A pet deposit is an amount the landlord charges a renter up front to have a pet live in the unit. Deposits are refundable, so you’ll get your money back when you move out, as long as your pet hasn’t caused any damage to the unit you rented.
Alongside pet deposits, landlords often charge pet fees or pet rent — and those aren’t refundable.
What Pet Deposits Cover
When a landlord charges a separate pet deposit, that money can only be used to pay for damages made by your pet. This could include scratch marks, urine or feces stains, or fleas. Did your cat break the blinds so it could look out the window? Unless you replace the broken blinds before you leave, your landlord can take money out of the pet deposit to replace them.
The same laws that cover security deposits cover pet deposits. Although these vary among cities and states, generally, your landlord has to keep the deposit money in an escrow account that earns interest. If any portion of the deposit is nonrefundable, the landlord typically has to include this information explicitly in the lease.
In practice, most landlords use a lease addendum that specifically covers pets. Once you sign that document, it becomes a part of your lease. Read it carefully! It includes specific information about your landlord’s pet policy as well as details about the types of damages your pet deposit covers.
When you move out, the landlord inspects your unit and sends you a statement of the damages. If any of your deposit is left after paying for those damages, they cut you a check for the difference, plus any interest that accrued. You do have the right to dispute their assessment of damages if you think what they’re claiming is unfair.
Other Pet Charges
In addition to (or instead of) a pet deposit, landlords might charge a pet fee, which is similar to a pet deposit in that it’s a one-time payment you make when you first sign the lease. However, unlike a deposit, a pet fee isn’t refundable.
You might see landlords advertise a “nonrefundable pet deposit.” A deposit is refundable by definition, so a “nonrefundable deposit” is nonsense. It’s just a pet fee with a fancy name. When you pay a pet fee, you’re essentially paying the landlord to allow you to have a pet. That’s it. Pet fees aren’t legal in a few states, notably California, Hawaii, and Montana, but everywhere else they’re fair game.
A landlord can technically use pet fee money for whatever they want and they don’t have to account for it in any way. They might use it for damages your pet makes to the unit you rent, but they don’t have to! They can take those damages out of your security deposit when you move out or send you a bill.
Some landlords also charge pet rent. This is a monthly charge added to your rent, typically around $20, and it’s just like your rent. It’s not refundable—it’s what you pay for your pet to live there each month. Some landlords charge flat pet rent, while others charge a specific amount per animal.
Comparing Pet Charges Across Three Examples
Typically, a refundable deposit is a better deal overall than a nonrefundable fee or another monthly charge. However, this depends on your circumstances. The best way to decide which option will be the best for your budget is to look at the total charges over the term of the lease. A brief example can show you how this works.
Suppose you’re looking at 3 different complexes that are equally appealing. Complex A charges a $300 nonrefundable pet fee plus $15 a month in pet rent. Complex B charges a $500 pet deposit and no pet rent. Complex C requires nothing upfront, but charges $25 a month in pet rent.
So which is a better deal? Assuming everything else is equal, over the course of a 12-month lease you’ll pay $480 to Complex A with no chance of getting a dime of it back. At Complex B, you’ll be out $500 initially, but you might get some (or even all) of it back when you move out. At Complex C, you’ll pay $300 over the course of the same year.
Even though it’s more money upfront, the refundable deposit at Complex B is probably a better deal because you’ll probably get most of it back, plus interest. At both Complex A and C, on the other hand, you run the risk of the complex charging you for damages when you move out. If that’s a risk you’re willing to take, or if you simply don’t have the money upfront, Complex C would be the best option.
Negotiating a Lower Deposit
If the deposit is a little more than you’d like to pay upfront, you might be able to talk the landlord into lowering it. The deposit gives the landlord security against any damage your pet might do to their property while you’re living there. If you can convince them that your pet is a model citizen that would never damage property or cause trouble, they might be willing to lower the deposit.
The National Apartment Association recommends the following:
- A recommendation letter from your previous landlord mentioning that your pet was well behaved, never caused any problems, and left the rental unit in good shape
- A certificate or other proof that your pet has received formal obedience training
- Information about your pet, including its age, breed, and general temperament
You might also bring your pet over for the landlord to meet. Maybe take it to the groomer just before so it’s looking its best. If your pet is lovable and friendly with other people, this can be a real game-changer.
You’ll have a lot more luck with this if you’re renting from an individual landlord. With large apartment management companies, the manager of a single community might not have much leeway. If you’re truly going to be strapped or have a hard time coming up with the total deposit upfront, ask if they’re willing to take installments.
Distinguishing a Pet Deposit from a Security Deposit
If your pet deposit is refundable, it works basically the same way your security deposit does. After you move out, your landlord will inspect your unit and deduct any damages from the total. A pet deposit can only be used for damages your pet caused—not anything you did. That means the landlord could claim you still owe them money for damages, even though you got your full pet deposit back.
Let’s look at how this works. Suppose that, when you first rented your apartment, you paid a $500 pet deposit and a $1,000 security deposit. When you move out, your landlord doesn’t find any damages caused by your very well-behaved dog. But there are damages to the stovetop, the sliding glass door, and the sink in the bathroom.
Your landlord claims fixing these problems will cost $1,500. They’ll apply your security deposit to the damages and send you a bill for the remainder. Your landlord can’t take money from the pet deposit to cover damages not made by your pet, so you’ll get that money back, plus interest. You could then use the refunded pet deposit to pay back the landlord for the damages in excess of your security deposit.
Getting Your Deposit Back
Your lease says the pet deposit is refundable—but that certainly isn’t a guarantee. And the typical landlord is going to hold you responsible for every possible damage they can. The best way to prevent this from happening to you is to perform a detailed inspection of your unit before you move in. Take photos of everything and document every little nick, scratch, ding, and dent you see. Submit all of this to your landlord and keep copies for your records.
After you move in, keep your eye out for anything that gets damaged and have it fixed immediately. To get your pet deposit back, watch your pet closely—especially in the first month or so after you move in—so you can quickly break it of any bad habits.
If there’s nothing you can do to keep your pet from damaging the unit in some way, do what you can to mitigate the damages. For example, if your cat seems intent on trying to climb the blinds, you might want to pull them up during the day so the cat doesn’t have the option.
When you get ready to move out, compare the place to the pictures you took when you first moved in. If you take a picture of the same room from the same angle, it should look about the same as the move-in picture.
You don’t have to pay for normal wear and tear. For example, suppose the bedroom is carpeted. If part of the carpet is worn down where you’ve walked more, that’s normal wear and tear. If your dog has pulled up the carpet from the doorway, leaving a ragged edge, that’s not. Some damages you can fix on your own before you move out and it’ll probably be cheaper than the amount your landlord assesses.
Take pictures when you’ve moved all of your stuff out. Try to take the same pictures from the same angle that you took when you moved in—they’ll be easier to compare. Now if your landlord tries to claim something was damaged, you have proof that it wasn’t your pet that did it.
For more information, see our full article on getting your security deposit back.
What about service animals?
A service or emotional support animal is not a pet, so landlords can’t charge you anything for them. They’re also legally required to provide reasonable accommodations, which means in most cases whatever pet policy they have in effect won’t apply to your service animal.
This doesn’t mean your service or emotional support animal gets off scot-free, though. If they cause any damage to your apartment while you live there, you’ll have to pay your landlord for that. Since you didn’t pay a pet deposit, it would come out of whatever security deposit you paid.