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How to get your security deposit back
With sample security deposit demand letter
Security deposits are notoriously tricky. They’re usually a pretty decent amount of money — sometimes up to 1.5 times your rent — and getting the whole thing back at the end of the day takes some careful intention. Another trick is timing. You might not get the security deposit back from your prior place by the time you need to pay the next one!
If you’re feeling a little worried, you’re not alone. We surveyed 100 renters, and 78% told us that getting their whole security deposit back was their number one issue with their prior landlords. Many felt taken advantage of by their landlords and believed their deposit had been held longer than it should have been or was written in the lease agreement.
To help make sure you have as much control as possible — and get as much of your security deposit back as possible — you’ll want to manage the entire process carefully. Here’s what to know and what to do, from lease-signing to move out.
1. Give the required notice
If you’re month-to-month, most leases state that you have to give your landlord 30 days’ notice before moving out. If you don’t, they can charge you for breaking your lease early, and you’ll usually lose some of your security deposit as a result. If you’re on a year-long lease and you’ve still got a few months to go, make a note on your calendar to give notice 30 days before your lease will automatically renew. Here are a couple of security deposit request sample templates to help you.
2. Know your rights
Most states have strict guidelines about when and how landlords must return security deposits. They’re usually required to return it within 2-3 weeks and to outline any fees or costs they’ve deducted from your deposit. Read your lease agreement for specifics and check out security deposit return deadline for your state here.
Landlords who violate these laws may lose the deposit entirely or face hefty penalties. The general rule of thumb is that you’re not responsible for normal wear and tear but you are responsible for damage.
3. Take photos — before, during and after
A picture is proof. Your word is not. If you ever get into a debate with your landlord, having lots of photos makes it a lot easier to make your case.
When you move in, take pictures of anything that looks a little off — damaged walls, discolored carpets, pinholes, broken buttons on appliances, etc. Throughout the course of your lease, take pictures of anything that breaks and of things you ask your landlord to fix. When you move out, take another batch of pictures. Your goal is to prove that you left your apartment in at least as good shape as when you moved in. This is the best way to get your full security deposit back.
4. Get a move-out inspection
Ask your landlord to do a final property inspection so you can fix any problems they identify or do more cleaning. Many states give the renter a legal right to be present at the final inspection. Confirm any follow-up cleaning or actions you need to take. This helps clarify expectations and show your landlord that you’re acting in good faith, making the extra effort to return the place as you received it. This also helps to ensure you don’t over- or under-clean.
5. Clear out your stuff — all of it
Sounds simple, right? But the truth is, lots of people are in a rush when they move out and they tend to leave behind things that their landlord ends up having to deal with. If it costs them time, it’ll cost you money. When you return your keys, make sure you’ve removed everything, including garbage, food and cleaning supplies, and don’t forget anything you may have stashed away in a storage area.
6. Leave a forwarding address
If you don’t leave a forwarding address, your landlord won’t know where to send your check. If you’re planning to backpack across South America and don’t have a permanent address, arrange to have the money sent to a friend or relative’s address. In some states, a landlord who can’t locate you within a specified time may keep the deposit.
7. Follow up with your landlord
If you have a friendly relationship with your landlord or property manager, good communication helps. If you haven’t received your deposit, ask when it was mailed. If you were surprised to only get part of your deposit back, or if the itemized list of deductions didn’t come or doesn’t make sense, have a conversation with them. Talking helps. A lot.
8. Challenging the security deposit refund process
If you are looking to challenge the amount of deposit your landlord is saying you are going to get back, you are not alone. Victoria Cowart, Director of Operations, Adalease Property Management, Charleston, S.C.estimates that about 40 percent of renters challenge the initial inspection and charge results.
The first step in refuting the amount is simply talking to the landlord. Of course, you should have collected any evidence that can be used to support your claim such as move-in pictures or video. Quite often you can reach an agreement without filing a court claim this is due to the fact that if you win a court case, they’d likely have to pay out a lot more. Most landlords are motivated to settle out of court.
Before going to court, review your lease to see if you might have to pay your landlord’s court fees and legal costs should you lose. If this is the case, you will for sure want to try to settle out of court before possibly ending up losing money if they win.
9. Write a security deposit demand letter
If you’ve talked to your landlord, read up on your rights, have already tried a basic request letter and still, there’s no resolution in sight, it might be time to kick off an official complaint process. Typically, this begins with a “demand letter.” The goal of this letter is to be clear about your request, provide proof, and document that something is amiss and needs to be remedied. A demand letter should include:
- A copy of your notice to move out
- Any photos related to charges you’re disputing
- A copy of maintenance requests and results (if relevant)
- A clear request for what you want including dollar amount and interest, if applicable
- Cite the state/city law regarding security deposit returns (check out Roost’s Renter Rights section by ZIP code to find yours)
- That you’ll take further legal action if necessary in small claims court
Here’s a sample security deposit demand letter
To: Gerry D Gerrling, Manager
4321 Bolster Street
Olympia, WA 98501
Please return my security deposit of $1400 and interest to my forwarding address.
I vacated my apartment on May 23, 2020. The apartment was left clean and I have documented the condition that it was left as I received, except for normal wear and tear. In accordance with Washington, state 59.18.280 you’re required to return the deposit within 21 days from termination of the lease.
YOU ARE NOW PAST DUE AND BEYOND THE STATE LIMIT FOR RETURNING THE DEPOSIT.
Please return the deposit this week to avoid further legal action, up to and including small claims court, as allowed by law.
<your name and number>
10. Sue in small claims court
If speaking with your landlord and sending them a demand letter is not getting you the results you want, you can file against your landlord in your local small claims court. Usually, your local clerk of justice court office will supply you with the information, and possibly required forms, needed to file your case. In most situations, the courts try to keep this process rather simple and affordable for renters. Fees to file are usually less than $50.
Most states have a statute of limitations, so file as soon as you are fully confident that you need to. While you do not need a lawyer, you may benefit from having someone look over your statements and supporting documents (pictures, copy of lease, witness statements, and such) for you before you submit them. They may be able to see something you missed.
How much you can sue for is dictated by Virginia laws and your lease agreement. You may be able to also sue for interest, court fees and punitive damages. Most courts require you to attend the hearing. If you do not attend the hearing you may lose by default.
Disputing your security deposit refund is possible, and often if you’ve followed your lease, worth your time and effort. First attempt to negotiate with your landlord and if all out-of-courts methods don’t work, review your local tenants/landlord laws and file a complaint with your small claims court.
Getting your security deposit back
You can improve your chances of getting your security deposit back in full by taking time to understand the lease requirements at signing, documenting your move-in/repairs/move-out and maintaining good communication with your landlord throughout the process. Documentation and conversation can go a long way.
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You probably already know that we’re not a law firm, but just to make sure we get this out of the way: We can’t provide any advice or opinions about possible legal rights, remedies, defenses, options, selection of forms, or strategies. And by hanging out with us here at Roost, you agree to our Legal disclaimer.