Rental Security Deposit, No Return, Now what?


Help, We Cant Get our Rental Security Deposit Back

We have rented for the last several years and are now moving into a home. How do we ensure that our rental deposit is returned?

Unfortunately this question is extremely common. The deposit money that is placed on a rental unit is normally expected to be returned, by the tenant. The landlord may have a totally different idea regarding this deposit money. It is essential that the return of the rental security deposit be managed by the tenant, starting day one of the lease agreement, and not left to the end.

The rental deposit is considered free money by many landlords, and money that is like being in the bank, by the tenant. These two, totally different identifications of the deposit money, can lead to some extremely difficult and legal issues, when the tenant decides to vacate the rental unit.

This webpage is not intended to be prejudiced towards neither the tenant, nor the landlord. I describe the best practices to be used, to ensure the tenant get their deposit money back. However, also understanding the issues that a landlord is exposed to, I will attempt to present my comments as evenly balanced as possible.

Unfortunately, normally the money and the power are on the landlord’s side. As I have noted in other circumstances on this website, the individual holding the money, has the advantage. In this case it is the landlord.

The rental deposit money can be as much as double, the monthly rental of the unit. This could be in excess of $10,000.00 or more, and can be a large percentage of the total money that a tenant has saved up.   Once again, unfortunately, most tenants consider this money as simply on hold, until they vacate the rental unit; however there are landlords that consider the deposit money as, basically free money and in their bank account for their use.

Why would the landlord consider this money, free?

  • There are landlords that have the opinion; there is always a reason to keep the security deposit. In their opinion, the simply living in the rental unit will cause a depreciation of the unit’s value, and therefore a good reason for retaining the security deposit.
  • The landlord understands that the majority of tenants do not have the legal counsel to push back, when it comes to security deposit retention. They understand that most tenants have struggled to accumulate the security deposit, in the first place, which leaves them with NO financial ability to legally fight for the return of the money.
  • If the tenant hung anything on the walls, if they used the shower, if they actually cooked on the appliances, these are all justifiable reasons why the security deposit must be retained, in many landlords opinion.
  • If the tenant is actually leaving the rental unit, they are probably buying a property, or simply forced to leave, due to economic reasons. If they are buying another property, they are not focused on the return of the security deposit, and if they are leaving due to the fact that they do not have the economic means to remain, what can they do?
  • The landlord normally assumes that they are the superior intelligence, of the two party lease agreements. They own the property, and therefore they are the most affluent and smartest between the two parties making up the agreement.
  • There is a tendency for landlords that own properties to have a very strong opinion regarding their superiority, and will assume that the tenant will not have the backbone, financial means, or the paperwork to back up the return of the security deposit.

Why does the tenant assume they will get the security deposit back?

  • In most cases, the renter is not as affluent, nor as professionally proficient in the legal aspects of the agreement, as the landlord. The tenant has only rented a few times, or this could be the first time, and they have no history or experience in the rental marketplace.
  • The renter simply assumes that the security deposit is simply that, a deposit, to ensure that nothing catastrophic occurs. The term catastrophic is a very relative term, which has totally different meanings, dependent upon whether you are the renter of the landlord.
  • The renter assumes that their monthly rental rate for the property will accommodate the normal wear and tear on the rental unit. They think that the actual living within the unit is associated with the monthly rental rate of the unit. Naïve is the basic description of the normal residential tenant, especially the first timers.
  • In most cases, the tenant is the less sophisticated of the two parties, as well as the less affluent. The tenant normally does not have the ability to legally challenge the landlord due to financial limitations, however out of innocence, thinks that the security deposit will easily be returned.
  • The tenant is excited to be approved when renting the unit, and is normally appreciative to have a place to live. The security deposit is not really focused on when the rental agreement is new and exciting. In some cases, the security deposit was borrowed, and the actual thought of not getting it back, upon completion of the rental period, is not anticipated.

What are some of the suggestions that can help a tenant obtain, if not all, a good percentage of their security deposit money?

