9 Tips to Ensure You Get Every Penny of Your Security Deposit Back

1. Read your lease

Yes, as simple as it sounds, reading your lease is probably the biggest pointer we can give. Although leases can be fairly long, you need to take the time and read everything, even the fine print. Your lease will tell you what you’re responsible for, as well as the rules you must follow in order to be in good standing with your landlord.

Most of it should be pretty obvious—like making sure to leave the unit in good condition when you move out—but some leases have addendums that involve you painting the walls back to their original color, filling in nail holes, or even having the carpets cleaned. Once you’re aware of what you need to do, put a copy of the lease in a safe spot where you’ll be able to find it when the time comes to move out.

Author: Marian White

If anyone knows how to move, it’s Marian White. The South Carolina native spent the last decade living and working in Washington, DC, New York City, Boston and Palm Beach. With every move, she mastered the art of folding bankers boxes, repurposing bubble wrap and unabashedly asking for directions. Before writing for Moving.com, Marian authored “Moving to Palm Beach County: The Un-Tourist Guide,” a relocation guide for moving to the Palm Beaches. Marian has an M.A. in Global Marketing Communications from Emerson College and a B.A. from Furman University.View all posts by Marian White

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You ​terminated ​the ​lease ​early ​or ​got ​evicted

In most states, if you’re renting month to month, you must give them 30 days notice. If not, your landlord could take that extra month of rent from your security deposit. If a tenant breaks their lease, the landlord can keep all or part of the security deposit necessary to cover the costs associated with this breach depending on landlord-tenant laws in your state.

Return the keys

After moving out, return all keys to your landlord. If you’ve lost a key to the home, make sure to let the landlord know as soon as possible. They may need to replace the key or replace the locks altogether. You should contact your landlord to find out how exactly they would like to receive the keys (i.e. mail or in-person). 

9. Leave a forwarding address

Although it would be nice if your landlord returned your deposit the same day you move out, that’s not usually how it works. They will likely want to do a run-through of your place to make sure it’s in good condition before cutting any checks.

After the inspection is complete, they can forward the check to you. But, they can’t mail your deposit back if they can’t find you. Make sure that you have provided an accurate address where you will be staying, or a permanent address (like your parents’) if you’re on the move or don’t have a new place yet.

Normal Wear and Tear

Damage is harm to the home beyond normal, everyday wear and tear. Things like furniture, appliances, carpets, and flooring can wear out from just being used. Walls need to be painted from time to time. Those are reasonable since you’ve been living in the home.

Some dirtiness is normal everyday wear and tear, so your landlord can’t charge you for the costs of cleaning from your security deposit. But your landlord could charge you a cleaning fee at the beginning of your lease, to cover the cost of cleaning when you leave. If you leave the home really dirty, it might be considered damage. For example, if you leave trash everywhere, or pet feces around, you will probably have to pay the cost of having that cleaned.

Some examples of damage you’ll have to pay for are a broken window, a burn mark where you set a hot pan on the counter, or a broken drawer in the kitchen.

2. Don’t Confuse Last Month’s Rent With the Deposit

If you’ve paid a sum of money clearly labeled “last month’s rent” before moving in to a rental, you can obviously use it to cover the last month’s rent before you move out. (In many states, this amount is considered part of the deposit when it comes to limits on total deposits.)

But if your landlord specifically collected a security deposit, don’t assume you can use this money for the last month of rent unless you get the landlord’s okay. Most landlords will typically want to hold on to the whole deposit until you move out, in case they need to make repairs or do extensive cleaning. If you use part of the deposit for last month’s rent, your landlord might not have sufficient funds to cover replacing items, making repairs, and cleaning the rental unit.

6. Final Inspection

If possible, conduct a final inspection with your landlord. Walkthrough each room to ensure that all repairs have been taken care of. Make sure that your landlord is satisfied and signs off on all of the rooms before moving out.

This is a great time to relinquish the keys to the property and say thank you. Also, this is the perfect time to ask when you will be receiving your FULL security deposit refund.

You ​left ​the ​landlord ​with ​clean ​up ​costs

In most cases, your landlord is not able to keep your deposit because of normal wear and tear on the property. However, if you leave trash all over the property, food in the kitchen, and if there is a pet and they have destroyed the carpet, then, the landlord can keep a portion of the security deposit to cover your expenses.

Paint Issues

Stains, spills and drywall repairs all require paint touch up. However, the slight touch ups from simple wear and tear shouldn’t be deducted from getting security deposit back. On the other hand, if you’ve decided to paint the home a different color, or if you’ve had to do extensive drywall patching, then you should contact your landlord about their paint policy.

Some property managers allow tenants to paint walls to meet their preferences. If you got the okay from your landlord, be sure you have it in writing.

If your landlord is firm about not allowing you to alter the wall color, don’t think that they won’t notice. Just check out these 12 Ways to Personalize Your Apartment that don’t require painting the walls.

11. Know Your Rights

Even when you do everything right, some landlords will try to withhold your security deposit money (or a portion) illegally. And It’s very possible they will get away with it. Only you can prevent this.

