Moving into a new place comes with a lot of upfront expenses. If you are renting or leasing, that could include the first month’s rent, last month’s rent and a security deposit. That all adds up quickly, so the more money at your disposal, the better. But what should you do if the security deposit from your last rental still hasn’t been returned to you?

The Purpose of a Security Deposit

A security deposit is a payment you make before you move into an apartment or rental home that protects the landlord from excessive property damage or missed payments. In most cases, conscientious tenants will receive their full security deposit back soon after moving out. However, your landlord might also use your security deposit to make repairs, clean the space or charge you for unpaid rent.

When You Should Receive Your Security Deposit

Landlords are legally obligated to return your security deposit within a reasonable amount of time. The exact deadline is determined by state law. Most requirements range from a few weeks to a month or two, but some states have vague deadlines or none at all. In Washington, the limit is 21 days, and in Alaska, it’s either 14 or 30 days, depending on whether the tenant gives notice or not.1,2

If you only receive part of your deposit back, the landlord is responsible for mailing you an itemized list of deductions. There is some limit to what a landlord can deduct. Normal wear and tear is typically excluded, but you may be held responsible for:

  • Too many holes in the wall
  • Cracked floor tiles
  • Urine or water stains
  • Broken doors
  • Painted walls
  • Misused toilet or cooking appliances
  • Mold growth
  • Insect infestation
  • Grime in the bathroom or kitchen
  • Cleaning and repairs to get ready for the next tenant
  • Unpaid rent or utilities

The landlord is allowed to keep the whole security deposit and demand additional payment if there is excessive damage or if you’ve failed to pay rent.

What to Do If the Deposit Doesn’t Arrive

Your landlord may be legally in the wrong if they:

  • Don’t return your security deposit
  • Don’t list the deductions
  • Inflate the cost of certain repairs
  • Charge you for normal wear and tear
  • Don’t pay interest (in some states)

If any of these situations apply, it’s best to first send an official request for the return of your security deposit. Be firm in the letter, include as many details as possible, demonstrate your understanding of the law and make it clear that you intend to sue if your deposit is not returned in a timely manner. In many cases, this is enough to spook a landlord. It also leaves a paper trail if the issue ever makes it to court.

Alternatively, you could enlist the help of a mediator to guide you and the landlord through the dispute. This may be especially pertinent if your relationship is strained, which may be clouding both of your judgments.

Unfortunately, your landlord may not be receptive to your attempts to find a solution. At that point, you may decide to sue them in small claims court. The cost of filing is minimal compared to the payout you receive if you win, which could be up to two or three times the deposit, and there are no astronomical attorney’s fees to worry about.

Avoiding This Scenario in the Future

If your most recent move-out was a disaster, there are a few precautions you can take next time to ensure a smooth transition:

  • Make note of damages at move-in – Many landlords will ask you to fill out a damage form upon move-in. You’ll want to note anything you might be held responsible for later, even if it seems minor. Take photos in case you ever need to provide proof of the rental’s original condition.
  • Give proper notice – You can delay the return of your deposit by forgetting to give your landlord adequate notice. Look up the rules for your state and abide by those deadlines.
  • Do a walkthrough – Before move-out, go through the space with the landlord by your side. Ask what repairs might be deducted from your deposit, and make the repairs on your own, if possible.
  • Leave the space cleaner than when you arrived – Clean your space thoroughly and document how clean it is before you leave to prevent future disputes.
  • Give your landlord a forwarding address – Landlords aren’t legally required to return your deposit if they don’t know where to mail it.
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