If you've taken care of your apartment and abided by the terms of your lease, there's no reason you shouldn't have your security deposit returned to you. Still, situations do arise, so it pays to be proactive.
The first step in getting your security deposit back when you move out of your apartment is to make sure you satisfy the conditions of your lease. Any property that came with the apartment, such as a stove, must remain. Don't try to sneak off with a ceiling fan, and if your apartment came furnished, make sure lamps and couches stay behind. You could be charged for unreturned items, so don't forget to turn in any keys, garage door openers, access gate controls or cards.
Leave your apartment in good physical condition. Landlords can charge for damage above and beyond normal wear and tear.
While this sounds simple, the definitions of both "damage" and "normal" vary from state to state, and person to person. You and your landlord may have differences of opinion, especially if pets are involved.
Review Your Lease
Your lease should specify a time period for your occupancy. Common options include month to month, six months, one year, and two years. When you signed the lease, you agreed to occupy the space and pay rent for that amount of time.
This doesn't mean you can't move out beforehand, but you are still bound by the terms of the lease. Your landlord might be able to keep charging you rent until a new tenant moves in, deduct from your security deposit or just keep the full amount.
Make a Move-In Inspection Checklist
Getting your security deposit back actually begins when you move in. While it's hard to think about moving out during the excitement of getting settled, you have to plan ahead. If you aren't given a "Move-in Inspection Checklist," protect yourself by making one. Either way, note the damages that exist at move-in, and make sure to give the landlord a copy. For instance, note the hairline crack in the kitchen window or the water stain on the hardwood floor from a potted plant.
In most states, landlords can only establish that a tenant caused damage by being able to prove the apartment's condition at the time of move-in. If the move-in condition is not on record, your landlord may not be able to hold you responsible for damage. Make sure to keep a copy of this checklist for your records.
Give Proper Notice
Always give your landlord written notice when you decide to move. Don't just rely on a conversation. After all, you don't want to be subject to additional fees when your landlord pleads ignorance at move-out time. The usual timeframe for notice is 30 days.
Getting your security deposit back actually begins when you move in. If you don't give the required notice, you will almost certainly be charged for the term of the notice. The courts don't always uphold a landlord's right to deduct from a security deposit for inadequate notice. But if your landlord does charge you, you'll have to go through the hassle of small claims court. Basically, avoid disaster and financial burden by careful planning.
Provide a Forwarding Address
Notify your landlord of your forwarding address in writing, regardless of whether he asks. In many states, if a renter doesn't provide a forwarding address, landlords aren't responsible for the same deposit refunds.
Conduct a Final Walk-Through
Some landlords make it a practice to walk through the apartment when a tenant moves out. Why not do this together? That allows you to see what charges, if any, you'll be responsible for. Bring your move-in checklist for cross-referencing. If you disagree with damages, you can make your case on the spot, which is much easier than arguing after the fact.
If You Have Roommates
Most leases with multiple renters hold each individual fully accountable for the group as a whole. That means each renter is responsible for the full amount of the rent and any damages, regardless of who caused it. So make sure you're not stuck with the bill for your roommate's wild party that resulted in three holes in the wall. In most states, the security deposit is refunded in equal portions, regardless of who wrote the original check.
How Much Can You Be Charged?
Typically, damage charges can't exceed actual repair costs. Fees for items like carpet, which decrease in value over time, must take normal wear and tear into account.
When Should You Get Your Deposit Back?
Most states give landlords 21 to 60 days to return the deposit. If they don't, they must send you a letter with itemized deductions that explain why some or all of your deposit is not being returned.
What if the allotted time passes and you never receive a letter or a refund? Don't worry. There are steps in place to protect your rights.
- Complete (and photocopy) a Request for Return of Security Deposit form. This is usually available from a local tenants association.
- Send it to your former landlord via certified mail with a request for return receipt.
- Keep the return receipt.
- Wait seven days (from the date of receipt) for a response.
If your landlord doesn't refund the deposit after the seven-day notice, you can sue him in small claims court. If your landlord sends a letter on time saying he is withholding some or all of your deposit, but you think the amount is too high, you can still sue him in small claims court.
The good news is that few move-outs end up in small claims court. Most move-outs go off without a hitch, and you'll only have to worry about arranging your new living space, not fighting it out with your former landlord. But, the best way to guarantee that happy ending is by protecting yourself upfront.