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Security Deposit Laws Can Help Get Your 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 at the beginning of the lease or rental period. The security deposit is often equal to one month's rent. Landlords must return a security deposit as required by their state's laws at the end of a tenancy, minus the cost of repairs and cleaning.

This article explores how security deposit laws can help tenants get their security deposits returned in non-eviction scenarios.

What Is a Security Deposit?

security deposit is money a landlord collects to guard against any damage to the rental property or for nonpayment of rent. 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 only the tenant's last month. Landlords cannot make any deductions from the last month's rent.

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.

State laws often regulate different aspects of a tenant's security deposit, including the following:

  • The amount of the deposit the landlord may request
  • Where to keep the security deposit (interest-bearing account)
  • The time frame for the return of the security deposit

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

Tenants should always do a walk-through of the dwelling unit before moving in and out. They should take pictures of the unit, noting any existing damages. They should then create an itemized list of damages before they move in and send it to the landlord. This helps create and preserve a record of the original condition of the dwelling unit. This record may help the tenant keep their entire security deposit once their tenancy ends.

Lease Termination Letter

Even though the lease states its end date, a tenant should give the landlord proper notice. They can do so with a written notice sent through certified mail. Sending written notice helps eliminate barriers to returning the security deposit, like the lack of a forwarding address.

The letter should include the following details:

  • Name and address of the landlord
  • Date
  • Tenant's new address or forwarding address
  • Tenant's phone number
  • Request the return of the deposit

Cleaning Up

Tenants should also clean their rental units before they move out. The landlord can deduct the cleaning service cost from the security deposit if they don't. Once you are sure you are moving out or vacating the dwelling unit, clean the apartment before you return the keys. Cleaning up yourself may help you retain your entire security deposit.

Move-Out Inspection

Ask for a move-out inspection before you fully vacate the rental unit. Doing so protects you and the landlord because both parties can review the unit's condition in real time. The landlord can ask for minor repairs on the spot instead of waiting until the tenant moves out. The tenant can point out any damage that exceeds normal wear and tear of the rental property. A move-out inspection can help both parties avoid any surprises.

Returning the Security Deposit

In an ideal world, the landlord returns the entire security deposit to the tenant. If they make any deductions, they should return the balance with an itemized statement or list of damages. Landlord can only charge for actual damages that exceed normal wear and tear.

Normal wear and tear includes but is not limited to the following:

  • Broken light bulbs
  • Dirty window treatments
  • Dust

Normal wear and tear does not include:

  • Intentionally clogging the unit's plumbing
  • Intentionally broken windows or doors
  • Intentionally broken appliances

Landlords should return any unused portion of the security deposit and the itemized statement within the correct time frame. State law or the rental agreement will set the time limit to return the deposit. Tenants have options if the landlord fails to return the security deposit promptly.

What To Do if Your Landlord Fails To Return the Security Deposit

Suppose your landlord does not return your security deposit or send you an itemized statement. In that case, your first step is to ask them to return the entire amount of the security deposit. You can follow your verbal request with a written one sent by certified mail demanding the return of the deposit.

Report Landlord

One option is reporting the landlord or property manager to the local housing authority for failure to return the security deposit. For example, Montgomery County's Department of Housing and Community Affairs, Office of Landlord-Tenant Affairs, 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 their claim exceeds the maximum amount for small claims court, and the tenant uses a lawyer, they may recover reasonable attorney fees and court costs.

If the court determines the landlord acted in bad faith, it 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 or unpaid rent.

Get Help

If you are having difficulty getting your security deposit back, a landlord-tenant attorney can help you. Landlord-tenant law is a niche area of real estate law. An attorney with experience in this area can protect tenants' rights and landlords' rights alike.

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