Ah, the security deposit… a financial burden when moving in, a blessing when moving out. There’s a reason it’s called a deposit—because you put money down only to cover excess damages that you might cause but, you’re almost guaranteed to get it back. Unless you cause extreme damage that your landlord can prove was your fault and existed after you moved out but before new tenants moved in, you deserve to have your deposit refunded in full. Normal wear and tear on the apartment is to be expected. However, some landlords won’t make the effort to get your money back to you unless you ask for it. Beyond making sure that your crazy friends don’t trash your apartment or that the kitten you’re secretly hiding in your room doesn’t claw up the carpet too badly, here are some steps to take to ensure you get your security deposit back.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, but you can’t undo all the wear and tear of your tenancy at the last minute. If you are responsible for any damages to your apartment, repair them as well and as quickly as possible. Don’t wait until the very last second to try to get things done; this will only make it more likely that you’ll leave damages behind that your landlord will need to use your deposit to repair. Though your landlord might be a great person, it’s in his or her best financial interest to keep as much of your deposit as possible rather than be thrifty about repair work. For this reason, see what you can get done before moving out, don’t just leave yourself (and your security deposit) at the mercy of your landlord. This great comparison chart helps clarify the differences between wear and tear and actual damage.
Use it or lose it
Your lease might state that your security deposit counts toward your last month or two of rent (deposits are generally not allowed to exceed two to three months’ rent depending on whether the apartment is furnished or not). If that’s the case, make sure you’re aware of this situation, and communicate with your landlord about it. Rest assured that an extra rent check won’t be refused, so verify that you understand what fees you’re responsible for in the last months of your residency, and don’t overpay—unless, of course, you’re feeling generous.
Address the issue
If you don’t get your deposit back before moving out, make sure your landlord knows where to send it by providing your forwarding address. Your landlord can’t send you money if there’s no place for it to go. The law usually requires landlords to return security deposits or notify former tenants of damages using the tenant’s last known address. If this address is the apartment you’ve just vacated and you haven’t filed a change of address form with the post office, you may be out of luck.
As mentioned in our moving-out information, you’ll want to walk through your apartment with your landlord to verify that it’s clear what you did and didn’t do to the apartment as far as damages go. This should help prevent “surprise” charges for “damages” that you would have classified as normal wear and tear.
Make some waves
If you don’t receive your security deposit or an itemized list of damages from your landlord within the 30 days or other length of time (this varies by state) legally allotted for its return, take some action. Send a certified letter requesting the return of the deposit, and keep a copy for your records. Understandably, most landlords are reluctant to part with money unless forced to do so, but a little initiative in asking for your deposit will go a long way. The amount of your deposit isn’t likely to be worth more to your landlord than the money, time, and hassle that dragging the issues into small claims court would require.
Take it to court
You are likely to be successful in suing your landlord for recovering your security deposit if you haven’t been provided with clear evidence of damages and documentation of repair costs. Since your landlord can’t keep even part of your deposit without telling you why (unless your lease states otherwise), you might be able to get your deposit back even if you caused some damage to your apartment—provided you can prove the deposit was withheld without explanation. Tenants’ right associations and other legal resources can provide information that will help you recover security deposits in small claims court, so use these resources to make sure your money’s returned—you’re legally entitled to it. Since you can sue your landlord for an amount greater than your security deposit (the limit in small claims court varies by state), it’s not likely that your landlord will want to risk the headache or the monetary loss if he or she has truly been negligent in not returning or accounting for the use of your deposit.
Getting your security deposit back should be a breeze provided that you didn’t bash in walls with your electric guitar, pull the faucet off the kitchen sink in a display of your strongman skills, or turn the living room carpet from white to brown by spilling frequently and never vacuuming during your tenancy. A lightly worn apartment is to be expected following a period of normal living, as is the return of a security deposit. Demand what’s yours and you’re likely to get it; if you don’t, there’s plenty of support available.