Get Your Security Deposit Back

Don't let your landlord stiff you -- know the law.

Want to get your deposit back—on time and without hassle? Here’s how.

Your landlord must follow state law when handling your security deposit, which means using it only for certain expenses and returning it to you on time. But not all landlords comply with—or even know—the law. Here’s what you need to know to make sure you get your money back.

1. Plan Ahead

Most people don’t think about their security deposit until they move out. But before you go, you can take steps that will help you get your deposit back on time and in full.

If you have a month-to-month tenancy, give your landlord enough notice to end your tenancy (30 days in most states). If you don’t, you could end up owing extra rent, which the landlord can take out of your security deposit. Make a copy of your notice and send it by certified mail, return receipt requested. You’ll need this evidence if you end up in small claims court.

If you’re leaving before your lease ends, find another tenant to rent the unit. If you don’t, and the landlord does not re-rent the property quickly, you may owe rent until the end of the lease term—and your security deposit will quickly be used up.

If you’re the only tenant leaving, negotiate with the others or the landlord for early return of your share of the deposit. Landlords have no legal duty to return the deposit until all cotenants leave, so you’ll have to try to work something out.

Ask to be there when the landlord inspects the unit. Always ask to attend the landlord’s final property inspection, so you can fix problems or do more cleaning. A handful of states give tenants the legal right to be present.

Confirm your cleaning plans with your landlord. Make sure you understand what your landlord expects, so you don’t end up under- or over-cleaning.

Get the rental in good shape. Clean thoroughly and fix any damage you, your guests, or pets have caused. When you leave, return all keys and remove everything, including garbage, food, and cleaning supplies.

Document your cleaning and repair work. Take photos and videos of the rental when you’re done, and get witnesses who can attest to your work.

Give the landlord your forwarding address. In some states, a landlord who can’t locate you within a specified time may keep the deposit.

2. Know What You’re Entitled To

Most states hold landlords to strict guidelines as to when and how to return security deposits. Landlords who violate these laws may lose the deposit entirely or face hefty penalties.

Every state’s laws are different. Knowing your state’s rules is crucial to making sure you get what you’re owed. See Security Deposit Limits and Deadlines in Your State.

When the Landlord Must Return the Deposit

Most states set a deadline, usually two to three weeks after you move out, for the landlord to mail you the following:

  • an itemized statement as to how the deposit has been applied toward back rent, cleaning, and repairs
  • what’s left of the deposit (including any interest that is required), and
  • if required by your state, a list of proposed deductions before they are actually made.

How the Landlord May Use the Deposit

State laws typically allow landlords to use deposits to cover:

  • unpaid rent or other charges--for example, unpaid utility bills
  • repairing damage you or your guests caused (but not for ordinary wear and tear), and
  • cleaning the premises so they’re as clean as when you moved in.

The general rule is that you are not responsible for normal wear and tear. For example, if the dishwasher must be replaced because it simply wore out, that’s ordinary wear and tear. See Deducting Cleaning and Repairs Costs From a Security Deposit.

3. Follow Up With the Landlord

If you’re unhappy with your landlord’s deductions, you don’t get an itemization, or the landlord broke state security deposit law in some other way, try to work something out. If you come to an agreement—perhaps the landlord will return some of your deposit if you do additional cleaning—put it in writing and sign it. The agreement is a legal contract, and if the landlord fails to honor it, you can go to small claims court.

If negotiations don’t work, write the landlord a demand letter asking for the return of the deposit. Many states require this before you can sue in small claims court, so if you don’t make a written demand for its return, you risk losing your deposit altogether. Even if it’s not required, a letter may motivate your landlord to act because it shows you know your rights and will insist on getting your money.

Your demand letter should:

  • Concisely review the main facts and lay out the reasons your landlord owes you money.
  • Include copies of relevant letters and agreements, such as your notice to move out.
  • Ask for exactly what you want, such as the full amount of your deposit within ten days.
  • Cite state security deposit law.
  • Say that you will promptly sue in small claims court if necessary.

4. Sue in Small Claims Court if Necessary

If your landlord does not respond by your deadline or you’re dissatisfied with the response, you can file a lawsuit in small claims court (called Justice of the Peace, Conciliation, Justice, City, or County court in different places).

Sue for the amount of the security deposit that your landlord wrongfully withheld and, if it’s required by your state or city, for interest. You can also sue for extra punitive damages (depending on your state rules) if the landlord acted in bad faith. In most states, the small claims limit is $3,000 to $10,000. See your state's small claims court limit for details.

Filing a small claim usually costs just $10 to $50. You don’t need a lawyer, and disputes typically go before a judge (there are no juries) within a month or so. Gathering evidence, such as your notice of intent to move out, photos of the rental unit when you left, and demand letters, is key to winning.

The trial, which consists of each side presenting its version of what happened, seldom takes more than 15 minutes. The judge either announces a decision right there in the courtroom or mails it out (usually within a few days).

Need more help getting your deposit back? Check out these Nolo products:

Get Your Security Deposit Back. This downloadable guide has the forms and sample letters you need to get your deposit back.

Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court. This book explains small claims strategy and procedure, including how to prepare and present a security deposit case, serve court papers, and collect your money.

Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court in California. This book explains small claims strategy and procedure in California, including how to prepare and present a security deposit case, serve court papers, and collect your money in the Golden State.

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