Most landlords take a security deposit (usually equivalent to a month's rent) to protect them in case their apartment or furnishings are damaged. This means damage above the standard wear and tear associated with living in an apartment - you shouldn't be charged for this. The deposit is meant to be used for substantial cleaning or repairs, and also protects the landlord if you don't pay your rent.
Is there a limit on how much a landlord can demand as a security deposit?
The limit on the amount a landlord can ask for as a security deposit varies from state to state. For example, in New York there's no set limit, unless the rental is covered by local rent control regulations. In nearby New Jersey, however, there's a limit of one and a half month's rent.
In California the limit is 2 months for unfurnished apartments and 3 for furnished apartments (plus an extra half month if the tenant has a waterbed!)
If your landlord tries to ask for more than state law allows don't be afraid to challenge them.
Note - these limits only refer to security deposits and don't include other amounts that a landlord can rightfully ask you to provide (e.g. the last month's rent or a non-refundable pet deposit).
Will my deposit earn interest?
Generally, the landlord should not be profiting in terms of interest from your security deposit as the money remains yours and is only held by the landlord.
Getting your security deposit back
Most states require the landlord to return your deposit to you within a specified time limit. If they don't do so, and don't give you an itemized statement of why they are withholding funds (e.g. damage, unpaid rent etc.), they could be ordered by a court to pay you a penalty. The court can award up to two times the amount, depending on where you live, if a landlord fails comply with local laws.
In New York the time limit isn't a fixed deadline but the landlord should return your deposit in a 'reasonable' time frame.
In California it's 21 days.
Remember it's your money, not theirs, and you should pursue the landlord if they fail to return it without a reason.
What can I do to make sure I get my deposit back?
Most renters need their deposit back quickly as they need it for their next rental. The single biggest reason why tenants don't get their deposit back is because they forget to tell their landlord where they're moving to. If you don't provide a forwarding address you won't get your deposit back.
Other common reasons why tenants don't get their money back in full include:
- Not giving proper notice in writing - Even if your lease is about to come up, you must always give notice or you could lose a month's rent.
- Leaving early or breaking a lease - Try to find a suitable replacement if you need to leave early. Otherwise you could be responsible for rent until the lease expires.
- Not leaving the property clean - If it isn't clean when you move in, you need to complain to the landlord straight away and take photos. If you don't return it to the original condition your deposit may be used to pay for cleaning. Find out what standard is expected before you move out, in case you need to be investing in oven cleaner and hiring a carpet shampoo machine.
- Not leaving the room in the condition you found it - If you've installed temporary walls, put up pictures or made any other modifications, you should take care to return the place to how you found it.
- Damage left unrepaired - It's expected that the apartment will suffer some wear and tear, especially if you live there for many years. But if you've had an accident, such as spilling coffee or red wine on a light floor, there could be a hefty impact on your deposit. Try to repair damage yourself, or get a professional in to restore it, as the landlord will have free reign to charge the maximum if you leave it up to him or her.
- Missing items - Make sure you check all the items that were in the apartment when you arrived (there should be a full inventory) and that you leave it complete. If you've broken a glass it's usually cheaper to replace it yourself than to allow the landlord to deduct an amount from your deposit.
How to handle security deposit disputes
You may be unlucky enough to get into a dispute with your landlord over the return of your security deposit. It's important to handle this properly and to communicate clearly. You should try to resolve any disputes through negotiation and always treat each other fairly and in good faith. If your landlord has billed you for items you disagree with you should respond straight away in writing. This is a good time to include any photographic evidence to support your case. Give clear reasons why you don't agree with their decision and ask politely for the full amount to be refunded to you within a reasonable period (say, seven days). Don't threaten legal action until they've responded.
If the landlord has failed to return your deposit at all, or to give you a breakdown of the items they're charging you for, you need to demand this and remind them of their duties according to the law. If you've still got issues around a security deposit it's normally worth avoiding using a real estate attorney for these small matters. You'd be better off asking for assistance from your local housing agency or consumer protection agency.
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Disclaimer - This is for general information purposes only and shouldn't be treated as legal advice. We recommend you consult an experienced Landlord Tenant attorney if you need specific legal advice.