While security deposits are refundable, your landlord will only give yours back if you leave your rental unit in good condition. That’s why it’s crucial to stay on top of maintenance issues and plan your moveout carefully, so you have time to restore your unit to tip-top condition before handing your keys back.
In this article, we’ll discuss the actions you can take to help ensure that your landlord returns your security deposit when you move out.
Know your rights
Any time you move into a rental you will pay a security deposit, which serves as a protection for the landlord if you cause property damage to your rental unit.
Your landlord is required to return your security deposit as long as you leave your rental in the same condition it was in when you moved in, minus normal wear and tear.
If you cause property damage, your landlord is entitled to keep all or part of your security deposit to cover the cost of restoring the rental to its original condition.
Once the state of your apartment has been deemed satisfactory, your landlord is required to return your deposit within a certain amount of time. This timeline varies by state but is typically within 2 to 6 weeks of your move-out date.
Why your landlord might not return your security deposit
There is a variety of reasons why your landlord may be entitled to retain all or part of your security deposit. These range from maintenance issues to debts, and more. The following are some examples:
- You are breaking your lease
- You leave unpaid utility bills
- You fail to pay all or part of your rent
- You leave personal belongings behind in the unit and your landlord must pay to have them removed
- Floors or other surfaces are scratched, stained, tarnished, or water damaged
- The unit is excessively dirty or grimy
- Windows or doors are broken
- You fail to return your keys
How to ensure you get your security deposit back
Now that you’re clear on why your landlord might hold on to part of your deposit, let’s discuss what you can do to ensure you get it all back.
Understand the terms of your lease
Your lease will clearly outline your obligations as a renter. Reading this document thoroughly will ensure that your landlord can’t slip anything by you.
There may be a clause that states that your landlord can retain your deposit if you break your lease and move out early, or if you fail to provide proper notice before moving out at the end of your tenancy.
Make sure to review the sections on maintenance and move-out procedures closely so you know how to handle them when the time comes.
Document your rental’s condition when you move in
One of the best ways to increase the probability of having your security deposit returned is by planning ahead.
You know that you are required to leave your rental in the same condition as when you move in, so create documentation of its current state.
Many landlords will do a walk-through when you move into a new unit and note down any imperfections on a checklist. This is great, but photo evidence is better. Snap photos of your entire unit, ideally before you move in.
Things to look for include:
- Stains or scratches on floors
- Damage to windows or blinds
- Doors or windows that don’t lock or open properly
- Signs of water damage, moisture, mold, or mildew
- Discoloration or chips in paint
- Cracked, broken, or chipped tile
- Loose fixtures in the kitchen or bathrooms
- Anything else that seems broken, poorly installed, or damaged in any way
If you spot any imperfections, take close-up photos so you can compare them when you move out. Save these photos in a specific folder on your DropBox or cloud storage account so they don’t get lost.
Stay on top of maintenance issues
Keeping up with maintenance is part of your responsibilities as a tenant. Doing so will help you stay in your landlord’s good graces and ensure that you have a good quality of life within your rental.
Don’t wait until maintenance issues are out of control before you fix them, as this can lead to further unnecessary damage. For instance, If your sink leaks, let your landlord know before any extensive water damage occurs. If your lock is sticky, have it serviced or replaced before it evolves into a bigger problem.
Pay your bills
If you leave unpaid utility bills behind when you move out your landlord can retain a portion of your security deposit to settle them.
Keep a list of your utility bills and make sure you contact them when you move out. Settle any unpaid balances and have the utility service canceled or transferred to your new address.
Depending on your billing cycle, you may not receive your final bill until after you’ve moved out, so it’s wise to contact these companies by phone so you don’t accidentally miss a payment.
Give your landlord proper notice when you plan to move out
Your lease will outline the requirement for providing notice at the end of your tenancy. Read it carefully.
Typically tenants are required to provide 30 days’ notice before moving out. If you fail to provide sufficient notice, your landlord could keep your security deposit.
