Considering that a security deposit can be between 100% and 200% of your monthly rent, getting it back when you move out is important.
You could be talking about several thousand dollars.
California, for example, has very explicit laws concerning the landlord’s responsibility to return this deposit, and while other states may not spell them out as clearly, most have similar ones.
A landlord must either return the security deposit or itemize deductions within a specified time period.
This period is typically between 15 and 30 days. Many states require landlords to supply itemized lists of expenses to account for withheld funds as well.
Reasons for Keeping All or Part of Your Deposit
Whether a written list is required or not, a landlord can keep all or part of the deposit when it’s needed to:
- Compensate for unpaid rent
- Clean the unit
- Make repairs
- Replace damaged or lost furniture or personal property
Here are eight reasons you might lose more of your deposit than you have to:
1. You Didn’t Read the Lease
The first and biggest mistake a tenant can make is to sign a lease without reading it. That’s like buying a house without inspecting it. You may be happy that you ended up at the top of the list of potential renters for a dream apartment, and you may be hankering to move in, but that’s no excuse for agreeing to terms you haven’t read.
There’s no excuse for not reading your lease.
Don’t be pressured into signing. Take the lease home, and spend the evening reading it so you know what conditions you have to fulfill to make your stay a happy one and to get your security deposit back when you move out.
2. You Misunderstood the Lease Terms
“Ordinary wear and tear” and “reasonable effort” are just two of the vaguely worded phrases you might find in your lease. It’s up to you to clarify these phrases before you sign. If your interpretation differs from that of the landlord, the time to find out is when you’re moving in, not when you’re moving out. Take this opportunity to open an avenue of communication that can stand you in good stead during your tenancy.
3. You Didn’t Document Existing Damages
When you rent a car, you wouldn’t think about driving off the lot without first checking for damage. The same should be true when moving into a rental unit, but the process is a bit more complicated. To simplify it, take videos with your phone.
Comparing this video record — along with a written checklist — to a similar record and checklist when you move out can protect you from liability for damage you didn’t cause and can save you from having to pay for it.
4. You Made Unauthorized Repairs
You didn’t like the generic colors your landlord used to paint your unit, so you repainted without getting approval. The landlord is entitled to deduct the cost for restoring the original colors from your security deposit.
The same is true for any unauthorized change or repair you might have made, no matter how much of an improvement you believe it is. The takeaway is that, when repairs or improvements are wanted or needed, you should always check with the landlord and proceed on your own only when you get approval in writing.
5. You Overused Utilities
When the landlord pays utilities, it’s easy to forget about them and accrue excessive charges. This is one of those instances in which clarifying the word “reasonable” is important, because the landlord may consider your need to keep the thermostat set at 85 degrees, raising the electric bill $100 a month, unreasonable. You could be docked for the extra charges when you move out unless you’ve worked out an agreement.
6. You Left Stuff Behind
A house is just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff. – George Carlin
When you move out, your stuff has to go with you. If you leave it for the landlord to throw away, the disposal costs will come out of your security deposit.
7. You Didn’t Give Enough Notice
Things didn’t work out. Perhaps the upstairs tenant was noisy, or you landed a better job in another city, and you just had to leave. When you choose to leave, you still need to observe the notice period —which is often 30 or 60 days — and provide notice in writing.
If you failed to do that, the landlord can apply the security deposit as reimbursement for the rent you were obligated to pay.
Note: This doesn’t apply if the conditions that caused you to vacate the premises render the unit uninhabitable, and the landlord is unable — or refuses — to correct them.
8. You Didn’t Clean Up
You don’t have to leave a rental unit in pristine condition when you move out. When excessive cleaning is required, however, the landlord may apply part of your deposit to cover the expenses. This is another instance when the word “reasonable” may need clarification. For example, it’s reasonable to clean the kitchen and bathroom when a tenant moves out, but the landlord may consider it unreasonable to have to scrub out stains that could have been prevented. If the cleaning job calls for extra effort, the money will come from your security deposit.