The simple tricks every renter needs to know to get their security deposit back

Make your old landlord happy, and your wallet will be happy

Credit: Getty Images user magical_light
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Having moved to a new apartment fairly recently, I vividly remember the stress that comes with packing up everything from your old place and getting every bookshelf, couch, and pet safely to your new place. With so many things to think about, it’s easy to forget all about your security deposit.

However, between putting down a security deposit on your new apartment, hiring movers, and fronting money for other moving-related tasks, getting the security deposit from your old place back can feel like a real financial windfall. But it turns out there's a lot more to the security deposit than having your old landlord cut you a check. Want all the details? Read on.

Click on the topic title to jump around as needed:

What is a security deposit, and why should I care?
What does "reasonable wear and tear" mean?
What are some examples of damage beyond "reasonable wear and tear"?
My apartment has damage that's beyond "reasonable wear and tear". What do I do?
What steps can I take to increase my chances of getting my security deposit back?
There's no major damage at my apartment. What happens next?
I got my security deposit back, and moved into my new place. What should I do now?


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Note: the advice given below assumes that landlords are scrupulous and fair. This isn't always the case. Here are some resources for what to do if your old landlord is behaving unethically. Your mileage may vary, as some of these statues vary from state to state.

What is a security deposit, and why should I care?

If you're a renter, chances are that you have to put down a security deposit. The security deposit is aptly named—it's a prepayment by the new tenant to the landlord, usually in the form of a significant percent (or entirety) of a month's rent. There are three things expenses (in Massachusetts, anyways) that a landlord could pay for with your security deposit:

Chances are, the "reasonable wear and tear" clause is the one that's most applicable to you. See below for more info.

Why should you care about your security deposit? Well, many a rental relationship has soured by careless renters who trash their apartments, or unscrupulous landlords looking to make money wherever they can. As I said earlier, if you're moving to a new place, then chances are that you're financially strapped, and getting your security deposit back can really help when money is tight.

However, if you don't get your security deposit back, your move just got that much more expensive. After all, the security deposit is still your money. By educating yourself about the how's and why's of security deposits, you can do your best to make sure that you get as much of it back as possible.

Additionally, your new landlord may be calling up your old landlord as a reference before you sign your lease. If your old landlord mentions that (s)he had to use the security deposit to restore your old apartment to its former glory, it's not going to look good for you. Your new landlord may decide that you are not worth the risk, and reject your rental application.

What does "reasonable wear and tear" mean?

Some states, like Texas, actually have legal clauses that define "reasonable wear and tear". The general idea is that "reasonable wear and tear" relates to minor issues that arise due to regular, unavoidable usage of and/or deteriorating quality of an item or building as it ages. The other part of this is that the issues should only require routine maintenance to fix. This Massachusetts-specific guide specifically cites "routine painting and cleaning, new locks and keys, and small carpentry repairs" as examples of "reasonable wear and tear".

This would probably include stuff like:

  • Nail or screw holes in the wall
  • Dusty, dirty, or cobweb-y surfaces
  • Chipped, wobbly, or damaged shelves in closets
  • Worn down carpet on major walking paths

You know, minor stuff. You get the idea.

What are some examples of damage beyond "reasonable wear and tear"?

Broken_ceiling_no_security_deposit
Credit: Getty Images user sturti

Again, this can change on a state-by-state basis, but Texas's definition of "reasonable wear and tear" provides us with some general guidelines about what damages are worse than "reasonable wear and tear":

"...the term does not include deterioration that results from negligence, carelessness, accident, or abuse of the premises, equipment, or chattels by the tenant, by a member of the tenant’s household, or by a guest or invitee of the tenant." Tex. Prop. Code §92.001(4).

With that in mind, here are some examples of issues that would be beyond "reasonable wear and tear":

  • Cracked/missing floor tiles
  • Holes in the wall that are too large to be patched or covered up with caulk or spackle
  • Cabinet doors that have been visibly chewed on by a dog

There's one caveat: if a problem arises, and it was not caused by "a member of the tenant's household, or by a guest or invitee of the tenant", then the landlord cannot use your security deposit to fix it. An example of this type of damage is mentioned in this Washington state-specific guide: if someone you don't know throws a rock and breaks your window, the landlord cannot use your security deposit to fix it because you didn't know the person who broke your window.

