Most tenants who are moving out of a rental want their security deposit back as soon as possible, either to make a deposit on a new rental or for use in a down payment on a house or condo. Unfortunately, some landlords drag their feet in returning the deposit, or wrongfully withhold money from the deposit.
Your landlord must follow state law when handling your security deposit, which means using it only for certain expenses and returning it to you by a specific deadline. But not all landlords comply with—or even know—the law.
As a renter, here's what you can do to make sure you get your money back in a timely manner.
Take these steps before you move out to get your security deposit back on time and in full:
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.
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.
Most states set a deadline, usually two to three weeks after you move out, for the landlord to mail you the following:
State laws typically allow landlords to use deposits to cover:
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.
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 might motivate your landlord to act because it shows you know your rights and will insist on getting your money.
Your demand letter should:
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 $5,000 to $10,000. See your state's small claims court limit for details.
Filing a small claim usually costs $10 to $50. You don’t need a lawyer, and disputes typically go before a judge (there usually are no juries) within a month or so. To prepare for small claims court, you'll need to gather and clearly organize all of your evidence, such as your notice of intent to move out, photos of the rental unit before you moved in and when you left, and demand letters.
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 (often within a few days).