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What Can a Landlord Deduct From a Security Deposit for Cleaning and Repairs?

Most landlords and property management companies ask for a security deposit — often equal to one month's rent — before the tenant or renter moves in. The security deposit offers the landlord reassurance if the tenant damages the rental unit or leaves without paying rent. A security deposit can also cover cleaning fees if there is excess filth in the rental unit.

Landlords, however, must follow state law when deducting the deposit. State deposit laws vary, so tenants with specific questions should consult their state security deposit laws.

This article explores the deductions landlords can make from a tenant's security deposit.

What Is Normal Wear and Tear?

Normal wear and tear refers to defects resulting from expected ordinary wear over time. Landlords cannot use the security deposit to cover the costs of normal wear and tear in a rental property. 

The following is a list of examples of normal wear and tear:

  • Faded paint or wallpaper due to sunlight
  • Broken plumbing caused by everyday use
  • Dirty blinds and curtains
  • Rug wear caused by everyday use
  • Dents in walls from door handles
  • Faded curtains
  • Broken light bulbs
  • Replacement batteries for smoke detectors
  • Non-excessive nail holes in walls
  • Broken tiles or fixtures in bathrooms

These issues are more likely to happen naturally over time. Tenants are not responsible for paying the cost of these minor defects, regardless of whether the landlord plans to repair them.

Security Deposits Cover Non-Normal Wear and Tear

Landlords can deduct from the deposit for property damages that exceed normal wear and tear.

The following is a list of examples of damages that go beyond normal wear and tear:

  • Removing paint that the tenant added
  • Tears, holes, or burn marks on carpets or curtains
  • Broken windows and window screens
  • Broken doors and locks
  • Excessive filth or grime in or on the stove
  • Water damage

These issues are more likely to happen based on the tenant's behavior. They also usually incur more repair expenses, and landlords may even have a legal duty to fix them before a new tenant can move in. Security deposit deductions help cover their expenses.

Can Landlords Deduct Cleaning Fees?

Yes, property managers can often deduct cleaning costs as state laws allow. These deductions must be reasonable. 

For example, leaving unwanted furniture behind obligates the landlord to remove it, so they may deduct a cleaning fee for their time or a hired service. However, the cost they deduct should reasonably match the level of effort or expense. 

Cleaning should be limited to restoring the unit to its original state when you first moved in, but it shouldn't include the costs of improving the unit. If the tenant leaves their unit as clean as it was upon move-in, they should not be liable for extra costs of unnecessary cleaning services.

Other Allowable Deductions

In most states, landlords can deduct any unpaid rent and allowable late fees from the security deposit. One purpose of the security deposit is to make sure the landlord doesn't lose money if their tenant fails to pay rent.

Tips for Getting Your Entire Security Deposit Returned

First, check your lease or rental agreement for information on your security deposit. Some leases outline a time frame to return the deposit. If your lease is silent on this issue, check the security deposit laws of your state. These laws may limit the amount of the security deposit.

Your state laws should also provide a time frame for your former landlord or property manager to return your deposit. Otherwise, it sets how long they can provide you with an itemized statement or list of deductions.

Although you can file a claim in small claims court to get your deposit back, you can also send a demand letter to your former landlord via certified mail with a return receipt. The return receipt can serve as evidence in a small claims court case. If your former landlord still does not return the deposit, you should consider going to small claims court to get your money back.

How Can I Ensure I Get All of My Security Deposit Back?

Getting your security deposit returned after the end of your lease should be one of your primary goals. Since landlords cannot charge for everyday wear and tear, you can focus on keeping the apartment in good condition.

While Moving In

Do your own move-in inspection to document any potential damage. Take photos of existing defects. Some property owners allow you to inspect independently, while others may accompany you.

Give your landlord a copy of the inspection and any documentation during move-in. This inspection can serve as a baseline and evidence if you have to go to court for the return of your security deposit.

During Your Tenancy

You can also take measures while you are in the rental unit to help ensure your landlord returns all of your security deposit.

A few examples of these measures include:

  • Hiring professional cleaning or landscaping maintenance
  • Repainting, if necessary and allowed under the lease
  • Taking care of minor repairs, such as changing light bulbs
  • Reporting any damage to the landlord immediately

Before Moving Out

Follow all the move-out procedures in your lease agreement. Many landlords ask for written notice of your intent to vacate the rental unit before the last month of your lease. This gives them time to vet and prepare for a new tenant.

Send your landlord a lease termination letter via certified letter and a return receipt that includes the following information:

  • Name
  • Phone number
  • Forwarding address
  • Proposed move-out date
  • Request for final walk-through/move-out inspection
  • Request for security deposit return

This letter ensures your landlord has a forwarding address and documents your request for a walk-through and security deposit return. The walkthrough allows your landlord to point out things that need repair. Making these repairs yourself can help preserve your security deposit.

While Moving Out

Avoid additional charges and cleaning fees by taking precautions, such as:

  • Removing all personal belongings from the unit
  • Disposing of all trash and recyclables
  • Taking more photos of the empty unit, including any defects you requested to repair during the tenancy
  • Turning in your keys as the landlord instructs

Ask About Your Security Deposit Rights

Deductions must be reasonable and transparent. If your landlord refuses to fairly return your security deposit, consider speaking to a landlord-tenant attorney. You can get advice about your rights and options under landlord-tenant laws.

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