Security deposits: Jetty’s guide on what to expect

Security deposits—sometimes called “damage deposits”—can help protect landlords from certain damages caused by tenants. If a renter lets their dog go to town on the floorboards, or throws a rager that results in an unexplained hole in the wall, the landlord can use the tenant’s security deposit to cover the repairs.

Security deposits may be there to help protect your landlord, but it’s a good idea to still do your homework. Getting a security deposit receipt right off the bat is one way to make sure you get it back when it comes time to move out. Here, we outline what a security deposit is, how they work, as well as your rights and obligations as a tenant.

What exactly is a security or damage deposit?

A security deposit is a sum of money set aside to help a landlord cover unpaid rent or to repair damages caused by a tenant. It can be a range of amounts—rules vary by state—but it’s often equal to one month’s rent. But even when the amount is the same, it’s different from a last month’s rent deposit, which can only be used to cover unpaid rent.

In some cases, you can take out a security deposit bond, which will often be less than a month’s rent. Technically, a security deposit is still your money, it’s just placed in the landlord’s care. The landlord can’t spend any of it unless certain things occur—typically, those “things” involve you causing damage to your apartment.

Because it’s still your money, you may be entitled to any interest your security deposit collects. Refer to your security deposit receipt to check if the terms are listed there. If not, ask your landlord if your deposit will be in an interest-bearing account (an account that pays interest). You can also head to the official government website for your state to double-check the state’s rules governing interest on security deposits.

Will I get my deposit back?

That ball is kind of in your court. Whether or not you get your security deposit back depends partly on how you treat your apartment, and partly on the conditions of your lease. Generally, if you owe your landlord rent when you move out, if you leave behind large amounts of garbage or belongings that your landlord will have to dispose of, or if you damage your apartment, your landlord is entitled to keep some or all of your deposit. (That’s why they collected it in the first place.)1

Is there anything I can do to protect my deposit?

You bet. After you pay your landlord, ask for a security deposit receipt and a last month’s rent receipt. Each receipt should include your name, your landlord’s name, the amount and date of the payment, it’s intended use, and your landlord’s signature.

And before you unload the moving van, take photos of your new place, paying particular attention to any areas that show wear and tear. You want evidence that the crack in the sink and the gouge in the floor were there before you showed up. Save those photos, and take a new set when you move out, to help prove you left the apartment in good condition.2 And of course…try not to damage your apartment.

What counts as “damage”?

In the case of determining what a damage deposit is and what it covers, “damage” means more than your typical wear and tear (like a few stray scuff marks on the floor, or a few pin holes left behind from your gallery wall).

The nibble marks your rabbit chewed into the baseboard molding, the burn marks from the scented candle you knocked onto the carpet, and the hole you made when you were practicing your golf swing a bit too close to the wall? Those may all be outside the realm of “normal” for what’s covered under a damage deposit, and could be grounds for you losing all or part of it.

So, what happens to my security deposit and last month’s rent deposit when I move out?

Don’t expect to get a check immediately upon turning in your keys. After you move out, your landlord will inspect the apartment and make a decision regarding your security or damage deposit. In some states, what’s included in the terms of security deposit allows you to be present for this inspection—if you’re in one of those states (check your state’s official government website), make it a point to be there.

If your landlord plans to use your deposit to pay for repairs, be sure to get a detailed list of all damages. You should also ask for written proof of the repair costs in the form of contractors’ estimates or invoices. If your landlord is unable to provide that information, you may be able to sue them for the return of your deposit, and may even be entitled to additional compensation.

Beyond that, most states give landlords a window of time to return security deposits, generally between 14 and 30 days. Some states don’t have a set deadline, while others, like New York, are incredibly vague—in The Empire State, landlords are just required to return security deposits in “a reasonable time.”3 If you’re in a state with a timeline that doesn’t end, it’s worth seeing if your landlord is willing to agree on a deadline and add it to your lease agreement before you move in.

Can I count my security deposit as my last month’s rent deposit?

It depends—it can vary based on the state you live in and the terms of your lease. Many leases stipulate that a security deposit can’t be used as equivalent to a last month’s rent deposit. Think about it—your landlord would be stuck without funds if you chose not to pay your last month’s rent and you left behind a damaged apartment. However, check with your landlord to understand the terms of your lease.4

What if I never get my deposit back?

If you didn’t cause damage, don’t owe rent, and still haven’t received your deposit, send a written letter to your landlord informing them that the deposit return is overdue. If you’re still having trouble getting your deposit back, you may need to take your landlord to court.5

Looking for a way to reduce your upfront costs? Jetty Deposit can help you out. When you rent through one of our real estate partners, we’ll replace your security deposit with a one-time, non-refundable fee—at a fraction of the cost of your deposit. Learn more at jetty.com/passport.

1 https://www.landlordology.com/security-deposit-withholdings/

2 https://www.forbes.com/sites/trulia/2015/02/06/7-ways-to-avoid-losing-your-security-deposit/#8aa593f924d5

3 https://realestate.findlaw.com/landlord-tenant-law/security-deposits.html

https://www.brickunderground.com/blog/2011/03/the_inside_scoop_on_security_deposits_and_how_to_get_yours_back 5 https://realestate.findlaw.com/landlord-tenant-law/security-deposit-return-timelines.html

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