When you rent a home, you will be required to pay a security deposit to the landlord or management company before you move in. A security deposit is money you pay to cover any damage done in the rental while you live there, or to pay penalties charged if you break the lease. 


Laws regulating the security deposit amount landlords or management companies can charge vary by state (or sometimes city), and is often one month’s rent. When you move out, the owner or management company could keep all or part of your security deposit if:


  • There was damage done while you lived there that is more than “normal wear and tear” 
  • You did not thoroughly clean the rental property or left items that needed to be disposed of
  • You moved out before the end of your lease or did not give the landlord or management company the move out notice required by your lease
  • You did not return all keys to the rented property 


When you move into a rental, the landlord may require that you sign a checklist to confirm the condition of items such as windows, floors, carpets, walls, countertops, light fixtures, and appliances. Make sure you alert the landlord to any damage you observe in the apartment before you move in and mark it on the checklist before you sign the copies. If the landlord does not provide a checklist, it is recommended that you take photos of all the rooms in the rental before you move, make a list of any damage you see, and ask your landlord to date and sign the list.  


At the end of your lease, if you leave the apartment in the same condition as when you moved in, you have the right to have your full deposit returned. Take more photos of the apartment after you move your belongings out.  If possible, it is recommended to schedule a walkthrough of the apartment with the landlord or building manager when you are ready to return the keys to discuss any specific issues that might affect the return of your security deposit.


Depending on local laws, your landlord or property manager is usually required to return your deposit within a few weeks and with interest earned while it was held in the bank. If your landlord or the property manager claims there was damage or that your rented home was not clean, part or all your deposit may not be returned. In this case you should receive a statement with itemized repair or cleaning expenses. 


If you have given the notice of moving required by your lease, have returned the keys, and haven’t received your deposit within a few weeks of moving out—or don’t agree with the deductions—send your landlord a “demand letter” that includes a copy of the photos you have taken, the checklist if you have one, and a copy of your lease. Sometimes a demand letter will show your landlord or property manager that you understand the law and are aware of your rights, and that will be enough to have your deposit returned. If your letter does not bring results, it may be appropriate to bring your landlord to court. Many cities and towns have free or low-cost legal services to help tenants who have problems with their landlords. 


Disclaimer: This article was created in partnership with Refugee Housing Solutions. Refugee Housing Solutions is a project of Church World Service under an agreement paid for by the U.S. Department of State.