Landlord and prospective tenants discussing the apartment condition

The Security Deposit Return Process and How to Get Your Full Deposit Back

When moving out, there’s a lot to remember, and sometimes, things get overlooked. The security deposit return often slips the mind of both the tenant and the landlord. All too often, both parties are unaware of the laws in their state, along with their own personal rights and responsibilities. This guide will walk you through the security deposit return process and increase the odds of getting your security deposit back.

What is a Security Deposit Return?

When you move into a new rental unit, the landlord will usually ask for a security deposit as insurance in case of:

  • Unpaid rent
  • Damage to the rental property that’s beyond normal wear and tear
  • The tenant otherwise failing to comply with the terms of the lease agreement

 
A security deposit is usually equal to around one or two months’ rent. A security deposit return is when your landlord gives your security deposit back after your tenancy officially ends. If there’s no damage to the unit and your rent is paid up, you can get the full security deposit back. If there is damage, however, you will only get the part of the deposit left over after covering those costs.

Common Reasons for Not Getting a Full Security Deposit Back

Every state has its own laws governing security deposit return procedures, as do some local jurisdictions. So what’s allowed will vary depending on where you live. While the security deposit laws in your state may have different specifications, the most common reasons for not getting your full security deposit back are early termination of the lease agreement, unusual cleaning expenses, unpaid rent, unpaid utilities, or damage to the rental unit.

Early termination of the lease agreement

There’s a number of reasons or life scenarios in which you may want to break your lease early. If a tenant wants to break a lease before the end of the agreement, the circumstances may let the landlord deduct the expenses related to this breach of the lease agreement from the tenant’s security deposit. Whether this is allowed will depend upon the landlord-tenant laws in that state and the lease terms.

Cleaning expenses

Some cleaning expenses are expected when a tenant moves and are usually considered to be part of normal wear and tear. Often times, deductions of the security deposit are from forgetting to fill in holes used to hang pictures on the wall, clean the stove, or deep cleaning the oven. But suppose the conditions of the rental unit go beyond ordinary wear. In that case, the landlord can use part of the deposit to cover the cost and return the portion of the security deposit that’s left over.

Overdue rent

If the tenant has unpaid rent, that’s considered a breach of the rental agreement, and state laws usually let the landlord deduct that month’s rent from the deposit. If the tenant doesn’t give enough notice, or in some cases, written notice, before they move out, the landlord can often take the amount of the security deposit necessary to cover the rent they would have paid if proper notice was given.

Unpaid utilities

If a renter has unpaid utilities that they were required to pay according to their written lease agreement, then the landlord may keep the portion of the security deposit needed to cover the cost.

Damage to the rental unit

If damage to the rental unit, beyond the normal wear and tear, is discovered during the move-out inspection, part of the deposit may be used to cover the cost of repairs. The landlord has to return the remainder of the tenant’s security deposit, usually within 30 days (depending on the state you’re in).

Difference Between a Security Deposit vs. Last Month’s Rent

While the security deposit is held as collateral to cover damages or losses, the last month’s rent can only be used to cover the last month of rent. If you didn’t pay an amount designated as last month’s rent, but would like to use part of the deposit to cover it, you’ll need to get the landlord’s permission to do so.

What Counts as Normal Wear and Tear?

Normal wear and tear is any deterioration of the rental unit that can be reasonably predicted to occur from normal day-to-day living activities.

Examples of this kind of ordinary wear include:

  • Chipped or faded paint
  • Scuffed walls and floors
  • Discoloration of grout
  • A few stains on the carpet

 
Damage is any abnormal issue that you wouldn’t naturally expect to occur over time that diminishes the rental property’s value or usefulness. Examples of damage might include:

  • Large holes in the walls
  • Broken appliances due to neglect or purposeful action
  • Damaged carpets from pools of pet urine
  • Damaged doors or locks

 
If landlords find this kind of damage when the tenant decides to move out, the tenant would be responsible for paying for the damage. The landlord can take the cost out of the security deposit.

Tips to Get the Most Return on Your Security Deposit

Tenant talking about his security deposit return to his landlord

While there’s no way to guarantee you’ll get your security deposit back, there are things you can do to improve your chances. Here are some best practices for ensuring a smooth security deposit return.

Before you move in

  • Do a pre-move-in walk-through. Walk through the apartment with the landlord and document any existing damage.
  • Know your rights and state laws. Make sure you follow all laws regarding your responsibilities, and be aware of the landlord’s rights, as well.
  • Get everything in writing. Never assume a verbal agreement will hold up. Even if you like the landlord and believe they’ll do the right thing, it’s always best to protect yourself.

 
Read your lease thoroughly before signing. Make sure you understand and agree with every point. If something is unclear, ask about it.

While renting the unit

  • Clear all changes with the landlord. Get your landlord’s approval before you paint or put up shelves.
  • Maintain a friendly relationship. They may be more likely to work with you on issues if you’re friendly.
  • Report any damage immediately. Document it and find out how they want to handle the repairs.

 

Upon moving out

  • Give proper, written notice before moving out. Not giving notice might cost you an extra month’s rent and some goodwill.
  • Discuss expectations with your landlord. Ask them what they expect the condition of the apartment to be and what, if anything, they hold you responsible for fixing before you leave.
  • Document your cleaning and repairs. Take photos and videos of everything, before, during, and after you clean or repair anything.
  • Attend the move-out inspection. When the landlord inspects the final condition of the apartment, request to attend, and if possible, record their final walkthrough. Bring the photos you took during the move-in walk-through as proof of prior condition. If they find a problem that they want to hold part of the deposit to cover, offering to fix it yourself can often reduce costs.
  • Provide your forwarding address. Some states allow them to keep your deposit if they can’t locate you.

 

RELATED: Moving into your first apartment? Our first apartment checklist covers everything you need to get settled.

 

Security Deposit Return FAQs

These frequently asked questions are the most common and most critical points to address:

What are my rights regarding my security deposit?
While every state is different, most states have some form of these guidelines regarding security deposits:

  • It sometimes needs to be in a separate, or even interest-bearing, bank account.
  • Landlords can use security deposits only to cover unpaid rent or utilities and the cost of unusual cleaning or repairs that don’t fall under normal wear and tear.
  • Your landlord must (usually within 14-30 days of the end of tenancy) either give your security deposit back or provide an itemized list of damages, sometimes with an estimate.
  • They must return the unused remainder of the security deposit, typically within a similar timeframe.

 

What if I don’t get my security deposit back within that time?
Suppose the landlord fails to comply with state laws regarding the return of the security deposit. In that case, you can take them to small claims court. If it’s found that they acted in bad faith, they may be required to pay triple the deposit plus any reasonable attorney’s fees. However, to save money and time, try sending them a demand letter first.

Am I still entitled to my security deposit return if I sublet my rental?
If you decide to sublet your rental unit or if you are the one to take up a sublease, security deposits may work a little differently since the agreement now involves the original tenant, new tenant, and landlord. Be careful not to agree to a sublease and pay the original tenant a security deposit directly without getting the landlord involved first. With all parties meeting together, you can feel safe about paying any security deposit and having the updated sublet agreement reflect who will owe what.

Undergoing the security deposit return process

You must be diligent in finding out your local and state laws regarding security deposits to ensure you are treated fairly and meet your own responsibilities. There’s always a chance that something will go wrong. But following the guidelines listed above should give you the best possible chances of a smooth security deposit return process. Add these steps to your to-do list as you organize your plan for moving out.

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