After you end your tenancy and give your landlord notice of your intended move, you'll want your security deposit returned to you, per the terms of your lease. Getting the landlord to return the security deposit, however, can be problematic. In most states, failure to return a security deposit is illegal. A landlord is responsible for the return of your security deposit even if you're not entitled to receive the full amount.
The function of a security deposit
The purpose of a security deposit is to provide the landlord with protection in the event the apartment is partially or severely damaged. The deposit functions as a reminder to you, the tenant, to keep the apartment in good condition and to pay your rent on time. In some cases, it can act as the last month's rent, although many landlords do not allow that.
A security deposit is usually given to a landlord at the start of the lease. Depending on your state, a security deposit can total anywhere from one to three month's rent.
Depending on which state the unit is in, a landlord may have anywhere from 14 to 60 days to return the deposit. Only a few states don't have any specific time limit or have laws that state the landlord has to return the deposit within “a reasonable amount of time," a term that is left to the interpretation of the court. One to three months could be considered reasonable, while six months might be considered unreasonable.
When you moved in, hopefully the landlord provided you with a moving-in checklist. In most cases, the tenant never gets this document. Even if you don't receive one, you should prepare your own moving-in checklist and take photos of the apartment, condo, or house to show how it looked as of the date you moved in. This way, a landlord can't say you caused pre-existing damage.
Make sure the checklist is comprehensive and includes each room. Document what type of damage already exists by writing it on the checklist. Supplement the checklist by taking photos of every room in case the landlord fails to do so or in the exceptional case that the landlord doctors the photos.
Do a walk-through with the landlord and inspect each room carefully. Both you and the landlord should agree as to whether something is in worn, bad, or unusual condition, and document it on the checklist, making a copy for you and one for the landlord.
Proper expenses deducted from a security deposit
A landlord cannot deduct expenses from your security deposit based on normal wear and tear. Each state has its own definition of normal wear and tear, but it usually includes worn carpeting, breakdown of some appliances due to continual use (especially in long-term leases of a few years or more), peeling paint, and minor changes inside the apartment that would be expected from someone living there a year or more.
You are responsible, in most cases, for anything that is not considered normal wear and tear, including:
- Holes in walls or floors
- Burns in carpeting
- Broken appliances, unless the landlord failed to repair them after you gave written notice
- Unusual and extreme wear and tear
- Broken windows
- An unusually dirty apartment
If you have guests in your rented apartment or house, you are responsible for any damage they've done as if you did the damage yourself. Do another walk-through with the landlord at the end of the lease. Let the landlord inspect the property so she can raise any issues about damage right then and there. Document what she says. Take photos of the rental at the time you move out.
Information in a security deposit return letter
In order to get your security deposit back if the landlord hasn't returned it, you need to write a demand letter. Include the information below and send the letter by certified mail with a return receipt requested. In some cases, you may need to acknowledge that there is some damage to the unit. Make copies for yourself in case you need the letter at a future date or if you have to bring the landlord to small claims court.
Include the following information in a security deposit return letter:
- The date of the letter and the landlord's full name and address
- The address of the residence you rented and the date you moved in
- A statement that you've been paying your rent timely and that you are current with your payments
- A statement that you gave the landlord proper written notice of your move-out, such as a 30-day notice, or that the lease expired
- Description of the apartment's condition to the landlord as of the time you moved out, such as it was “cleaner than when you moved in," and that you have photos to prove it
- Explanation that you have not received your security deposit despite the landlord's obligation to return it
- The exact amount of the security deposit you're entitled to as well as the words “plus interest required by law" or similar wording
- Your new address and whether you've already provided this information to the landlord and when you did so
- The date that the security deposit was due back to you according to state law
- A demand of the immediate return of the full amount of the deposit as well as a time limit, such as “no later than seven (7) days," at which point you will take the matter to small claims court
- If you have roommates, how the security deposit should be returned to each of you
- Your phone number, should the landlord have questions
- Your signature and new address
Following these steps will allow you to request your security deposit and help if you have to sue in small claims court.