Carolyn is the retired former owner of a property management company in Boston, Ma. She is the author of "Secrets to a Successful Eviction"
The security deposit is money the tenant pays before they move into an apartment. All of the money is required to be held in escrow by the landlord in the event a tenant leaves the apartment in disrepair, dirty, and/or owing rent. There are tenants who believe they are entitled to the full return of their security deposit when they move out. This isn’t necessarily true in most states. Depending on how you leave the apartment, in some cases, you may lose your security deposit, and owe more money to the landlord for excessive needed repairs.
Those who do not read or understand their lease will undoubtedly be surprised if they get a letter saying they are not getting their security deposit back. It is the tenant’s responsibility to maintain the apartment in such a way that the landlord must return the deposit. This includes making or paying for damage repairs during the tenancy.
There are a myriad of reasons why a security deposit isn’t returned partially or in full. Here are nine:
1. Early Move Out or No Notice
Most states require a tenant to give a 30-day written notice to the landlord before moving out. This is true even if the tenant doesn't have a lease. If a tenant leaves the apartment before the lease is up, the landlord can keep the security deposit to cover the remainder of the lease term. The landlord may also charge a tenant for the remainder of the lease rent that is still outstanding even after applying the security deposit
2. Wear and Tear Conditions
When determining the return of the security deposit, wear and tear usage is considered. Wear and tear damage occurs as a function of normal use over time. Normal use is considered by how long one lives in an apartment. If, for example, the window shades are all torn up, or stove knobs are missing after a year, the tenant will be expected to replace them. If, however, the shades are worn, discolored or frayed, this is due to normal use over time.
Carelessness, abuse, or neglect of the apartment is not considered normal wear and tear usage. If the landlord conducts annual apartment inspections, the tenant will be charged accordingly for apartment abuse and repairs.
3. Apartment Inspection Report
Look at your original apartment inspection report that detailed the condition of your unit before you moved in. This an important document and should be kept among your important papers during your entire tenancy. When you decide to move out, the landlord or property manager will get his copy of the inspection report. He will then compare the current condition of the apartment to the original condition outlined in the original report to determine wear and tear conditions versus damages to the apartment while you lived there.
4. Replacement Items
Anything that was in the apartment when you moved in is expected to be there when you move out. If smoke detectors, oven racks and knobs, window screens, or filters are missing, your security deposit will be used to replace them. It would be in your best interest to replace missing parts in the apartment on your own during your tenancy so the cost will not be taken from your security deposit when you leave.
5. Repairs and Extra Cleaning
If you damaged the apartment during your occupancy, such as holes in window screens, the cost of fixing the damages will be deducted from your security deposit. Any extra cleaning needed, such as dog feces left on the floor, an excessively dirty oven or bathtub, will be deducted.
If you repainted your apartment or some rooms without the landlord’s permission, the landlord may deduct the cost of repainting from your security deposit. Especially if the rooms need two coats of paint due to the extreme color used.
7. Unpaid Rent
If you owe rent when you move out, the unpaid rent amount will be de-ducted from your security deposit. That includes any unpaid rent increase that was in place before you left.
8. Move Out Apartment Inspection
The landlord is required to conduct a move-out inspection and give you a copy to substantiate any security deposit deductions. Protect yourself by asking to be with the landlord or property manager during that inspection.
The apartment and entry door keys are the property of the landlord. If you do not return all of the keys to the apartment, expect the owner to deduct the cost of either replacement keys or a new lock from your deposit.
Your landlord or property manager is obligated to give you a written report of what was done with your security deposit, along with a check for the balance within 30 days of your move out.
If you believe that you are still owed some or all of your security deposit, your recourse is to take the owner to Small Claims Court. The burden of proof is yours. This would include any unpaid interest due from the deposit. You are advised to check the laws in your state on security deposit and interest due before you move out of your apartment.
In small claims court, if you sue for the return of your deposit, pictures of a clean and undamaged apartment is strong evidence of how you left the apartment. Remember to take a picture of the inside of the stove, the toilet, and the inside of all the cabinets.
The landlord doesn’t expect perfection when a tenant moves out. He expects to see that the tenant respected the apartment to the degree that all he will have to do is clean and paint the unit, and make minor repairs. A tenant can avoid losing the security deposit by taking care of the apartment, and maintaining it to its highest and best use.