Each state has different tenant rights laws and guidelines. Research your state’s security deposit laws and know your rights!

Also, if you need to break your lease, there are certain times you can get out of your lease without penalty.

Abide by the Termination Clause

Virtually all lease agreements come with a termination clause that details what the renter must do in order for the security deposit to be refunded. This clause often includes notifying the landlord in writing 30 days before moving out. It may also include allowing the landlord to show the apartment to potential new renters while you’re still living there. You might forfeit the security deposit if you pull up stakes and move without following the termination rules.

RELATED: The Best Apartment Security Systems of 2022

3: Stay on Top of Things

Keeping on top of cleaning and minor repairs while you’re living in a place will make it easier to get your security deposit back when you move out. Juan Silva/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Once you’ve documented the condition of the property before you moved in, you need to maintain it. That means not letting your cat use the dining room as the world’s biggest litter box or your kids turn the hallway into a retrospective of their greasy handprints. Also, the carpet in the living room is not an ash tray. Don’t put your cigarettes out on it.

Keeping on top of cleaning and minor repairs while you’re living in a place will make it easier to get your security deposit back when you move out. Most leases allow for you to get your security deposit back even when things like paint and carpet show "normal wear and tear." Normal wear and tear covers the fading paint or carpet matting. It does not cover the hole your dog chewed in the back door or your adventures with the countertop-staining hair dye in the bathroom.

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Keep on top of small repairs as well. If you notice a leak under the sink, for example, get the landlord to fix it ASAP — otherwise you could be liable for the mold and rotten wood damage that resulted when you didn’t make sure the repair got made.

While you may be able to get rid of months or even years of accumulated nastiness when it’s time to move out, it’s a lot easier to keep the property clean and maintained from the get go, and it makes it more likely that you’ll your security deposit back. Plus, staying on top of small repairs and cleaning means you won’t be living in your own filth — and anyone can appreciate that.

Read the Lease

Once signed, a rental lease becomes a binding legal document. In general, the landlord cannot keep a security deposit for reasons other than material damages to the property. Security deposits are not intended to cover ordinary wear and tear, although that can be open to interpretation. If the lease specifies, for example, that the tenant must clean the carpet before moving out be sure to clean it, or you might forfeit (at least part of) the deposit.

What if my landlord tries to keep my deposit?

If your landlord decides to keep all or some of your deposit, you aren’t completely without recourse. In fact, you’re well within your rights to contest your landlord’s decision—up to and including taking them to small claims court.

But litigation is far from the most desirable outcome. Here’s what to do if you and your landlord disagree about your security deposit: 

  • Ask for specific information: Even if your state doesn’t require your landlord to include an itemized list of how your deposit was spent, you can still request this information.  
  • Advocate for yourself: Be upfront about the reasons you think you deserve your deposit back. If you worked hard to keep the rental unit clean and in good condition, express that to your landlord. On the other hand, ask if there’s anything you can do to make the apartment better. Maybe you can work something out!
  • Write a demand letter: A demand letter is a formal request on your part for your landlord to return your deposit. It should include the specific reasons why your deposit should be returned and how much should be returned. Be sure to include proof that you’ve abided by your lease terms, such as copies of your notice to move out and documentation that you’ve kept the property up. 

Carpet Stains

A very common problem at move out, carpet stains and discoloration can quickly eat away at getting security deposit back. While casual wear and tear shouldn’t count against your security deposit, excessive staining will.

The most common sources of carpet stains are pets and spilled food. (And sometimes one follows the other.) The best time to treat a stain is immediately after the incident occurs. Of course, unless you schedule your spills and pet accidents in advance, this means you’ll need to keep the carpet cleaning solution on hand. You’d be amazed at how this small investment can save big dollars when it’s time to move out.

There are plenty of other types of carpet stains. After food and pets, the most common is probably wax. If that’s the problem you have, see this Family Handyman article on cleaning wax out of carpet, and you should be all set.

What can a landlord deduct from a security deposit?

If any money is taken out of the deposit for any reason, the landlord must provide the tenant with an itemized statement to show why some funds have been withdrawn from the total amount.

According to The Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019, the security deposit must be returned in full except under certain circumstances.

This includes “non-payment of rent, damage caused by the tenant beyond normal wear and tear, non-payment of utility charges payable directly to the landlord under the terms of the lease or tenancy, and moving and storage of the tenant’s belongings.”

It is normal when living in a space for it to be exposed to “normal wear and tear”. This type of wear includes things like faded paint, minor scuff marks on walls, faded countertops and moderate spotting on the carpet. As long as there is no excessive damage created by the tenant then the deposit cannot be used. This is why it is vital to do a “walk through” and inspect the property for any damages, looking for even minor imperfections before you sign a lease.

Once you’ve arrived, take photos within 24 hours of moving in and make sure that you and the landlord are clear which damages were there prior to you living in the property. This will make the process much easier to document when you move out so you’re not stung with repairs you weren’t responsible for.

Find Legal Aid

You may be able to get free legal help from your local legal aid program. Or email a question about your own legal problem to a lawyer.

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