How Much Is a Security Deposit?

When renting a new apartment, you’ll typically have to pay a security deposit equal to one months’ rent. As a result, if the rental has a monthly rent price of $800, and you have to pay the first month’s rent and a security deposit upfront, you’d need to give your landlord $1,600 in total to move into the unit.

However, there are situations where security deposits are more or less than one month’s rent. Generally, the latter isn’t common, but it can occur if a landlord is struggling to find tenants or running a move-in special. Higher security deposits aren’t necessarily the norm, but they occur more often than lower ones.

What Security Deposits Cover

A security deposit is a form of financial protection for landlords. The exact rules that govern the use of security deposits by landlords vary by state or city. Typically, the funds are set aside for specific costs caused by tenants, such as having to repair damage beyond wear and tear or covering missed rent payments.

Security deposits are primarily refundable unless the lease agreement specifies that it’s non-refundable, if such a clause is allowed based on local landlord-tenant law. Usually, as long as a tenant, their guests, and their pets cause no damage beyond wear and tear, are current on their rent, and clean the unit in accordance with the landlord’s requirements, the money is returned within 20 to 30 days after moving out.

Situations That Lead to Higher Security Deposits

As mentioned above, the average security deposit on a rental is one month’s rent. However, there are situations where landlords can charge more. Here is an overview of times when you might encounter a higher security deposit.

Bringing in Pets

One of the most common reasons tenants encounter higher security deposits is because they have pets. Pets can potentially cause damage that makes extensive cleaning or repairs necessary. As a result, most landlords require separate pet deposits to offset the risk an animal poses to the property.

Pet deposits can fall into one of two categories: refundable and non-refundable. A refundable pet deposit works similarly to a traditional security deposit.

If your pet causes no damage and the property is thoroughly cleaned when you move out, you can potentially get it all back. With non-refundable pet deposits, the landlord keeps the money regardless. However, that doesn’t mean you’re not financially responsible for costs associated with pet-related damage should the required fixes exceed what the pet deposit covers.

In some cases, you may see pet deposits that are partially refundable. With these, a portion is usually kept to address any deep cleaning needs, allowing the landlord to ensure that there are no allergens remaining before a new tenant moves into the unit. If there’s no other damage, then they return the rest of the pet deposit.

Landlords are required to outline any pet deposit requirements in the lease. Additionally, the rental agreement must formally state whether the money is refundable or non-refundable.

It’s important to note that landlords can’t charge pet deposits, higher rent, or any fees for service animals. However, depending on where you live and local laws relating to service animals, the landlord could potentially legally request formal documentation to prove your service animal is eligible for the exception. This might include a self-declaration or a letter from an approved source, such as a doctor.

If you have a service animal of any type – including an emotional support animal – review local landlord-tenant laws regarding what’s permitted. That way, if requesting documentation is allowed, you can prepare it in advance.

Having Bad Credit

When you have bad credit, the landlord may view you as a riskier tenant. As a result, charging a higher security deposit is often a way to offset their increased chances of financial losses.

Generally, a bad credit score is a red flag to landlords, as they might assume it means the prospective tenant struggles with paying bills on time. Since missed rent payments are financially harmful to landlords, a higher deposit gives them some peace of mind.

The reason a higher security deposit makes you seem less risky is that landlords can use those funds toward unpaid rent that occurs during your tenancy. As a result, if you fall behind on rent and then move out, they can keep money from the security deposit to cover any missed payments.

In some cases, landlords can tap funds from a security deposit before you move out, as well. However, whether that’s permitted and in what circumstances varies by location. As a result, you’ll want to review the lease agreement and local landlord-tenant law to see when that’s an option.

For more information, see our article on how to rent an apartment with bad credit.

Aligning with Local Norms

While the average security deposit is equal to one month’s rent, that doesn’t mean landlords might not require more. Landlord-tenant laws vary by location, and some areas give landlords the ability to charge higher security deposits legally.

If charging more becomes common in a city or region and it’s allowed by law, more and more landlords often follow suit. Landlords view security deposits as protection against financial challenges created by tenants, so having a larger buffer is often viewed as wise.

Many states have laws that allow security deposits to exceed one month’s rent. For instance, Michigan let them get as high as 1.5 months’ rent, while California landlords can charge up to two months’ rent for unfurnished units and up to three months’ rent for furnished units in many situations.

There are also numerous states without statutory limits. In those areas, landlords can charge as much as they want for a security deposit, suggesting the local market supports the amount. As a result, tenants may encounter high security deposits even if they don’t have pets and have excellent credit simply because that’s the norm in the area.

Tacking on Cleaning Fees

Technically, cleaning fees aren’t a security deposit, as they’re non-refundable. However, they’re often required at the same time as security deposits, making them seem similar to tenants.

Whether a landlord can charge a cleaning fee usually depends on local regulations and landlord-tenant law. Additionally, specifying the fee in the rental agreement, including the amount and any terms and conditions relating to its use or refundability, is required.

If a cleaning fee isn’t permitted by law in your state or city, the request for a cleaning fee is illegal. If a landlord requests a cleaning fee, but it isn’t listed in the lease agreement, then it’s best to think twice. It’s possible the landlord is attempting to trick or scam you out of extra money, so don’t provide funds for a cleaning fee until it’s formally outlined in the lease.

How to Get Your Security Deposit Back

If you want to ensure that you’ll get your security deposit back, make sure you pay your rent on time every month. Landlords can take funds from a security deposit to cover missed payments, so this is a critical step.

Additionally, during your initial move-in walkthrough, document everything. Note any pre-existing issues on the list and take pictures of damage or areas of concern. Keep copies in your own records, ensuring your landlord isn’t the only one in possession of the notes or photos.

Before moving out, provide your landlord with the required amount of notice, ensuring you don’t trigger any penalties that they’ll take from your security deposit. When you prepare to move out, review the requirements list outlined by the landlord. You might get a separate checklist, or it could be outlined in your lease, so check both options. Repair any damage that’s your responsibility, and make sure that the unit is thoroughly cleaned.

Once your unit is in the best possible shape, do a move-out checklist and photograph the entire rental. That gives you proof that any damage was repaired and that the unit was in the requested condition. Then, if the landlord tries to keep any of your deposit, you have evidence that shows their request is inappropriate, allowing you to increase your odds of getting your security deposit back.

For more information, see our complete guide on how to get your security deposit back.

Because landlord/tenant laws vary by jurisdiction, consult with a local attorney if you need legal advice. The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice; instead, all information, content, and materials available on this site are for general informational purposes only.