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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58 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?

  • 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?

  • LISA MARDIS

    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?

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