It’s best to provide notice in writing and include a forwarding address (if you have one), so your landlord can send your security deposit check and any mail that arrives for you after you vacate.
Clean your apartment thoroughly
Leaving your rental dirty is a sure-fire way to have a portion of your damage deposit deducted. Whether you scrub the unit yourself or hire a professional to do it for you, make sure you leave your apartment in a clean, habitable state.
This is one of the simplest ways to ensure you get your deposit back. Cleaning is easy and relatively inexpensive to outsource, so there’s no excuse not to do it.
There may be a moveout checklist attached to your lease document. If not, you can download a generic one online to remind you what your landlord will be looking for when it comes to cleanliness.
Essentially, you want to do the deepest clean possible, paying close attention to details that you might overlook if you are just cleaning for yourself. Scour any grout to ensure it’s not grimy, clean inside cupboards and drawers to ensure they aren’t dusty or grimy, clean your fridge and oven, etc. Go over every surface in your unit with a fine-toothed comb to ensure that it is squeaky clean.
Don’t leave anything behind
It may not seem like a big deal to leave a couple of small furniture items or some pots and pans behind when you move out, but it could cost you money.
If your landlord is stuck disposing of your unwanted belongings, he can retain part of your deposit to cover the cost.
It’s really easy to get rid of unwanted items, so make sure you leave yourself time to do so. If they are in decent condition, sell them on Facebook marketplace or donate them to a local charity (some may even pick them up!). If your unwanted items are unusable, throw them in the garbage.
Whatever you do, don’t leave them in your rental unit for your landlord to deal with.
Request a walk-through with your landlord
Once you’ve finished moving your belongings out and you’ve had a chance to clean your rental unit, schedule a final walkthrough with your landlord.
Even if you didn’t do a walkthrough when you moved in, it’s still a good idea to do one when you move out. Doing so will help you avoid any surprises when it comes to your security deposit, as your landlord will have the chance to voice any concerns regarding the state of your unit.
If there is any outstanding damage, he may allow you to make the repairs yourself instead of simply deducting the cost from your deposit. If this is the case, don’t hesitate to negotiate with your landlord.
Your security deposit should only be withheld to cover the costs of these repairs, so if you can do them yourself and save the landlord the trouble, he shouldn’t have a problem with it.
Return your keys
A final walkthrough is a perfect opportunity to ensure you return the keys to your rental. If you don’t do a walkthrough, arrange to drop off your keys or mail them to your landlord. Otherwise, you’ll be on the hook for the cost of replacing them.
Provide your forwarding address
When you’re in the midst of moving it’s really easy to get caught up thinking ahead to your new home and overlook some aspects of the moving out process. One thing that you absolutely shouldn’t forget to do? Provide your forwarding address to your landlord.
This way, he’ll know where to send your damage deposit once all is said and done. A lack of forwarding address is a silly yet common reason that many tenants fail to have their security deposit returned.
Write a formal request
Depending on your relationship with your landlord, it may be wise to write a formal request that he return your security deposit. This creates a paper trail if some sort of issue arises down the road. It also indicates to the landlord that you’re on top of the situation and allows you to remind him of your forwarding address.
The request letter can be as simple as this:
Dear [Landlord’s Name],
I’m writing to request that you return my security deposit in the amount of $ ________. I vacated my rental at [Rental address] on [moveout date] and per state law, my deposit should be returned by [date deposit must legally be returned by].
Please forward the payment to the following address:
[Your forwarding address].
If you wish to discuss this matter in more detail you can reach me at [phone number or email address].
As long as you stay on top of maintenance, keep up with your bill payments, and leave your apartment clean and tidy when you move out, your landlord should have no problem returning your security deposit.
Unfortunately, there may be unethical landlords out there who seek to take advantage of tenants who are unfamiliar with their rights regarding security deposits. To avoid these types of issues read your lease agreement carefully when you move in and before you move out and familiarize yourself with state tenancy laws.
If your landlord wrongfully refuses to return your deposit you can take him to small claims court. However, in many cases, a strongly worded demand letter may be all it takes for him to have a change of heart.