How to get your security deposit back from your landlord

In all likelihood, you’ll move apartments at least a couple of times in your life. After you’ve secured a new place, scheduled your movers, and started packing boxes, there’s still one major item on your to-do list: getting your security deposit back.

Assuming your landlord operates like most others, you handed over some extra money when you moved in—often equal to one month’s rent—to account for any damages or missed payments you might accrue during your tenancy. So, how can you get your security deposit back? Follow these guidelines to make sure you’re doing everything possible to get that security deposit refund.

Getting your security deposit back starts on day one.

Moving into a new apartment is exciting and exhausting. Even though your apartment deposit might be the last thing on your mind on move-in day, there are few things you can do before you even begin unpacking to start protecting your money.

First, once you’re in possession of the apartment, walk around and make sure there are no existing problems or damage. Are there scuff marks on the floors or walls? Did someone leave holes in the walls? Is paint peeling or missing from anywhere? Double-check that all appliances work properly, and that doors, cabinets, and so on are in good shape, as well. Document any issues you find, ideally both in writing and with photos.

The absolute safest way to help ensure you’re protecting your house or apartment deposit is to share this documentation with your landlord and have them sign something alongside you that confirms that they are now aware of the condition of the apartment on move-in day. Follow up by taking photos and keeping the landlord up to date on any damages or issues up until the day you move out. This way, if they try to hold back part of your security deposit refund for something that was a known issue or if damage is caused after you move out, you have proof that you’re not at fault.

Study your lease.

Pay special attention to any part of your lease that references your security deposit and the expected condition of the apartment.

Your lease should specify how to get your apartment deposit back, which includes what condition your landlord expects the apartment to be in when you move out.

It should also include an estimate for how long you’ll have to wait to receive your security deposit and last month’s rent. Make sure you’re also aware of what your landlord wants from you if you intend to move out.

Check how much notice your landlord needs, and what your options are if you need to cut out earlier than expected. Be especially careful about trying to use your security deposit as a replacement for your final month of rent. It may seem tempting, but this is a bigger risk than it might seem.

Even if you move out one month before your lease is up, your landlord’s intention is to hold onto your house or apartment deposit until after the end of your lease. If they use up the whole deposit because you skip out paying your final rent check, and they still need to repair parts of the unit, you may end up on the hook for the cost. If you don’t cough up the money, it could open you up to legal action.

How much do you know about your rent?
How much do you really know about what you pay and where you stack up nationally, or even closer to home? Take this short quiz from Jetty to test your renter knowledge.
Take the Quiz

Have a move-out checklist.

  • You probably plan to clean up a bit after you finish packing, but make sure to take care of a few minor repairs, too, if you’re counting on getting your security deposit back in full. If you want to be extra safe, give your apartment a more thorough scrub than you typically might, and make sure to consider the following: Remove any nails or screws from the walls and patch the holes.
  • Ask your landlord about painting: Will they do it, or do you have to?
  • If painting is on you, repaint any walls you painted over. (Ask your landlord for the exact color.)
  • Decorations stripped some paint from the wall? Paint over those spots too.
  • Do some extra cleaning: Wipe down the fridge and other appliances, vacuum, and scrub sinks and showers.

When you’re done:

  • Document the place in photos and writing, as mentioned above.
  • Consider scheduling a walkthrough with your landlord.

Doing a last walkthrough alongside your landlord allows you to have an inspection clearly documented by both of you and gives you an opportunity to address any issues with your landlord right away that may impact your security deposit refund. If you can, see if you can ask them to identify in writing things for which they might hold parts of your deposit, or otherwise give a written “OK” of the condition it’s in.

Worst-case scenario: Know the city and state laws around getting your security deposit back.

If the process of getting your security deposit returned isn’t smooth, make sure you have a thorough understanding of your local laws. At least 47 of the 50 states prohibit landlords from withholding a security deposit refund without providing tenants with an explanation.

Check out the website for the Department of Housing in your city or state, which will detail what rights you have as a tenant, both in terms of what your landlord can use your deposit for and the laws your landlord needs to abide by in returning the money.

Is your landlord charging you for painting? Check if they were required by law to repaint anyway. In some cases, citing these laws in a letter to your landlord—before or after they owe you your money—is a good way to show them you’re serious about getting your security deposit back.

If you mail a physical security deposit demand letter, send it via certified mail, so that you have proof that your landlord received it.

The final option, if your landlord continued to withhold the house or apartment deposit, would be to bring them to small claims court. This may require a small fee ($10 to $50), depending on your location, plus evidence to support whatever your claim may be, and of course, a fair amount of your own personal time. It would be up to you to decide whether the money is worth the commitment.

Hopefully, you’ll never need to face off with a difficult landlord over a security deposit return. With a little bit of planning and foresight—plus some respect for the space while you’re living in it—you can make sure to put yourself in the best position possible for getting back your security deposit.

Be vigilant from the day you move in onward, stay on top of the expectations set out in your lease, and don’t forget to clean up when you move out, and it should be smooth sailing for you and your landlord.