8 Reasons Why You Could Lose Your Security Deposit

Written on July 12, 2016 by , updated on December 9, 2016

Don't Lose your Security DepositConsidering 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.

Related: Record a Video of the Move-in/Move-out Inspection

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.

Related: Should I Allow My Tenants to Paint a Rental Property?

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.

Related: What to Do with Abandoned Personal Property

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.

Related: Require Your Tenants to Give 60 Days Notice of Non-renewal

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.

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72 CommentsLeave a Comment

  • Shirley

    The one bedroom unit I’m renting is to a young couple in Tempe, AZ, whom I feel are extremely spoiled and feel entitled.

    I send them a courtesy reminder text on the 31st of the month, to remind them to pay rent on the first. The first month, they were quick to respond, and they duly handed the rent. The second month, no reply text about the reminder.

    I told them I was sending them a courtesy text. Should I stop, and just make them pay the late, and on the 6th, start the eviction process?

    It’s exhausting dealing with them, who has stopped replying to me emails.

    Also, there’s no where in the lease that states she’s allowed to have a guest over for 7 days. (Her “sister” stayed over in Dec.)

    Please kindly advise. They exhaust me!

    • Natasha

      Don’t keep on texting them. I used to have a landlord that would call and leave a message at 5 pm on the first reminding us to pay rent. We didn’t get home from work until 6 pm. It was intrusive and completely unnecessary. Don’t ruin their quiet enjoyment of their property with rent reminders before it’s due.

      It really sounds like your being an unreasonable landlady. Don’t stress your tenants out like that. It just ends up being worse for you.

      If you can’t be reasonable enough to accept that people might want to have their family stay for the holidays then you shouldn’t be in the customer service business which renting a property is.

      • JB

        I love this response. Yes, Please do not remind your renters. They are full grown adults and can iether pay ontime or pay a late fee. Its their choice. A Landlord should never have to contact a tenant unless they are LATE already or need to make a house visit.

  • Sue

    We gave our landlord more notice than required when terminating our month-to-month lease. State law requires a refund of our security deposit or an explanation and/or itemization of anything less than a full refund within 30 days. That deadline was January 1st, 2018. It is now 3/22/18 and we have not heard anything, nor received any response to our more recent emails. We will take him to small claims court but would like to know if he can then provide reasons for no refund or since he did not respond within the required timeframe if he has any leg to stand on. I want to be thoroughly prepared for court. I also am not sure that I should handle small claims by myself or hire an attorney. Thoughts? Experiences?

    • Renee Batiste

      I was in need of a rental property in Lauderdale by the sea and was offered a room for $900 per month with no deposit. I decided to pay two months up front which was $1800 plus a $100 cleaning fee. It turns out that this property was not zoned to be rented and I wanted to move and retrieve my additional money that I gave him. He outright refused to give it to me say he deposited into the investors account. I moved out and he owes me $570 plus the $100 clean up fee. I left his apartment impeccably clean. Can you advise me on how can get my money back. 407 885-7432. I texted him stating that fair housing gives him 21 days to return my deposit but he never answered me. Sincerely Renee Batiste

      • Law is Bond

        In your own words you state that you gave no security deposit, you chose to pay for your rental time up front and the clean up fee. You go on to state that you chose to leave early. You admit there is no security deposit, so, how do you then expect to be refunded a security deposit? The cleaning fee is never refundable. You aren’t entitled to anything back. The two month were paid for, not a security deposit. You cannot just decide to convert rent money into security money. That is not legal and you will lose in court.

        Some free advice.. don’t volunteer to pay up front next time.

  • alexis

    We noticed some black mold looking stuff and had a bad leak in the master bedroom bathroom. We let the property management know, they sent some people out after a while. Our room-mate had to use our bathroom in our room for a bit b/c the leak was due to a pipe in the wall coming from the up-stairs unit. They wanted to do more repairs and said we will need to leave. At the same time my husband was going into surgery for ACL/Meniscus repair and they were full aware of it and we have a dog. STILL they wanted us out and were no help at all. Now they gave us our 60 day notice after i had repeatedly asked for a letter stating what is going on,etc. Renovations were going on so when we left it was not spotless. what can we do about security dep?

