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. 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 must 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 because 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. 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. 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. The place should be “broom clean,” or as clean as when you moved in. Dirt and grease left behind is not wear and tear. Examples of excessive dirtiness include 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. 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. 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. 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.