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Security Deposit Laws Can Help Get Your Deposit Back

Security deposit laws in every state allow a landlord to collect money from a tenant to repair damages that exceed normal wear and tear. Sometimes it can be used to collect unpaid rent.

After a tenant moves out of the rental unit, the landlord must return the unused portion of the security deposit within a specific time. In some states, a landlord must also pay the tenant interest on the security deposit.

This article explains how landlords may use the damage deposit, how unused monies are returned, and what to do if a landlord violates security deposit laws.

The Move-out Inspection

To assess the condition of the rental unit before it is rented, the landlord will inspect the property. In some states, tenants have a right to be present at the move-out inspection. In others, the landlord completes the inspection without the tenant present. A tenant should take advantage of this opportunity whenever available.

A written move-in statement documents the rental unit's original condition. Usually, both parties will sign the document acknowledging the condition. The landlord (and the tenant) may take photos to document any problems that existed when they arrived.

When the tenant leaves, the landlord will use the move-in statement to evaluate damages or uncleanliness. During the move-out inspection, notes and photos of the premises are used to record the current condition of the rental unit. A comparison of notes and photos from the move-in and move-out inspections will help determine damages caused by the tenant.

Deduction for Wear and Tear

Security deposit laws allow a landlord to use the deposit to fix damage that exceeds normal wear and tear. In general, a landlord may use a security deposit to restore the rental unit to the condition it was in before the tenant's occupancy.

A landlord cannot charge to fix damage caused by ordinary wear and tear. For example, faded drapery, dirty blinds, or worn carpet are the result of ordinary wear and tear. Broken tiles on a kitchen countertop or cigarette burns in a carpet exceed ordinary use.

When restoring a rental unit, the landlord should not replace an item when a repair is adequate. For example, one broken countertop tile does not merit replacing the entire countertop.

Deduction for Unpaid Rent

Many states allow a landlord to deduct unpaid rent from the security deposit under the following conditions:

  • The tenant leaves after giving appropriate notice but was behind on the rent
  • The tenant stays beyond the planned termination date
  • The tenant moves out without giving legal notice, typically a 30-day notice is required
  • The tenant is legally evicted

Deadline for Returning a Security Deposit

Security deposit laws regulate the return of a tenant's security deposit. In most states, a landlord must return a deposit within 30 days, but deadlines range from 14 to 60 days.

Most state laws require a landlord to mail the following to the tenant's last known address or their forwarding address:

  • The entire security deposit, plus interest, if applicable
  • An itemized list of deductions for cleaning, repairs, and unpaid rent and the remaining security deposit, plus interest, if applicable

The itemized statement should include an explanation for each deduction (a description of the damage, the required repair, and the cost of making the repair). If some repairs are incomplete, an estimate of the cost is sufficient. Copies of bills, receipts, and estimates for repairs should accompany the itemized statement.

Suing a Landlord for a Violation of Security Deposit Laws

A tenant may sue a landlord for:

  • Failing to return the security deposit
  • Failing to return the security deposit or provide an itemized statement within the time required by law
  • Failing to pay interest if their state or municipality requires it
  • Overcharging for the cost of repairs and/or cleaning

In many states, a tenant has up to four years to sue over a security deposit dispute. Typically, the tenant will file a lawsuit in small claims court. The maximum claim amount that can be heard in small claims court ranges from $3,000 to $25,000. (This varies by state. See your state's rules to determine if this is the right court for your claim.)

Small claims court cases typically reach trial within 30 to 60 days. An attorney is unnecessary.

If a tenant wins the lawsuit, they may be awarded the amount owed as well as court costs. If a landlord acted with "willful disregard," the court may award the tenant two to three times the amount of the security deposit illegally withheld, plus court costs and fees for any attorney the tenant consulted about the case.

If You Have a Dispute Involving a Security Deposit, Talk with a Lawyer

If you are a landlord or a tenant involved in a dispute about a security deposit, get the facts. Talk with a landlord-tenant attorney in your area to ensure you understand the law in your city and state.

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