Renters: Get Your Security Deposit Back

how to get rental deposit backAmanda Flores didn't anticipate any problems getting her rental security deposit back. After all, she paid her portion of the deposit up front to her roommate. In Amanda's view the apartment was nearly perfect, now that she'd cleaned it out and loaded the moving van. There was just one problem: damage to the kitchen cabinetry.

The damage came from her roommate's former boyfriend and his dog. Both had moved out months ago. Amanda didn't worry, though. She left the keys on the counter and drove to her new apartment. The security deposit check would arrive in a few days ... or so she thought.

The money never arrived and the roommate never reimbursed her, either. Here's how to avoid Amanda's fate and get your rental security deposit back quickly.


Think twice about paying a security deposit to a roommate.

Frequently the roommate listed on the lease will ask that you pay him or her your "portion" of the security deposit. Avoid doing this for a few reasons. First, you need to be officially on the lease. If you aren't on the lease, you won't have access to any deposit funds when you move out. How can you be sure that your roommate will be good for the cash? Second, what's a fair amount? Landlords are required by law to charge no more than two month's rent as a deposit. Roommates might try to profit from you, particularly if you believe your credit is "too bad" to be on the lease. Save yourself the drama. Get on the lease and pay the deposit to the landlord.

Document problem areas.

Take photographs of any "problem" areas. Look for pre-existing damage or other conditions. Make sure you photograph from several angles using decent light. To document the scale of damage, be sure to include a reference object, such as a ruler or coin to make it easy for someone unfamiliar with the dimensions of your apartment to understand.

A quick way to do this is to use the camera on your phone. Then, e-mail yourself the photographs. The e-mail will serve as a time stamp if you need them later.

Notify as necessary.

If you discover major damage or safety concerns that need immediate attention, contact your landlord or property management company right away. A good rule of thumb is to call first, then follow with an e-mail and a letter.

If you've discovered minor damage that may still jeopardize your security deposit when you move out, send an e-mail or letter to the apartment manager. You'll sleep better at night and you'll have this as proof later if you need it.


File official reports as necessary.

You cannot be held responsible for damage to your apartment by acts of nature, such as storm damage, or by theft. Notify your landlord right away if you experience this kind of damage. Call first, then follow with an e-mail and letter. In the apartment damage caused by theft or other crime, it is in your best interest to file a police report. This document can be used later to prove that you are not responsible for damages.

You can, however, be held liable for damage that you or your guests do the apartment. So be mindful which party animals you invite over -- they may cost you your rental secuirty deposit.


Document apartment conditions again.

As before, be sure to photograph any damaged areas upon moving out. Be sure to note any damage that you might have caused, especially if it seems minor (e.g. holes from hanging up pictures). Again, use a reference object in the photograph to convey size and e-mail them to yourself or a friend right away. A landlord must return your money despite normal "wear and tear," such as worn carpet or floors and chipped or faded paint. You want to be sure that you document any wear that is "normal."

Request a walk-through.

Most landlords will not walk through with you when you move out. However, it you're able to secure their building agent this may reassure you about your deposit status. Don't point out flaws or damage. Let them mention anything of concern.

Update your mailing address.

Landlords will send a letter and your deposit check to the last known address. Be sure to update them with your new address.

Still no check?

Landlords are required to return rent deposit money in a timely fashion. It varies by state and can be anywhere from two weeks to 30 days. Some states require that rent deposit money is kept in a separate, interest-bearing account. Depending on your state and your lease, you could be eligible for your deposit plus interest money upon moving out. Check your lease and investigate tenant rights in your area.

Say goodbye to your deposit if:
  • You were never officially on the lease and paid a "deposit" to a roommate.
  • You owe back rent.
  • You've caused damage beyond normal "wear and tear," such as damage from pets or children.
  • You've left garbage and/or personal belongings that must be discarded.
  • You've made the apartment uninhabitable or unsafe for others.

Send notice to your landlord by Certified Mail if:
  • You haven't heard back about your refund within 30 days. Here's a sample letter requesting deposit funds.
  • You disagree with the amount returned. Request dated, photographic proof of your apartment in pristine condition prior to renting. Mention that you will consider court options if you don't receive this proof or the balance due by a specific date. Send by Certified Mail and regular mail.

Small Claims Court option:

You may be able to secure a lawyer on contingency (paying them when the case is won), but this assumes your deposit outweighs the costs.

Unhappy by the inability to get your rent security deposit back? Take heart: Your financial loss is less than what they're losing with an empty apartment. You've also cost them time to find a new tenant. Be happy that by renting elsewhere you're no longer giving them any of your hard-earned money!

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