  • Emily

    I am a lead tenant and I have a roommate who is not on the lease.After a while,the roommate mom wanted to visit for”few days.”And wouldn’t leave my place till now. Whenever I told her to leave, she’d cry and told me that she doesn’t have the money for plane ticket (she came from somewhere outside of California) so I felt bad and they totally took advantage of me.Last month I went on a vacation and told her daughter that her mom has to leave and she said okay but when I came back she’s still there & they trashed my bedroom.Her mom was so rude to me since I came back and took all my stuffs outside and broke my table and I lost some of my personal stuffs. Now she’s asking me back the deposit money and idk if I should not return it at all.

  • M Talamantes

    We have been at our complex 31 years. It’s hard to explain, but we left the place in excellent condition, we cleaned it prior to our move out and made sure everything was to their liking. In fact the walk through the assistant manger said you’re place is so clean that we can rent it out right away and gave us the approval. In fact she did rent it out two days after we were gone. Never painted the place, only changed the carpet.
    We were told we are “not” going to get our deposit back. The claim is that we did not pay our water when we first moved in. If that were the case we would have been evicted. I have no idea where they’re coming from. Do we have a case?

  • Spoorthi

    Hi, i live in california and i had a lease term of 12 months. Since the landlord is rude, I am unable to live here. I want to break the lease term but she is not willing to pay my security deposit. However the contract says my deposit will not be returned if i break the lease but she gave me a set of house rules which says i need to give a months notice prior to quitting or my deposit wont be returned according to which i have given the 1 mnth notice. Now she tells me that the rule page is not signed. What do i do?


    Need a landlord’s point of view. My husband & I paid rent on time and present no damage or problem issues. husband died, the apartment floods twice from faulty roof and pipes above apartment(reported promptly) causing mold,bacteria, fire. I inhale and now have breathing issues. The landlord refuses to clean mildew, mold, bacteria, and refused to move me to an smaller/safe available apartment he says he’ll lose money. My income is $818 and the rent is $744.00 plus a $100 late charge each month cause I had to wait for help from social service agencies to help pay rent along with power bill, having no food sometimes and medication. Apartment was deemed uninhabitable by Public Heath & City . Why would you keep security deposit?

  • Carl

    I had a verbal month by month agreement with my landord, lived there 8 years.never missed rent.no problems.they did not require security deposit from me. I had to move out,she said she had sold building. I had just had hip surgery and was very limited what i could do ,cleaning wise..now landlord is threatening an itemized bill to me for 1500 in cleaning.what legal recourse if any do i have.and what can they do to me.thank you

  • Deb Petterson

    I always paid rent on time..landlord commented on how he didn’t want to lose me as a tenant..gave a written 30 day notice..I moved everything from the house..had a few things in the garage and was finishing clean up of house..wasn’t out of the house completely ..was still there for two days cleaning and mentioned paying prorated rent for those extra two days..he said legally he did not have to pay me anything since I went over those two days..is this the law?

  • Victoria N

    My landlord keep $100.00 from my security deposit for carpet cleaning. I have cleaned the carpet several times a year according to the contract. Contract states the carpet needs to be “clean”not cleaned upon leaving . During final walk thru we discussed this and they said it was fine. I have pictures and video of the carpet which shows it was very clean. They charged 50.00 to sand the bottom of the staircase which was scraped up since I moved in and 20.00 to replace the filler in nail holes that I had filled in with filler that the landlord had left. Do I have a legitimate small claim court case?

  • ashley

    I have a question. I moved into my home 2 years ago… no lease no nothing. however I do have a receipt for my deposit im supposed to get back. ( I understand the rights with no lease for myself and my landlord in Washington state). The problem is…. a year after I paid the deposit I had a roommate move in (approved by the landlord) still no lease etc or any revisions verbally to my deposit… I have now moved out ( gave notice) and he doesn’t want to give my deposit back. roommate didn’t pay any deposit like I said I paid it a year prior to her. she still lives there.. he has to pay my deposit back and she should pay her own?!

