Security deposits are a fact of life when you’re renting a house or an apartment. While the specific rules governing the nature of the terms under which they can be collected and must be returned vary somewhat from state to state, the basics are the same pretty much everywhere you go. So, when you’re trying to find an answer to the question of what’s normal and not normal regarding your security deposit, it’s best to consider the standard procedures. In most cases, anything outside of these guidelines is probably not normal.
Property owners are entitled to impose a security deposit in exchange for renting their property to you. State laws vary regarding the amount, but in most cases it cannot exceed two month’s rent for an unfurnished dwelling, or three months for a furnished one. Those monies are to be held by the landlord until you move to ensure the repair of any damage beyond what is considered normal wear and tear. Property owners are not required to pay you interest on that money. Aside from repairing damage, the only other legal uses of your security deposit are to cover any unpaid rent or utility bills.
As part of the move-in procedure, make sure you conduct a walk-through with the landlord, using a checklist (which must be part of the lease or rental agreement in most states) to note the condition of the place. Always conduct another walk-through when you’re moving out. If anything on the list shows damage, you’re entitled to an opportunity to either repair it, or forfeit part of the security deposit to offset the cost of a repair.
Security deposits are to be used solely for making needed repairs, or to cover the landlord if you break the rental agreement without just cause.
In situations where you have a month-to-month tenancy, you must provide the property owner with 30 days of notice before you legally vacate the premises and stop paying rent. If you do not afford the landlord notice, the security deposit can be withheld to cover any missed rent payments and/or damage. However, any funds over and above these costs must be returned to you. In most states, deposits must be returned within 14 to 28 days of your move out date.
If you have a lease and leave before the term is up, you have the right to find another tenant — one acceptable to the landlord — to finish out your lease. If you do this, and there is no damage, your security deposit must be returned. However, if you’re in a roommate situation and you have to leave, the landlord is under no obligation to give your portion of the deposit back until everyone on the agreement moves out. In this case, you should negotiate with the remaining tenant(s), or find someone to replace you.
If the landlord asserts your security deposit is to be withheld, you are entitled to an itemized list of what needs to be done, as well as an itemized estimate of the costs to conduct the repairs or cleaning. Most states require the landlord to present you with this documentation before work begins.
If you have to negotiate the return of your deposit, make sure the terms are in writing and you have proof you’ve satisfied all of them. If the situation goes legal, you’ll need as much documentation of your efforts as possible to have the judgment go in your favor.
Ultimately though, the best way to ensure your deposit is returned is to keep the place in good shape, give it a thorough cleaning when all of your belongings have been removed, repair any damage and make sure you have lived up to all of the terms of your rental or lease agreement. You’ll find more information governing the nature and return of security deposits at the legal website Nolo.com.
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