10 years, probably the landlord. If the carpet is just a bit more worn out after a tenant lived there for five years, that is usually the landlord’s gig. (If there are red wine stains and burn marks on the carpet, that is your brother’s fault again. Sorry, but you are on the hook. Shoulda’ found a better brother.)

Another challenge is how clean the house was when you moved in versus how clean it was when you moved out. Everyone has a different standard of house cleanliness. One person’s definition of “really clean” is another person’s “filth.”

There are several important steps you should take to ensure you get your whole deposit back. First, do a walk-through with either the owner or the agent as soon as you move in, and make sure a checklist is filled out showing any problems with the house and its state of cleanliness. You should also take pictures of the condition of the unit when you move in. During your tenancy, be sure to keep the owner or agent informed of any issues with the house. It’s important to get any little problems fixed before they become big problems.

When you move out, be sure to have repairs that are your responsibility taken care of beforehand, and thoroughly clean the house or hire someone to do it. If you are not known for being a clean freak, better have that overly fastidious friend check your cleaning job before you move out. A happy landlord who is returned a pristinely clean home is more likely to not only return your entire deposit but also, perhaps most importantly, give you a good reference for your next rental. If you leave the house a mess, however, the landlord will certainly start getting much pickier about the repairs.

One more recommendation: Rent through a local rental agency instead of directly from the homeowner. They have check-in and check-out lists, understand the security deposit rules, and can serve as an intermediary to try to avoid disputes.

Finally, it is very important for the health of our community that you take really good care of a landlord’s property. Long-term rentals are in short supply, and property owners will surely consider switching to short-term renting their property if a tenant leaves the place in bad condition. Do your part and make your landlord glad that they rented to you instead of deciding to never long-term rent the home again.


  • Tim Hauserman

    Tim Hauserman latest book is “Going it Alone: Ramblings and Reflections from the trail” published in 2022. He also wrote the official guidebook to the Tahoe Rim Trail, the 4th edition of which was published in 2020. His other books include “Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children” and "Gertrude's Tahoe Adventures in Time." Tim has lived in Tahoe City since he was a little tyke and continues to be amazed with the beauty of Lake Tahoe. His former English teachers, on the other hand, are probably amazed that he became a writer. Contact Tim at writeonrex@yahoo.com

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