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Protecting your security deposit

Erik J. Martin
Erik J. MartinThe Mortgage Reports Contributor

In this article:

When your landlord holds a security deposit (your money), you can protect the deposit in three ways:

  1. Do a walk-through with the landlord at the beginning and end of your lease
  2. Read the fine print of your lease and know your rights in your state
  3. Take photos before you move in and after you move out
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Protecting your security deposit is important

Preparing to rent? Then expect to fork over some extra cash early in the process. In addition to the first month’s rent, your landlord will likely require you to pay a security deposit. This protects a landlord from risk. But smart renters will want to look after themselves, too, by protecting their security deposit.

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It’s important to learn how this deposit works. You’ll also want to read your lease carefully before signing it. Ask the landlord about anything you don’t understand.

You have rights as a renter. One is that you’re entitled to a security deposit refund if you’ve complied with your lease. If you haven’t, your landlord may be able to legally keep some or all of your security deposit.

Why landlords require a security deposit

A security deposit is money you give a landlord at the start of the lease. Often, it equates to the cost of one or two month’s full rent. It may be more if you have poor credit or pets. The landlord holds this cash as a form of insurance. After moving out, this money will be returned to you if you live up to the lease’s terms.

Note that security deposit laws vary for each state.

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“Your security deposit shields landlords from two types of risk,” says Bruce Ailion, attorney and Realtor with RE/MAX Town and Country in Atlanta. “The first is risk of default—the likelihood that you don’t pay all rent due before vacating.”

The second is the risk of damage you cause to the physical property.

“Your contract typically requires you to return the property to its original condition—minus ordinary wear and tear,” Ailion adds.

Parsing the fine points

This “minus” is crucial to grasp.

“You should not be charged for wear and tear to the unit,” Scott Bierbryer, co-founder/COO of VeryApt.com, says. “You should only be charged for damage you caused that wouldn’t be expected to happen in a normal lease.”

Ask yourself: will the landlord think the unit is in the same rentable condition I viewed it in originally?

“If not, you may have to forfeit some of the deposit to get it back to that condition,” says Bierbryer.

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For instance, say you spill red wine on the carpet and can’t get the stain out.

“It’s reasonable for the landlord to charge you for the cost to clean or replace that carpeting,” Bierbryer says.

But if the unit’s older fridge breaks down through no fault of your own, “they should not charge you,” he adds.

What many renters overlook

When it comes to security deposits, renters often lack key knowledge.

“Many overlook the amount of money they need to set aside for the deposit and rent payments up front. You may need to provide up to three months’ worth of cash or more before moving in,” says Bierbryer.

Also, many are unaware that the law protects them.

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“In Georgia, the landlord is required to inspect the property within seven days of it being vacated by the tenant. They also have to provide an accounting for the deposit’s refund. The security deposit or refundable must be returned to the tenant within 30 days,” Ailion says.

If it’s not paid by then, the tenant is entitled to triple the amount of the security deposit owed plus attorney fees, he adds.

Read the fine print

These laws are similar in other states, but with some tweaks.

“In Maryland, a security deposit can be used to recoup unpaid rent. But it can’t be used to recoup unpaid water bills, if the tenant is responsible for utilities,” says Evan Roberts, real estate agent and property manager for Dependable Homeowners in Baltimore.

Also, a Maryland tenant must receive an itemized statement of repair costs by certified mail within 45 days of moving out.

“And they’re entitled to accumulated interest on their security deposit when they move out, too. Currently, that interest rate is 3 percent,” Roberts says.

Your best deposit defenses

To better ensure a full refund of your security deposit, follow these tips:

      • Prevent or minimize property damage. “Treat your unit as your own,” suggests Thomas J. Simeone, an attorney in Washington, D.C. “In the end, you’ll be responsible for any harm done during your lease term.”
      • Repair any damaged items yourself. “You can often do this for cheaper than what the landlord will charge you,” Simeone says.
      • Clean the unit completely. Dust, wash and vacuum thoroughly. “If the landlord has to pay a private cleaning company, this expense can be deducted from your deposit,” notes Simeone.
      • Schedule a walkthrough with your landlord before moving in or out. Note any wear and tear that’s not your responsibility.
      • Keep visual evidence. Before moving in or out, “take photos and a video of the unit to document the conditions,” says Ailion.

If your security deposit isn’t paid back

It’s time to move out and you’ve abided by the lease. But the landlord refuses to refund some or all of your security deposit that’s due to you. Now what?

You can file suit with or without a lawyer.

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“Many states even have special landlord-tenant courts that are easier to use without an attorney,” says Simeone. “Check your lease terms and local applicable laws. That will tell you whether you have a good case or not.”

You can also bring the matter to small claims court and represent yourself.

“Bring your evidence and witnesses. Dress appropriately. And be respectful to the judge,” Ailion says. “Some courts also offer mediators to assist you in resolving the case.”

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