Most landlords take a security deposit (usually equivalent to a month's rent) to protect them in case their apartment or furnishings are damaged. The deposit is meant to be used for substantial cleaning or repairs, and also protects the landlord if you don't pay your rent.
Sometimes it can be confusing when deciding what deductions are reasonable when it comes to your security deposit. To help, we’ve answered some of your most common questions to ensure that you avoid any unnecessary security deposit deductions in future.
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 the limit is one month’s rent, unless the rental is covered by local rent control regulations.
However, 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!)
Here’s a full list of security deposit limits state by state.
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.
In New York the limit is 14 days - in Arkansas it’s 60, so the limit really does vary. There are also some states where the limit depends on whether the tenant disputes the deductions.
Here’s a full list of state by state security deposit return deadlines.
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’ll use it to pay for their next rental. We know how annoying it can be to receive a charge or a delay when it comes to your security deposit, so we’ve put together a list of the most common charges and advice on how to avoid/prevent them.
We conducted a survey where we asked if you’ve ever had money deducted from your deposit after moving out and, if so, what these charges were for. The three most popular causes people cited for lost money from their security deposit included:
- Cleaning - If the property 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, then your deposit may be used to pay for cleaning. Find out what standard is expected before you move out, in case you need to purchase oven cleaner or hire a carpet shampoo machine.
- Damage to property/items in the property - It's expected that the apartment will suffer some wear and tear, especially if you’ve lived there for many years - this is not something that you should be charged for. But simple household accidents, such as spilling coffee or red wine on a light floor, could end up having a hefty impact on your deposit. Most damage you can repair yourself (it’s usually pretty low-effort and inexpensive), but sometimes it may be necessary to get a professional in to restore it. Even if you have to fork out a few dollars. Either of these options are likely to be cheaper than leaving it to your landlord as they will have free reign to charge the maximum amount for the damage caused.
- Terminating the lease too early - Try to find a suitable replacement if you need to leave early. Otherwise you could be responsible for rent until the lease expires.
Other common reasons why tenants don't get their money back in full include:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
* Don’t forget to tell your landlord where you're moving to. If you don't provide a forwarding address you won't get your deposit back.
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 issues surrounding your security deposit continue it's usually too small of a matter for a real estate attorney. Instead, you’re 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.