What Renters Need To Know About Security Deposits

Protect yourself as a renter by learning security deposit regulations around how much landlords can collect and when it can be withheld.

Last Updated
December 20, 2022
What Renters Need To Know About Security Deposits

For tenants, a security deposit is a familiar and standard one-time payment expected when signing a lease for a rental unit. For a landlord, however, it’s slightly more complicated. There are state-specific laws around how a landlord can handle a tenant’s security deposit — including regulations around the amount landlords can collect, how they manage the deposit during the lease term, and in which scenarios it can be withheld to cover property damages. 

Tenants who are informed about these rules will be better prepared if they get into a security deposit dispute with their landlord. Keep reading to learn about security deposit regulations so you’re more prepared as a renter. 

What is a security deposit?

A security deposit is a payment due upon moving into a rental. It’s money “secured” for the purpose of covering the costs of potential damages or losses caused by a tenant. Typically, it’s equal to one or two months’ rent, but the amount of your security deposit varies depending on your location, as each state has security deposit maximums. 

What can landlords use security deposits for?

To withhold your security deposit, your landlord must have a legitimate reason to do so — one supported by local tenant laws. Here are six justifications that warrant your landlord keeping your full or partial deposit. 

1. Property damage beyond normal wear and tear

As a renter, you’re expected to leave the property in a similar condition as it was in when you arrived. While some wear-and-tear is normal, leaving extensive property damage behind, such as broken cabinets or doors, cracked tile flooring, or stained or torn carpeting can result in you losing a portion or all of your deposit. 

It’s acceptable to request maintenance and repairs to be handled by your landlord during your tenancy so your home remains safe and habitable. However, if you don’t communicate these problems to your landlord before moving out — especially if you’re the reason they’ve occurred in the first place — your security deposit can get docked or even claimed completely. 

2. Cleaning costs for unreasonable messes

If you leave your rental property excessively messy when moving out, your landlord has the right to deduct a cleaning fee from your security deposit. Since it can be hard to contest this charge once you’ve vacated the unit, cover your bases by taking pictures of your unit as you leave, so you have proof of the unit’s condition. 

3. Missed rent

If you move out but still owe rent, your landlord is entitled to keep your security deposit to cover that cost, in addition to any other deductions. It’s best to pay off any rents owed before moving out, and treat the security deposit separately.

4. Storage or disposal of items left behind

If you neglected to remove all your furniture and belongings (such as a bed frame, mattress, or clothes), your landlord will likely use your deposit to cover the cost of doing so. To prevent this pricey risk, connect with junk removal companies or charities who may be willing to come and take items you no longer want off of your hands. 

5. Unpaid utilities

If you have failed to pay your utilities bill, your landlord has the right to withhold part of your deposit to cover the outstanding fees. Be sure to pay outstanding amounts for your gas, electric, garbage, and other utilities prior to your moving day so you won’t have to worry about the amount being deducted from your deposit. 

6. Early termination of a lease

Breaking a lease early can result in potential consequences like forfeiting your security deposit. To see what penalties you might face, review the terms of your lease before moving out early. Additionally, consider talking to your landlord about alternatives, including finding someone to sublet your unit for the remainder of your contract. 

When will your security deposit be returned?

States have differing laws regarding the timeframe in which a deposit must be returned. Depending on local regulations, tenants can expect to receive it back as soon as 14 days after moving out, or as long as 60 days. To determine the specific timeframe for your state, refer to this state-by-state security deposit return chart.

If some of your security deposit was deducted, landlords are usually required to give you an itemized list of expenses, whether it was used for a missed rent payment or the cost to repair any damage. If a landlord fails to return a security deposit when it’s due, they can be fined up to three times the original amount collected, depending on the state. Thus, make it your business as a tenant to be aware of your state’s deadline for returning security deposits.

What to do if your landlord wrongfully withholds your security deposit

As a tenant, it’s important you know your renters rights so your landlord can’t take advantage of you by deciding to keep your security deposit without cause. Follow these tips to protect yourself:

  • Make sure the landlord has a legitimate reason that is supported by local rental laws to withhold your deposit. Watch out for unreasonably high costs, such as a $500 charge for house cleaning.
  • Cite the terms of your lease or rental agreement when you speak to your landlord.
  • Consider writing a letter with your objections, their reasons, and the amount of money you think you’re owed to the local tenancy board.
  • Finally, you can file a lawsuit in small claims court to try to get your deposit back. Small claims court lawsuits are actually inexpensive — in most states, the cost is around $50 or under and you don’t need to hire a lawyer. 

How Azibo can help tenants stay on top of security deposits

While there are many expenses and fees associated with renting an apartment, it's wise to understand everything about security deposits and what landlords can use a security deposit for before you sign a lease. Using a platform like Azibo is also helpful to keep track of your rent payments and other information.

Azibo can help you consolidate your lease agreement, renters insurance, monthly rent payments, and security deposit in one central hub. This way, if any issue arises, you’ll always be prepared with the documents necessary to support your claim. 

Discover how Azibo can help renters pay rent online and stay organized.

Important Note: This post is for informational and educational purposes only. It should not be taken as legal, accounting, or tax advice, nor should it be used as a substitute for such services. Always consult your own legal, accounting, or tax counsel before taking any action based on this information.

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