How To Get Your Security Deposit Back

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021

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The law in regards to security deposits is state, not federal, law. Your state law on security deposits should tell you what a landlord may deduct from your deposit, whether the landlord is required to conduct inspections, and how long the landlord has to return your deposit after you leave the unit. 

And of course, before you get ready to move, review what your lease says on the process for getting 100% of your security deposit back.

How Do You Maximize the Return of Your Security Deposit? 

First, don’t give the landlord a reason to deduct any amounts from your deposit. This means:

        1) don’t damage your unit—broken windows, doors off hinges, large holes in walls, huge carpet stains, animal urine stains, broken appliances, cracked bathroom or kitchen countertops, etc. — give your former landlord justification to deduct;

        2) don’t leave owing rent—your former landlord may deduct unpaid rent from the deposit—this includes using the deposit to pay your last month’s rent, if you chose to not pay it;

        3) don’t break the lease early unless you have an early termination clause in the lease—the lease obligates you to pay rent for the entire term or duration of the lease. So if you move out early, the landlord may be able to take the “future” rent you‘d owe for the remainder of the lease from your deposit;

       4) don’t leave owing any unpaid utility bills that are in your name– if required to pay under your lease. For that matter, make sure to inform the utility, gas, water or internet service company to switch off its services on a specific day so you are not later charged. 

Note that the size of the security deposit does not limit your liability. For instance, you have an $1,800.00 deposit but left owing $1,200.00 of rent and having done $3,000.00 of damage to the unit, for a total of $4,200.00. In that case, the landlord could keep your $1,800.00 deposit and sue you for the other $2,400.00. 

Second, if there is damage or changes you made to the unit, you may be able to correct it yourself and avoid deductions. Did you hang a lot of pictures or art, putting multiple holes in the wall? Spackle and paint to match the walls. Did you customize your unit by repainting it fire engine red or adding new lighting fixtures? The landlord is entitled to get the unit back the way he’d rented it to you, so repaint the unit back to the landlord’s original color or remove the additional lighting (seal any holes in the ceiling or floor that remain after the removal). Not all damage can be repaired or changes undone by a tenant, but do what you can. 

Third, leave the unit “broom clean”—the landlord can deduct for the cost of a cleaning the premises for the next tenant or a carting (disposal) service, if you leave excess trash, debris, personal belongings or food rotting in the refrigerator behind. 

If you are on a month-to-month lease, provide a month’s notice of moving, so you won’t owe rent for the period of time you should have provided notice, but failed to (e.g., if you don’t provide a month’s notice on a month-to-month lease, the landlord may recover an extra month’s rent from you). If the lease lets you move out early on notice, provide whatever notice is required by the lease. If you are moving out when the lease expires, be sure to move out (including your belongings) by the last day of the lease. If you stay past the lease’s end, the landlord can charge you rent for any additional time you or your possessions are in the rental unit.

Avoiding Debate and Squabbles Over the Unit’s Condition 

Request a preliminary inspection of your premises before you move out or turn over the keys, after you have cleaned up the place. (Some states require your landlord to make one at your request; in other states, it is voluntary for the landlord to do this, but many will if you ask for it.) Consider using a checklist (Zillow has a downloaded form) to record the condition of your rental when you are leaving. 

Do a walkthrough of the unit with your landlord, document the condition of each room as you do so, and if possible, get your landlord to sign or initial your notes about the unit’s condition—it will be very hard for the landlord to later claim damage if he or she already signed something saying there is no damage. Whether or not the landlord inspects with you, take photos or videos of the unit to document its condition before you take off. Not surprisingly, in the event you later end up in court, courts find photographic or videographic evidence very persuasive. 

Give your landlord a new address in writing (email or a letter) before your move, so the landlord can send your deposit (or send you a list of the damages and remaining balance of the deposit).

What to Do If Your Landlord Withholds Part or All of Your Deposit? 

If your landlord sends you an itemized statement explaining why amounts have been deducted from your deposit, review the statement for reasonableness. You will want to make sure the itemized costs are founded, and that the landlord has provided you with required receipts. If you do not agree with the itemization, if the landlord refuses to return some part of the deposit without documenting the reason(s), or if the landlord does not get back to you within the time required by your state’s law, you can demand the return of some or all of your deposit. 

The first step is to send a certified letter with a return receipt requested to your landlord contesting

  (a) the withheld amounts (include any photographs documenting your position), or

  (b) pointing out that he or she has not complied with legal requirements for returning the deposit, and

Request the payment of any amounts you are owed.

If the landlord does not pay you what you believe he should, you will have to fight to get your deposit back by filing a lawsuit in small claims court. Suing in small claims court, as your own attorney or “pro se,” is a fast, cost-effective option. You would file the small claims suit in the place where the rental unit is located.

The amount you are entitled to claim depends on your state’s law. Some states have laws requiring the landlord to pay double or triple any amount which the landlord wrongfully or improperly withheld or if he otherwise violated state security deposit law (e.g., did not send a satisfactory notice of deductions within the time required by state law). Some states go further, and the landlord may be barred from claiming even legitimate deductions if proper notice of deductions is not given within the specified time.

Review your state’s security deposit law to see to what you would be entitled.  For instance, some states allow a tenant suing over his or her security deposit to recover attorney’s fees, if successful. If that is the case, you may wish to hire a lawyer to guide you through the process.

For FAQ about Landlord/Tenant Law, visit the Free Advice website or ask a question about your landlord-tenant issue on our Free Advice Law Forum to see how others have handled similar situations.

Check out these related articles:

Security Deposits

How Much a Landlord Can Charge for a Security Deposit

How Security Deposits are Held

Inspection of the Premises

Returning Security Deposits

Tenants’ Privacy and Landlords’ Access

State Laws: Landlord/Tenant

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