Renter's Guide: How To Get Your Deposit Back

Once you are armed with knowledge of the laws regarding rental deposits, getting your full deposit back becomes an easy task.

For a tenant who is renting a residence, whether or not a deposit is refunded often seems to be completely at the whim of the landlord. Fortunately, this is not the case at all. State consumer protection laws geared specifically to the landlord-tenant relationship dictate the amount a landlord can demand as a deposit, as well as the types of deposits that can be required and the types of charges that can be made against a deposit. While laws regarding rental deposits vary from state to state, there are generally certain provisions that you can rely on as a tenant. Here are some of the common legal provisions of which renters should be aware in order to have a deposit refunded.

1. Types of Deposits.

Types of deposits which may be required by a landlord include security deposits and cleaning deposits. A deposit that is specifically denoted a cleaning deposit is just that, a deposit to be applied to the cleaning of the dwelling unit once the tenant vacates the premises. In most cases, the tenant is given the opportunity to perform the cleaning and to thus recoup the cleaning deposit. In some cases, the landlord may reserve the right to have the cleaning professionally done. The laws in some states, such as Michigan, do not provide for cleaning deposits.

A security deposit, on the other hand, can be held for a number of purposes, including repair of any damage to the premises, curing any default in rent and restoring the premises to the condition it was in before it was occupied by the tenant. Laws generally prohibit a landlord from requiring a deposit that is non-refundable or that is in an amount that is excessive for the purposes for which it is intended. In California, for example, a security deposit may not exceed an amount that is equal to two months' rent for an unfurnished dwelling or three months' rent for a furnished dwelling. It is important to know the laws in your particular state prior to entering into a rental agreement.

2. Moving In.

The first step in getting your rental deposit back begins when you take possession of the premises. Make sure you understand what kind of deposit you are paying and the terms and condition under which it will be refunded to you at the end of the tenancy. Read your rental agreement carefully. Take advantage of the opportunity to perform a walk-through of the premises with your landlord. Note any damage to the premises or unclean conditions that exist at the time you take possession on an inventory checklist. These items should be noted in writing, and a copy of the writing should be kept by both you and your landlord so that you have a record of the condition of the premises at the time you took possession.

3. Giving Notice.

When you decide that you are going to vacate the premises, make sure you comply with any and all notice provisions. Termination of a tenancy generally requires 30 days advance notice in writing. The actual notice requirement may be less or more depending on your rental agreement and the laws in your state. If you fail to give full and proper notice, you may be held responsible for additional rent or damages. Once you have given the proper notice, consult your rental agreement to refresh your memory regarding the terms under which your deposit will be restored to you. Take a look also at the list you created at the time you moved in and have that available to you for any upcoming dealings with your landlord.

4. Moving Out.

Some states now require or give the tenant the option of requesting a walk-through within the last couple of weeks before the tenant actually vacates the premises. If this option is available in your state, be sure to take advantage of it. Even if it is not available by law, there is no harm in requesting that your landlord join you in such a walk-through. This allows you the opportunity to inspect the premises together with your landlord before you vacate the premises. Prior to the walk-through, perform any cleaning and repairs necessary or required under your rental agreement to the greatest extent possible. During the walk-through, if provided for by law, the landlord must note and advise you of any repairs or cleaning that he or she intends to charge against your deposit and must provide you with an opportunity to correct those items. In most cases, a written list or inventory checklist is created. You will now have an opportunity to correct those remaining items that may constitute a claim against your deposit. Under most state laws, the landlord may not make deductions from your deposit for items that were not included on the walk-through checklist. Even if your state's laws do not specifically provide for such a walk-through, in the event your landlord agrees to one, he or she will have a hard time later explaining deductions that were made for items not noted at the time of the walk-through.



5. Final Walk-Through.

After you vacate the premises, you may wish to ask to be present for a final walk-through with your landlord. The landlord may or may not accommodate this. If your landlord will agree to a final walk-through, this will allow you the opportunity to hear first-hand whether your landlord still has any complaints regarding the condition of the premises. This may also provide you with an opportunity to correct any deficiencies. A final walk-through may be especially valuable to you if you have reason to believe your landlord may plan to arbitrarily withhold all or a portion of your deposit. A final walk-through will require the landlord to advise you of any intended deductions from your deposit in person and will lessen the likelihood that surprise deductions will be made.

