Getting Your Security Deposit Back

A man and his wife carrying their daughter between them while they are standing on the lawn in front of their house.

Security deposit safely in hand, these first-time buyers celebrate their new home.

You play by the rules. So should your landlord.

If you are counting on using the money held by your landlord – to make your very first mortgage payment, perhaps, or maybe to buy that riding mower you’ll need to keep your beautiful new lawn superbly manicured – the surprising results from a recent poll of 1,000 renters begs your attention.

More than one in four renters told the popular website Rent.com that they lost their security deposits at some point in their rental careers. And of those, more than one-third said their landlords gave them absolutely no explanation why they didn’t get anything returned.

This doesn’t have to happen to you, and it shouldn’t if you follow these guidelines:

Know the Law – Landlords cannot deduct from your deposit without justification. They must have good reason and return the balance within a reasonable period. Most states require landlords to provide an itemized written accounting, typically within 14 to 30 days after you move out. Even if you are evicted, the landlord must follow these rules.

Do No Harm – The Hippocratic Oath applies to renters as well as doctors. Leave the place as clean and pristine as you found it and you should have no problems.

That means it is worth putting a little extra time and elbow grease into the place after you move out to clean the fridge, oven, bathtub and everything else. Repair anything that needs fixing, even if it’s just tightening door knobs. And remove all trash. Leave nothing behind, even your cleaning materials or empty boxes.

As added precautions, take pictures or videos of every room before you exit for the last time and get witnesses who can attest to your work.

Require an Inspection – Demand that the landlord inspect the apartment or house in your presence, which is your legal right in some states. This way, you can fix anything you might have missed or do some more cleaning.

Realize, though, that the landlord cannot ding you for normal wear and tear. Unless you’ve poked massive holes in the drywall or painted a room in a dark or particularly vibrant color, you shouldn’t have to repaint the place. And you shouldn’t have to put down new carpeting where the old carpet has worn thin.

What’s Allowed – Within the state-mandated deadline, you should receive a detailed statement as to how any deductions are being applied – cleaning, repairs, back rent and, in some states, to cover unpaid utility bills. But again, if the washing machine needs to be replaced because it is simply on its last legs, that’s normal wear and tear, for which you are not responsible.

Leave a Forwarding Address – Your landlord can’t return your deposit unless he or she knows where you are. Some states allow landlords to keep the money if the tenant can’t be located within a specified time frame.

Follow Up – Don’t let the landlord off the hook. If he or she does not follow the rules – or is late with your money or provides no explanation – demand in writing that your security deposit be returned. Keep copies of your letter, which should review the facts and spell out precisely why you believe the landlord owes you money. Tell your landlord exactly what you expect, cite your state’s security deposit law and say you will sue in small claims court if necessary to get your money back if he or she does not act promptly and accordingly.

File a Claim – If you receive no response or are dissatisfied with the response, you can file a lawsuit in small claims court. You can sue for the amount of your deposit wrongfully withheld plus punitive damages in some states. You don’t need a lawyer to file; you can do it yourself for no more than $50.

Lew Sichelman is a nationally syndicated housing and real estate columnist. He has covered the real estate beat for more than 40 years.

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