Return of Security Deposits

Because of the frequency of security deposit disputes between landlords and tenants when the lease ends, laws place specific duties on the landlord when he keeps a tenant's security deposit. Typically, the landlord is allowed to deduct the cost of damages to the premises from the tenant's security deposit. However, the landlord may not keep all or a portion of the security deposit for normal wear and tear. The landlord may also be required to give the tenant an itemized list of the damages deducted from the security deposit.

If you do not receive an itemized list, check to see if one is required under your state laws by calling the local housing authority. If it is required, ask the landlord for one. By not providing you with an itemized list, the landlord may have to return your entire security deposit and will have waived his right to sue you for the damages.

TIP: Your security deposit is normally returned if you leave the premises in good condition. Failing to clean the oven and leaving the refrigerator dirty is not good condition. To avoid deductions from your security deposit, make sure to:

  • sweep and mop floors
  • vacuum carpets
  • clean sinks, tubs and showers
  • wipe down walls with fingerprints or other stains
  • clean out the oven, refrigerator and microwave
  • sweep and clean off the patio and balcony
  • remove all tacks and nails from the wall
  • clean out the fireplace if you used it
  • clean glass in patio doors
  • remove shelf and drawer paper

Is there a deadline for returning my security deposit?

If the lease sets out the time for returning a tenant's security deposit (e.g., 10 days after tenant surrenders possession), then your security deposit must be returned to you by that deadline, minus any deductions for damages.

If the lease does not set out a date, state or local laws may require the security deposit to be returned (minus deductions for damages) within a certain time frame. A typical deadline prescribed by law is 30 days after the tenant surrenders possession.

Do I have to make a written request to get back my security deposit?

It depends on the lease agreement. Check to see if you must request the return of the security deposit in writing under the terms of the lease. If a written request is required, present it to your landlord when you turn in your keys so that you are in full compliance with the lease agreement.

TIP: The law may require your landlord to return a tenant's security deposit (minus deductions) without any action on your part. However, a written request is proof that you asked for a refund.

What types of lease violations permit the landlord to keep my security deposit when the lease ends?

Some of the provisions a tenant must follow in a standard rental agreement in order to have her security deposit refunded include:

  • Remaining a tenant for the entire length of the lease. Moving out in the tenth month of a 12-month lease is "breaking the lease," and you will forfeit your security deposit.
  • Providing written notice. You should inform the landlord that you will not be renewing the lease at least 30 days before it ends.6
  • Being up-to-date on the rent. If the lease allows the landlord to keep the security deposit when you move out and are behind on the rent, you will not get it back.

My landlord says he cannot refund my security deposit because he owes the electric company several thousand dollars. Do I have to wait until the electric company is paid before I get my deposit back?

No. The landlord's debts and bills do not take precedence over the return of your security deposit.

If my landlord will not give me back my security deposit, is there anything I can do?

Yes, you can file a lawsuit against your landlord for failing to return your security deposit. Generally, laws require the landlord to return your deposit if he kept it without a permissible reason. Additionally, the landlord may have to pay penalty damages (twice the amount of the deposit, for example), plus your attorney's fees.

TIP: Always send the landlord a "demand letter" before you file a lawsuit. Some laws require it, and even if it is not required, you may avoid a lawsuit if the landlord takes your letter seriously and refunds the deposit. An effective demand letter is always dated and includes:

  • the amount of the security deposit and when it was paid;
  • the period of the lease (for example, "from January 1, 2005 to December 31, 2005");
  • a statement that the tenant gave proper notice to the landlord that she was moving out;
  • a deadline for return of the security deposit ("within 30 days");
  • a request for a list of damages and corresponding deductions taken because of damage to the premises (if all or part of the security deposit is withheld); and
  • a statement of the law that applies, if you know it (e.g., "the law requires you return security deposits to tenants within 30 days after possession is surrendered").

It is recommended that you send the letter by certified mail so you will have proof that the landlord received it.

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