Real Estate

Security Deposits

Security deposits are a big investment for tenants, and a frequent source of disputes with landlords. Minimize problems by knowing your rights when it comes to deposits (how much your landlord can charge, when you can expect to get it back, and what types of deductions are legal—or not).

When you buy a home, you're responsible for its repairs and maintenance. If you rent, the costs of routine maintenance are usually your landlord's responsibility. However, if you damage the property either on purpose or by accident you must usually pay for the repairs yourself. A security deposit helps protect your landlord if you move out and leave big repair bills (or unpaid rent).

Your Landlord Must Comply With State Deposit Rules

Many states have strict rules on security deposits, including how much the landlord can charge: Half the states have no limits; the other half usually set a deposit limit of a month or two of rent. About one-third of the states, plus several large cities (usually those with rent control) require landlords to pay tenants interest on deposits (either annually or when the tenant leaves). In some states, your landlord must also tell you where the money is deposited for safekeeping while you're a tenant. Nearly all states set a deadline by which landlords must return the deposit or account for any deductions.

State laws can be quite detailed—exempting some landlords from deposit restrictions, setting different deposit limits for senior citizens, or requiring landlords to give tenants advance notice of any deposit deductions. Before signing a lease (or moving out), be sure you understand your state security rules and how they affect you.

You Can't Decide How Your Deposit Is Spent

You might think that because you paid one or two months’ rent in advance in the form of a security deposit, you don't have to pay your last month's rent when you decide to move out. Even if your lease clearly labels the deposit as last month’s rent, check with your landlord before using the deposit for this purpose. Many states allow landlords to treat “last month’s rent” as part of the security deposit and use it to cover necessary cleaning or damage repair in the rental unit. If you’ve been a good tenant (paid rent on time and taken care of the property), your landlord may agree to apply your deposit to last month’s rentbut always ask first.

Your Landlord Might Not Return Your Full Deposit

Many states required landlords to provide tenants a written itemized statement of any security deposit deductions, such as for unpaid rent or the costs of necessary cleaning and damage repair, along with any remaining deposit (and interest, if required).

The damage your security deposit covers doesn't usually include "normal wear and tear." For example, if you live in your apartment for five years and your footsteps wear down the carpet by the door, this is normal wear and tear. However, if your dog tears up the carpet, you're responsible for this damage. When you move out, your landlord can deduct the cost of replacing the carpet from your deposit, as well as any past due rent or the costs of cleaning the apartment if you leave it dirtier than it was when you moved in. If these costs add up to more than your deposit, it's possible you might not get any part of it back.

If, in addition to your security deposit, you’ve paid a nonrefundable cleaning fee (something not all states allow) your landlord should not charge you for additional cleaning.

See Moving Out for advice on how to maximize the amount of security deposit you get back.

Your Landlord Has Time to Return Your Deposit

If you're entitled to receive some or all of your deposit back, your landlord doesn't have to give you the money the day you move out. Under the laws of most states, landlords have a certain amount of time (typically two to four weeks after you leave) to return the deposit. Landlords can use this time to have the necessary cleaning, damage repair, or other work done to the rental unit, so they know the exact costs to deduct.

If your landlord makes any deductions from your deposit, many states require that the landlord send you details (an itemization) of how the deposit was used; some states also require that landlords provide copies of receipts for the work done as part of the itemization.

You May Sue Your Landlord in Small Claims Court for Failure to Return Your Deposit

If your landlord does not return your deposit on time or you feel that some of the deductions were not justified, contact the landlord and try to work out an agreement. If this doesn’t work, you may want to file a small claims court lawsuit for the disputed amount; in many states, you can also sue for extra punitive damages if the landlord’s failure to return your deposit was intentional. Before pursuing this option, check your state’s small claims court rulesfor example you may need to write your landlord a formal “demand” letter before filing a lawsuit, and your claim must meet your state’s limit (usually $5,000 to $10,000).

A Landlord-Tenant Lawyer Can Help

The law surrounding security deposits is complicated and the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief introduction to the topic. For more specific information and advice, contact a landlord-tenant lawyer.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • It’s over a month now and my landlord still has not returned my deposit, despite all my phone calls and emails. Can I sue my landlord to get the money back? I left the place in good shape and I was paid up in rent.
  • My landlord charged me several hundred dollars for work he did cleaning up my apartment after I left. Can my landlord charge me that much money? The place was a mess when I moved in, and pretty much the same when I left.
  • I just moved out of an apartment, but my other roommates stayed. They’re having a hard time finding a replacement tenant, and tell me I may not get my share of the deposit back. Is that legal?
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