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How to get back your security deposit

A new survey says that 26% of renters didn't get their deposits returned when they moved out. Don't let this happen to you.

By Donna_Freedman Feb 6, 2013 5:04PM
Logo: A rental agreement and two keys on a house shaped key ring (Epoxydude, fStop, Getty Images)When I was an apartment building manager, one of my least favorite duties was doing the "walk-through" when someone moved out. Every bit of damage and every still-dirty spot in the place meant more money taken from the departing tenant's security deposit.

As you might imagine, some of those people took that very personally. One tenant argued that red candle wax on the rug was just "normal wear." Another argued that the carpets -- new when he moved in -- "would have had to be replaced anyway," because he'd lived there for almost a year and a half.

Another renter swore he'd washed the kitchen linoleum, upon which swirls of dirt were clearly visible. He later admitted that his "cleaning" method was to wipe the floor with an old soccer jersey soaked in water.

A tenant became furious when I told him he'd have to pay for the hole punched in the bedroom door. He claimed it was that way from the beginning, but could not explain why he'd initialed and signed the move-in sheet that reported "no visible damage" in the bedroom walls and doors.

Maybe these are the kinds of people who answered a recent survey, which found that 26% of renters had lost a security deposit.


But that 26% figure wasn’t the worst part.


The worst part is this: Of those who didn't get their deposits back, more than one-third (36%) said the landlord didn't say why.

Failing to give an explanation is illegal in some states. To learn the rules where you live, see's state-by-state list of security deposit laws.


It's not clear whether how many of those renters who got stiffed tried to fight and lost versus merely shrugging and accepting. Read on for more tips to keep this from happening to you.

Four basic precautions

Read your lease.
On several occasions I had to tell tenants they'd missed the window (which was clearly stated in the lease) for giving written notice to vacate. That meant they owed the next month's rent even if they wouldn't be living there. (If the apartment got rented within that month, however, the landlord would return a portion of the deposit.)

Take two sets of pictures.
One when you move in and one when you're ready to move out. That is, unless you want to risk being charged for imaginary damage.

Deal with pet problems. Take action immediately if your cat or dog does something damp and disgusting on the rug. Sometimes a good carpet cleaner/spot remover can take care of these problems -- if they're still fresh. And yes, the landlord will notice that mustard-colored hairball stain.

Know what "clean" means. The building I managed had an exhaustive list of what kind of cleaning was expected upon move-out. If it isn't specified in either your lease or on a separate sheet, ask your landlord to give you one in writing. Then follow it, for heaven's sake. (Hint: A damp shirt isn't enough to clean the floor properly.)

In the building I managed, a move-in/move-out form had to be checked off room by room and feature by feature. A copy was then given to the tenant, which meant that he or she could prove the place was certified to be clean and undamaged upon vacating.

Not every landlord has scruples, of course (see that "36%" figure above). If you think there could be trouble, make sure you're there when the building manager or landlord walks through your place for the last time.

In fact, consider shooting another set of "after" photos during the walk-through. That way it will be clear that you know your rights.

Stand up for yourself

And if only part of your deposit is returned, with some trumped-up reason (or no reason) as to why? Don't cash that check! It might be construed as accepting the landlord's decision.

According to's "Get your security deposit back," you should first try to work something out. Put any agreement in writing (e.g., "tenant will return on Feb. 10, 2013, to clean oven and refrigerator") that's signed by both parties. If the landlord reneges, this document will be useful in small claims court.

If nothing can be negotiated, then send a "demand letter," i.e., a written request for the return of the deposit. In many states you must do this in writing before being able to go to small claims court.

Even if you don't have to do this, a letter puts the landlord on notice that you're not going to drop this. The Nolo article explains what to include in the letter, such as a citation of state security deposit law and copies of your move-out documents.

Document your digs, read your lease, know your rights -- and be prepared to follow through.