6. Provide Your Forwarding Address.

Make sure to provide your landlord with your forwarding address when you vacate the premises. Under the laws of most states, a landlord has a limited amount of time, generally somewhere between two weeks and 30 days, to provide you with an itemization of any deductions made from your security deposit. At this time, the landlord must also refund the remaining balance of your security deposit. If the landlord fails to provide you with an itemization during this time period, then the entire amount of the security deposit must be refunded to you.

7. Review the Landlord's Itemization.

If you have taken advantage of every opportunity to create a move-in list regarding the property conditions at the time you took possession of the premises, to conduct a walk-through with your landlord before you moved out, and to correct any deficiencies noted at the time of the walk-through, then all or most of your security deposit should be refunded to you. In fact, once you have created a good paper trail regarding your tenancy and the condition of the premises, it is unlikely the landlord will attempt any inappropriate deductions. However, for any deductions made from your deposit, make sure that these deductions are appropriate and agreeable to you. Be aware of the laws in your state regarding legal deductions. For example, under most circumstances, a landlord may not deduct for ordinary wear and tear to the premises. This means that, if you have lived in a dwelling for five years, and if during that time the carpet has become somewhat worn and the walls need painting, your landlord cannot deduct the cost of replacing the carpet or painting the walls from your deposit. These items are costs of ownership of the property and their expense must be borne by the owner. In most cases, it is only necessary that you leave the property in "broom clean" and undamaged condition.

8. Notify Your Landlord Of Inappropriate Deductions.

If your landlord has made inappropriate deductions from your deposit, then you must bring these items to your landlord's attention. In some states, you may have a limited time within which to do so, so be aware of the laws in your state regarding these matters. Notify your landlord in writing and within the required time limit of the disputed items. Demand a refund of the amounts you claim were wrongfully withheld from the deposit, and state your reasons for entitlement to a refund. If appropriate, cite to the relevant documents, such as the inventory checklist completed before you moved in which shows that the damage existed prior to your moving into the premises, or the rental contract which shows that such deductions are not covered by the deposit, or the final walk-through checklist which shows that the item was not noted as a required repair, or the relevant statutes in your state which prohibit the deduction of such expenses from the deposit. If they were not provided, request itemized statements and invoices for any charges that were made against your deposit, such as for cleaning services or repairs.

9. Commence A Small Claims Action If Necessary.

In the event your landlord still refuses to refund the disputed amount, either you or your landlord may be required to commence a lawsuit, depending on the laws in your particular state. In Michigan, for example, where a tenant disputes deductions from a security deposit, the landlord has a limited amount of time to either refund the disputed amount to the tenant or to commence a lawsuit to have the dispute determined by the court. In California, the tenant may commence suit in small claims court based on a landlord's bad faith retention of all or a portion of a security deposit. California law permits the tenant to recover not only actual damages, but a punitive amount of up to twice the amount of the security deposit.

In most cases, disputes over rental deposits involve a relatively small sum of money and simple issues. Small claims court is often the appropriate venue for a determination regarding such disputes. Remember that the small claims court will only have jurisdiction to award a certain amount of money as damages. This amount varies from state to state. In most states, including California, the small claims limit is $5,000. However, it is only $1,500 in Kentucky, is $3,000 in Michigan and is $15,000 in Delaware, Georgia and most parts of Tennessee. The highest small claims limit is $25,000 in Shelby and Anderson Counties in Tennessee.

Whatever your state's limit, make sure that it will be sufficient to cover any and all damages the court may impose. Otherwise, the court will not have the power to award you full damages. For example, if you file in California, where you may receive double punitive damages in addition to your actual damages, you will want to make sure that the amount of your actual damages plus twice the amount of your security deposit does not exceed $5,000. If it does, you may need to consider filing outside of small claims court.

10. Prepare To Argue Your Case In Court.

If you find it necessary to go to court, the most important thing is to be organized and prepared. Take each and every piece of paper with you that you believe may be relevant to your case, including your inventory checklists, your rental agreement, correspondence between you and your landlord, invoices, estimates, notes you made during conversations or walk-throughs, and any pictures you may have of the items in dispute. Have the papers organized so that you can access them easily and quickly as it becomes necessary during your hearing. Have copies available so that you can provide them to the judge and to the opposing party, your former landlord. Being organized and able to present your case in a clear and concise manner will give you a great advantage and will offer you the best chance of having your entire deposit refunded to you.

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