By Ana Durrani
May 19, 2022
Maybe you didn’t think twice when you put a big security deposit on that fancy apartment two summers ago. But now that you’re getting ready to move again, you might be wondering how much of that deposit you’ll actually get back.
Believe it or not, your deposit isn’t at the mercy of your landlord. Tenants have rights, and landlords have limitations on what they can deduct from your deposit. And in extreme circumstances, it is one of the reasons a tenant could sue a landlord.
In Florida, for example, “if the landlord fails to return the security deposit in a timely manner, or deducts for normal wear and tear, then the tenant can sue the landlord to get their deposit back and the landlord will have to pay the tenant’s attorney fee,” says Larry Tolchinsky, a real estate lawyer and partner at Sackrin & Tolchinsky in Hallandale Beach, FL.
But to avoid getting to that point, it’s important for tenants to understand the basics on deposits. In most states, the timely return of your deposit means there’s a deadline—such as 30 days—so be sure to leave a forwarding address.
When landlords deduct from your deposit, they will typically include an itemized statement explaining how the deposit was applied. In California, for example, if a landlord deducts any more than $126, they must provide receipts for their deductions.
Landlords can’t deduct from your deposit for any old reason; there has to be a legit circumstance. The rules may vary from city to city (or state to state), so read up on what your landlord can and can’t do in your area. But, in general, here are some things landlords can deduct from your deposit.
Nonpayment of rent
Unemployment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has hit many tenants hard, rendering them unable to pay rent. Some landlords and management companies have offered rent relief, but others have claimed that unpaid rent is unpaid rent. In this situation, landlords can collect unpaid rent—and late fees—from your deposit as necessary.
“Rent that is not paid is considered damages when a tenant vacates,” says Eric Drenckhahn, a real estate investor and property manager, who runs the blog NoNonsenseLandlord.com. “A tenant cannot use the damage deposit to pay their rent without the landlord’s approval, but a landlord can deduct it for nonpayment after a tenant has left.”
Forgetting to pay your utility bill happens. But if you pay for things like trash and water through your property management company, be aware that your landlord could tap your security deposit to cover any bills you missed.
Tolchinsky says there is no black and white law on this, but it is possible. It all depends on the terms of your lease and local rules governing the jurisdiction that you reside in.
Abnormal cleaning costs
If you left the place trashed and filthy, expect your landlord to dig into your deposit. Landlords can deduct from your deposit for excessive dirtiness, beyond normal cleaning costs.
Drenckhahn says the place should be “broom clean,” or as clean as when you moved in.
“Dirt and grease left behind is not wear and tear,” says Drenckhahn. “Examples of excessive dirtiness includes removing stains from the carpet, replacing the carpet due to a cat using a closet for a litter box, or replacing door trim due to cat scratches.”
Doing a little cleaning before leaving isn’t a bad idea, but it doesn’t guarantee it’ll save your security deposit.
Tolchinksy says if a tenant hires a professional cleaner, rents a steam cleaner, or buys paint to paint the walls, he or she “should maintain all invoices and receipts” to provide proof to the landlord.
Damage to the property
Security deposit laws allow a landlord to deduct from a security deposit for any damage. This is different from normal wear and tear, such as faded paint or worn carpet that is naturally occurring and not due to the tenant. Examples of damage to the property include a broken bathroom vanity, cracked kitchen countertop, or broken doors.
Tolchinsky says it’s a good idea for a tenant to request a move-in and a move-out checklist and document by pictures and video the condition of the apartment.
Items left behind
Packing and moving everything you own is a huge undertaking. But regardless of how exhausted you are, don’t leave any items behind; it could be a costly mistake.
“Mattresses and box springs left behind are expensive to get rid of, and you will be charged accordingly,” says Drenckhahn. “It is not unusual to be charged $50 or more for each piece.”
If you do need to get rid of a bunch of large items, hire a junk hauling company, try to sell them online, or look into donating them to charity.
Breaking the lease
In some circumstances, breaking your lease is the only option. But breaking your lease early makes it less likely that you will reunite with your deposit.
A landlord can keep all, or part, of your deposit to cover costs if you break your lease early, per landlord-tenant state laws and what’s written in your lease contract. If you can, try to move when your lease is up.
“In my places, you are required to be out by 10 a.m. There is no late checkout, as I have tenants generally moving in the next day,” says Drenckhahn. “When you have the place clean, and even move out a few days early, it’s very easy to refund 100% of the damage deposit.”