  • Allison adamczyk

    Have a issue rented a apartment landlord refusing to give me security deposit back rent paid on time gave him two week notice now taking him to court . I live in ma can I still get money back

  • jon jacobson

    we sent letters certified to both owner and manager that we were giving a 30 day notice..they signed that they recived them but 2 weeks later we got an eviction that we dident recive until the day after court was.they mailed it out to the address there 2 days before when indeed held onto it so we would miss the court date what can be dont

  • Rdlee

    My landlord is trying to keep my deposit because she said she an incurred expenses since renting to me. I have gas wall heaters that I use to heat up the apartment. There’s one in the living room and one in the hall. I don’t use it every day only when it gets really cold. Other than that, I’m in my bedroom with the door closed using a space heater. She said the lights and water also when up. This is the norm. However, she has never said, not once, anything about the cost of utilities being high. It only came up when I said I wasn’t renewing because she’s raising the rent.

    It is in the lease that the landlord pays for the utilities but I don’t abuse it. What is a reasonable expense to a landlord when renting to a tenant?

    • Scott

      That should be hammered out before signing the lease. next time you need to ask what is a reasonable usage. Or what do they expect the gas, electricity etc… to be with adding a tenant? unfortunately, you did not have this conversation and your landlord thinks your use was excessive.

      All you can do now is has how much of the security deposit would be enough to cover over that time frame and see if you can hammer it out with her.

  • Maya

    Oh Chris please help. I rented a room in a 3 bedroom 5 years ago. 6 months ago one room mate who use to mail our checks to landlord left suddenly. Found out he was months behind in rent, landlord never said a word to him or us. My deposit went to previous tenant from my room -my deposit was to come from replacement tenant. I was never on a lease but the two room mates were (we were without lease at times). The landlord gave a new lease (I am not on it) and raised the rent by $600 and is keeping our deposits to make up for loss of rent, he claims to rent the apt as a whole even though we were all paying in separate checks directly to him, can he do that in NY? He did all-of-a- sudden want one check this time but we have not done so.

  • Kelly

    A question. If you require a Security Deposit at onset of signing, say a 2 month rental – a few months out they sign contract. If all you’re taking is Security Deposit and they cancel less than 30 days out, do you have the right to say in contract “If cancellation occurs less than 30 days prior to lease start, owner has right to retain security deposit”? Wondering how to protect ourselves (owner) with a reservation in such a case (or should we require first months rent at onset of signing, retain a % of this if cancelled less than 30day before lease term). Thank you.

  • Eddie

    I rented my room out in my home and the gentleman paid me for a month erbal aggreement, and gave me a security deposit. Low and behold while he was staying at my house after he committed to at least 3 months, he decided that he would leave two and a half weeks into that month because he found another place on craigsslist, so w with no notice or anyting, he just got up one morning and started packing. Do I have to give him back for rent and deposit, he left the room dirty he didn’t pick up anything, or swept it in 15 days and I had to take care of all the comforters and sheets and blankets that he left dirty and because I wouldn’t wash it with my own clothing, I have to go to the laundromat to get it done. Do I owe him anything?

    • scott

      Since this was a tenant with no written lease if you follow lease tenant law protocol as if they were. Then they breached the contract and did not notify you with some kind of 30-day notice to quit. I would document all the cost associated with (cleaning, repairing and subtract that from the deposit. Then if there was any left you could say they breached the contract and you are now allowed to take up to an additional 30 days of rent. Then apply the security to that. if it’s drastic enough you can take them to small claims for the remainder of rent owed. Or you can just let it slide, but they will get nothing if you document everything.

  • Sharon meads

    I am in Kentucky
    Nothing in lease says no smoking. Lardlord kept 2500.00 deposit for painting and cleaning the AC and heating unit

  • Debra Musser

    I am on a month to month lease, but my landlord says he can keep my security deposit if I move out before 6 months..Is this true?? I am in MIchigan

  • Jason

    I had a 1 year lease. My landlord didn’t present with a lease after 1 year. At 18 months, I had paid in full for the month -I cleaned the apartment-nicer than it was before I moved in. Zero damages-it was ready to be moved into the second I left. I had not only paid in full, owed nothing, but also left a $850 security deposit. He is not returning my money. Can he do that -regardless of whether or not I gave him 30 days notice? We didn’t have an active lease agreement-literally nothing in writing.

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