How to Get Your Security Deposit Back
Disputes over security deposits are common between tenants and landlords at the end of a lease term. The renter often pays a security deposit before moving into the rental property. Often the security deposit is equal to one month's rent.
Landlords must return security deposits at the end of a tenancy, minus the cost of specific repairs and cleaning. Usually, normal wear and tear is OK. However, if repairs and cleaning are outside the scope of normal wear and tear, a landlord can withhold all or some of your security deposit. If a landlord withholds or misuses your security deposit in bad faith, you should check your state laws before taking action.
This law explains the purpose of security deposits and how to get a security deposit refund.
What Is a Security Deposit?
A security deposit is a sum of money a landlord collects to guard against any damage to the rental property. Security deposits incentivize tenants to keep the rental unit in good condition. These deposits are not synonymous with last month's rent. The last month's rent should cover the tenant's final month in the property, not go toward any deductions.
State laws often regulate different aspects of a tenant's security deposit, including:
- The amount of security deposit the landlord can request
- Where to keep the security deposit
- The time frame within which a landlord must return the security deposit
Many states require the landlord or property manager to put the tenant's security deposit in an interest-bearing account. The landlord must pay any interest collected to the tenant at the end of the lease.
Security deposit laws differ slightly from state to state, so tenants should check their state laws before proceeding with any action.
Protecting Your Security Deposit
Although the law and the tenant lease agreement are clear on the security deposit, tenants should always do a walk-through of the rental unit before moving in and out. Tenants should take pictures of the unit, noting any existing damages. They should then create and send the landlord an itemized list of the damages before they move in and after they move out.
Tenants should clean their rental units before they move out. If they don't, the landlord can deduct the cleaning service cost from the security deposit.
Lease Termination Letter
Even though the lease states its end date, tenants should give the landlord proper notice. They can do so with a written notice sent through certified mail. The letter should include the following details:
- Name and address of the landlord
- Date of letter
- Tenant's new address or forwarding address
- Tenant's phone number
- Statement asking for the return of the deposit
Normal Wear and Tear
Landlords cannot charge tenants for normal wear and tear of the rental property. A few examples of normal wear and tear include:
- Broken light bulbs
- Dirty window treatments
Damages, like property damage, are more significant than normal wear. They also include intentional acts like the following:
- Deliberately clogging the unit's plumbing
- Broken windows or doors
- Broken appliances
- Holes in the wall
Tenants should ask for a move-out inspection before they move out of the rental unit. Doing so protects the landlord and the tenant because both parties should agree on the unit's condition in real time. The landlord can ask for repairs on the spot instead of waiting until the tenant moves out.
Returning the Security Deposit
In an ideal world, the landlord returns the entire security deposit to the tenant. They should return the balance with an itemized statement if they make any deductions.
Tenants have options if the landlord does any of the following:
- Refuse to return the security deposit
- Fail to give the deposit back within the time set by the rental agreement or state law
- Deduct for normal wear and tear.
If this happens, you should first contact the landlord, state the problem, and request an immediate refund. Follow this conversation with a demand letter sent by certified mail. You can draft a demand letter demanding the total amount of the security deposit.
If the tenant receives less than the full security deposit, they have several options.
Report Landlord to Local Authorities
One option is reporting the landlord or property manager to the local housing authority. For example, Montgomery County's Department of Housing and Community Affairs Services regulates landlord-tenant issues in Montgomery County, Maryland. If a landlord in this community doesn't return the tenant's security deposit within 45 days, the tenant can file a complaint with the department.
Small Claims Court
Tenants may recover their security deposit in a small claims action. If your claim exceeds the maximum amount for small claims court, and you use a lawyer, you may recover attorney fees and filing costs. Also, if your claim exceeds the maximum amount for small claims court, you may have to move your claim to another court such as state or superior court, depending on your state.
If the court determines the landlord acted in bad faith, they can award the tenant two to three times the security deposit amount. The downside to a lawsuit is that your landlord can file counterclaims for damage to the apartment, violations of the lease, or unpaid rent.
If you are still trying to get your security deposit refund, a local landlord-tenant lawyer can help you. Qualified landlord-tenant attorneys are well-versed in landlord-tenant law and can protect a tenant's rights.
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