Most of us have some experience with renting or leasing apartments and houses. Many of us may also have experiences with our landlord that were not always positive. To be fair, it definitely goes the other way too. One of the most common issues that arises in the landlord tenant relationship has to do with security deposits. Often, a landlord, or property management company on behalf of the landlord, will return little to none of the security deposit. The tenant typically just shrugs and walks away because they don't understand their rights and responsibilities concerning security deposits. This article is intended to lay out those general rules and help the reader ensure, that in the future, they get as much, if not all, of their future security deposits back as possible.
First, you should have a written rental agreement or lease agreement, especially if there is a security deposit involved. If you do not, you have a periodic rental agreement that may be a month to month rental agreement depending on how often you pay rent. If it is more or less often then your rental term is that length of time. If you do not have a written agreement, you need some record of the security deposit you gave to your landlord for renting your house or apartment. This means a copy of a check for the deposit, or a receipt from your landlord or property management company. If you don't have a record, it will be extremely difficult proving that you paid it. Your written agreement will say what the security deposit is for, and how it will be returned to you. Almost all states allow the landlord to collect a security deposit, but some states limit the amount that can be collected. Some states require the landlord to place the security deposit in a separate or interest-bearing bank account.
State laws are usually very specific rules about what the security deposit may or may not be used for, and how it is to be returned by the landlord to the tenant. Most of these states give a specific timeline for when the deposit must be returned and when notice of deduction for repairs and cleanup must be delivered, it the entire amount is not going to be returned. These laws are very important, because any technical violation of the timeline means the landlord owes you all of the deposit back. For example, in Florida, there is a 14 day deadline for the landlord to return the security deposit, or send an accounting of the deductions and the balance of the deposit, to the tenant. If the landlord decides he or she is going to deduct part of the deposit for cleanup or repair, but doesn't deliver the accounting to the tenant until day 15, he owes the tenant the entire deposit back. This is true even if there is no written agreement, or if the agreement gave the landlord more time, say 30 days. The Landlord Tenant laws of the state trump any conflicting agreements that are less favorable to the tenant, written or otherwise.
What if you move out before the end of your lease and you didn't pay a last month's rent deposit? Can your landlord use part of your security deposit to cover the rent? In most cases, the answer is yes. But again, the accounting deadline rules still apply. How about if you didn't have a security deposit, but have a last month's rent deposit? Well likewise, more often than not, the landlord can use part of last month's rent from the tenant to cover repairs and damages to the apartment or house.
If the landlord has failed to follow any of the rules discussed above and you, as the tenant, don't get all of your security deposit back, you have a cause of action in small claims court. This is so, despite the condition of the apartment or house when you leave. Landlord Tenant laws favor the tenant, since they generally are not in the driver's seat on rent negotiations. So, for example, if the landlord failed to keep the security deposit in the manner the state law says he or she must, or fails to give you proper notice, or timely return of your deposit; you will have a successful small claims court claim.
Remember the security deposit is only for repairs and cleaning that go beyond normal wear and tear. Make sure all of your communication about money is in writing. If you send a letter to your landlord, send it certified with return receipt requested. If your landlord doesn't comply with the law, try to reason with them and show them a copy of the law before you take them to small claims court. This will save you both time and money. If you win in small claims court, he/she will likely have to pay all costs and reasonable attorney fees (even if you don't have an attorney, which you won't for small claims court.) If you are not sure what the Landlord Tenant Law of your state says about this issue, check it out online, or go to your local public library and they will help you.
Comply with your responsibilities in the lease or rental agreement. THIS IS NOT INTENDED AS LEGAL ADVICE. CONSULT AN ATTORNEY IF YOU HAVE ANY QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR SPECIFIC SITUATION.