More on MSN Money:

Feb 6, 2013 7:54PM

I have lost probably a total of $5K in deposits.  No matter how clean and do my own repairs on things that were damaged, I still get bilked out of my deposits. the property managers of the last house I lived in didn't even send my a letter or explanation of any kind.  $1300 gone


Feb 6, 2013 9:19PM

Refusing to return a Security Deposit is one of the biggest RACKETS I've seen,  and most landlords who do it, get away with it.    Sure, some tenants leave trashed places behind....but,  even if you turn the place over in Primo condition,  landlords try to Ding you for $60.00 for a dirty LIGHTBULB.   And, after cleaning the stove three times,   they'll subtract $120.00 for "Dirty Stove" - then,  after you move out,  they set the stove, dishwasher and refrigerator out for the trash.


IT'S A RACKET.   I got several of my deposits back,  by calling them to the point of Harassment.    I told them:   "I'm NEVER going to give up" - and surprise!   I got my deposits back...although they always subtracted something,  just to make their  point.   


I love it, when I read about someone who leaves behind a bathtub full of chicken guts and sour milk....after first plugging the drains with Quik-Fill Spackle compound. 

Feb 6, 2013 8:56PM
I think not getting deposits back is more common than you think.  Many renters simply avoid confrontation, even when they are right.  In an apartment we once rented, the refrigerator froze everything and needed repaired.  The landlord refused to fix or replace it, so we bought our own used refrigerator.  Three of the burners on the stove didn't work.  They had been unplugged.  The furnace barely worked.  The gas had been turned down where it would barely even light.  One day, we didn't have hot water.  The landlord had come in while we were gone and turned down the water heater.  Some of this was obviously due to the apartment being rented with the utilities being paid, but we never were excessive in our use of gas, electricity, or water. The apartment was rented as furnished, but all the furniture was clearly shabby garage-sale junk.  The landlord said we caused a plumbing leak in the bathroom which was clearly caused by shoddy installation of the tub surround, and wanted us to pay for an unnecessary plumber's visit.  The toilet was loose on the floor, and the landlord refused to fix it.  When we moved out, we cleaned the place to absolute perfection.  When we came back to take pictures, we had been locked out.  We returned the keys, but the landlord said she was going to replace all the locks and take the cost out of our deposit.  We had evidence that the landlord regularly entered the apartment while we were gone.  After all this, naturally, the landlord refused to return our deposit, which we are sure she does to every renter she ever had.  We will probably end up in small claims court to try to recover our deposit.
Feb 6, 2013 8:14PM
In California if you rent an apartment for more than 3 years you are not responsible for any of the big expenses such as carpeting and paint. I have always received all of my deposits back. I don't know how people could forget to even ask for it. It's usually at least a few hundred bucks.
Feb 6, 2013 8:12PM

I lost a substantial security deposit in Virginia. I  had just finished battling lung cancer and moved to New Mexico so I could breath better, I was not available for the last walk-thru and the landlord lied about what condition the house was left in and kept my $950.00 deposit. I was to far away to fight.


Feb 6, 2013 8:06PM
I once had a landlord that not only took all my deposit, but tried to get me to pay additional for things that were in no way my doing! The irony was, I had taken over a lease from other tenants because I was stuck (due to the crash of 2008) and I was charged for wear and tear of their 4 years in the unit.
Feb 7, 2013 12:06PM

One landlord said he was keeping half the deposit because he wasn't present at the walk-thru.  He was on vacation that day and had his secretary do it.  He eventually coughed up the other half when his secretary told him he was being a jerk.


My last landlord wanted to charge me for every little normal wear to the walls, like a nail hole! he said he would have to patch and paint all the walls to match etc.  This was always resonable wear with other landlords.  When I first looked at the place I mentioned he needed to install safety locks on the window and door as well as smoke detectors in the bedrooms, even ones I would not sleep in.(required by law in rentals) He was a first time landlord.  I don't recommend getting a first time landlord.  Fighting over resonable use was a problem.  I also put my trash out on the curb the day I moved, the next day was garbage day and someone (likely the neighbors) went through it making a mess in the yard.  The landlord I had before that was so impressed with my cleaning job she remarked she wouldn't have to clean the place.  I said well I made some nail holes and she laughed that those were the least of her concerns with tenants.

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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.