Hopefully, though, you wouldn't wait until you were moving out to address a broken window, or any other issue that would threaten your health and safety. In that case, notify your landlord, and ask them to address it as soon as possible. This is especially true in the case of burst pipes or broken heating (which are mostly not the fault of the tenant). If (s)he doesn't do so in a timely fashion, here are some steps you can take to compel him/her to fix it.

My apartment is more damaged than that—what do I do now?

If you're in the process of moving out, you may just have to notify the landlord and have them use your security deposit to get it fixed. If the damage is bad enough, the landlord may choose to take you to court to get you to pay for any additional charges not covered by your security deposit.

If you're not moving out yet, 'fess up to the landlord and see if (s)he (or any of your friends/family) has any recommendations for contractors or handymen who can fix it, and pay for the repairs yourself. In the future, do your best to fix any damages beyond "reasonable wear and tear" immediately, even though you have to pay for it.

What steps can I take to increase my chances of getting my security deposit back?

Clean_windows
Credit: Getty Images user Mikolette

Assuming there's no major damage (if there is, see above), here are some basic tips that will definitely put you in your old landlord's good graces:

  • Avoid making new dings and scratches on the walls and floors/carpets when you move out. This may involve hiring professional, insured movers, or just asking your friends to be very, very careful.
  • Fill in small holes on the wall with caulk or spackle, even if the walls are not painted white (chances are, the landlord will be doing some of that "routine" painting anyway).
  • Try to remove any obvious floor or carpet stains, whether it's with products you can buy at the store, or by paying professional, insured floor cleaners.
  • If you can, make other small repairs as needed. If you need tools on short notice, check out our article on the best starter toolkits.
  • Wipe down or scrape clean any dirty windows. If there's stuff stuck to a window, try cleaning it with a scrub brush, or scraping it off with a razor blade.
  • Replace any vital hardware you're taking with you, such as fire alarms, thermostats, fire extinguishers, etc.
  • Give the whole place one last vacuum/wipe down/basic cleaning. If you need to buy a vacuum cleaner, we have some thoughts on which vacuum cleaner is the best one for you.

Finally, before you officially move out of your old apartment, take pictures or video of every room in the empty apartment. This documentation will prove useful if your former landlord refused to return your security deposit at all or in its entirety. Include close-ups of minor cosmetic damage so your landlord can't claim that small pockmark was a giant hole that needed to be patched professionally.

My old apartment is (now) in good condition. What happens next?

If your landlord decides to make deductions from your security deposit, you should receive an itemized list of the deductions, complete with bills and receipts for any purchases or work done. If the charges do not make sense in light of your video/photo documentation of your old apartment, you can dispute the landlord's claims.

This process starts with a "dispute letter", and similar to an instance where the 20-30 days goes by and you do not receive such documentation from your former landlord, you can take your dispute to small claims court.

If your landlord makes no deductions from your security deposit, and if you supply him/her with your forwarding address, then you should expect to receive a check for the original amount of the security deposit, plus interest, within 20-30 days of your vacancy (the number of days varies by state). If you do not receive the security deposit back in that time, and have had no contact with your former landlord, you can send a demand letter or take him/her to small claims court to get your money back.

I got my security deposit back, and moved into my new place. What should I do now?

Money_from_security_deposit
Credit: Getty Images user RapidEye

Congratulations! It's always a good feeling to get money when you need it most.

When you move into your new place, there are a few measures you can take to make your eventual move-out easier:

  • Ask your new landlord for a move-in checklist that summarizes (or allows you to fill in) the current state of the apartment.
  • If possible, walk through the apartment with the landlord (or a representative of the landlord) and document any damages/problems you see. Be annoyingly extensive.
  • Be sure you take note of any special clauses in your lease that mention any efforts you will need to make to maintain the state of your new apartment, and what you need the landlord's permission to modify.
  • If you need permission for things like hanging picture frames or painting, get it in writing.
  • Take photos or video of your new apartment before you fully move in (just like when you're moving out of your old place).

Good luck, document everything, and enjoy your new apartment!

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Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
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