  • Take complete and accurate photos of the entire property, prior to taking possession. The photos should be digitally dated and should be taken of the following;
  • All walls and ceilings / identify the areas that are being photographed by placing an identification card in the photo, or if you are very creative, identifying the photo on the computer.
  • Kitchen areas, countertops, appliances, flooring, etc. The kitchen is very important to properly document due to the issue of smoke discoloration, damages to the appliances, cleaning of the appliances, etc.
  • All doors, frames and hardware. If a door is sticking or the hardware is not functioning properly, make note of this, and photograph the item.
  • Closet poles, interiors and floors. The closets, normally take a beating and landlords like to retain their security due to broken closet poles, marked floors due to shoe storage, etc.
  • Exterior elevations of the rental unit. This should include the entry door, any sliders or terrace doors, any stone, brick or other specialized flooring that could be marked or damaged due to use.
  • Light fixtures, ceiling fans, etc. Any appliance, fixture or other installed items by the landlord that could be damaged or marked during usage.
  • Bathrooms, including showers stalls, bathtubs, etc. The bathrooms are good places for the landlord to claim damage, or the need for excessive cleaning.
  • Document all purchases made for the rental unit. For example, if a light fixture is damaged and you, as the tenant, decide to replace the light fixture, note the reason for the damage, and keep the receipt of the purchase and an accounting of the time to replace the fixture. Document any and all issues that cost you, the tenant, and money to live in the rental unit.
  • Keep the unit clean. It is essential that you diligently keep the unit clean and free of clutter, dirt, etc. Clean the dishes on a daily basis, and use all of the appliances as though they were yours. Have pride in your environment.
  • Immediately notify the landlord, and document the notification with an email, letter, etc. of any items that have broken, been compromised or need replacement of any kind. This is very important.
  • Replace all light bulbs, batteries or filters that are your responsibility to replace. This is dependent upon the lease agreement, and can be different in every situation.
  • Honor the lease, if there are restrictions on the lease, follow them. Do not disregard the restrictions on the lease such as parking restrictions, dogs and cat restrictions, etc.
  • Treat the landlord with respect, and pay the monthly rent in accordance with the lease agreement.
  • Remain diligent and timely with the utility costs, and pay the monthly invoices for the utilities, that you, as the tenant are responsible for.

How should the tenant handle the notification to the landlord of their intention to move out of the rental unit, and what should be done to prepare the unit for vacancy?

  • It is essential that the lease agreement be followed. If the agreement indicates a specific time period that the tenant must notify the landlord, follow it. An official notification, with the proper documentation, is required to prove compliance with the lease. An email, that is acknowledged, or a certified letter with a receipt acknowledgement, is two ways to properly document your notification to the landlord of your intentions. Do not simply make a phone call, this can be denied at any time by the landlord.
  • Clean the unit. Make sure that the floors, walls, ceilings are clean of any markings and are swept clean. It is very important that the landlord, when they walk the rental unit, be impressed with the cleanliness of the unit.
  • If you have specifically dirtied anything in the rental unit, such as stain on the rug, or spilled coffee against the wall, etc. Have it professionally cleaned, do not allow the landlord the opportunity to claim any obvious issues against your security deposit.
  • If light bulbs have not been replaced, or if drapes are broken, try to replace all light bulbs and repair any drapes of blinds that might be damaged. Again, eliminate the obvious.
  • If you have used low wattage light bulbs to save energy, or never bothered to replace any low wattage bulbs, replace them with a higher wattage to allow the landlord more illumination as they inspect the premises. This may appear opposite what would be thought, however, dimly lit rooms and spaces have a tendency to appear dirtier and in need of additional cleaning, than brightly lit spaces.
  • Clean the toilets, sinks, tubs and showers. Use a cleaner that will remove the mold, dirt and crime that has accumulated during your tenure as a tenant. The more you clean the less ability the landlord will have to hold your security deposit.
  • Accumulate any documentation regarding purchases that may not fall within your responsibility as the tenant, for ammunition against any charges against the security deposit.
  • Try to patch all holes in the walls or ceilings that you may have caused due the hanging of pictures, televisions, etc. This is probably the most popular reason that security money is held and retained, wall damage and the need to repaint the ceilings and walls.

In summary, do not assume that the security deposit will be returned to you, as the tenant, in full. The healthiest manner of looking at the return of this security deposit is that you will attempt to get as much of it back as possible. If you anticipate issues, and attempt to correct these issues, prior to the landlord reviewing the rental unit, you could solve some of the basic reasons the landlord will use to retain a portion of the security deposit. Of course, if you trash the rental unit, all of the security will be withheld, and additional claims for damages probably levied against you.

Unfortunately the return of security deposits are always an issue and the tenant must be aware of this difficulty. Try to manage the security deposit from the moment you occupy the unit, by documentation, cleanliness and diligence in following all of the lease requirements.