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Disputing a Security Deposit Disposition

February 14, 2018

Ah, security deposits –an area where there’s much confusion, and debate –among landlords and tenants alike.

For most landlords, the security deposit represents that all-important up-front security that they can withhold to cover damages and unpaid rent. For tenants, the security deposit is usually something that they expect to receive back, sometimes with interest, when they move out.

But while security deposits may seem like a straightforward concept, they’re an area where confusion abounds. In fact, disputes over security deposits are one of the most common reasons for landlords and tenants to end up in court.

If you’re a tenant –and concerned about your security deposit, the good news is there’s a lot that you can do up front, to ensure that you’ll get it back –in full, when you move out.

But first, let’s take a look at the law –and see what it says about the handling of security deposits.

Security Deposits and the Law

Fortunately, the law outlines some pretty clear guidelines that landlords must follow concerning security deposits. While these laws vary considerably from state to state, and it’s worth having a look at your state to see what the rules are regarding limits and deadlines for returning it. It’s also worth noting that a few states –like Connecticut, Delaware, and Massachusetts even have laws regarding how a landlord stores the deposit –requiring the landlord to keep it in an interest-bearing account and return it –with interest, to the tenant at the time of move-out.

In most cases, landlords may only apply the security deposit to the following:

  • Unpaid rent
  • Cleaning the rental unit when the tenant moves out, although only to make the unit as clean as when the tenant first moved in
  • Repairs for damages, other than normal wear and tear, caused by the tenant
  • If the lease or rental agreement outlines it, the cost of repairing or replacing furniture, other than because of normal wear and tear

Sounds straightforward enough, right?

Unfortunately, applying these rules practically is an area where there’s room for disputes.

Wear and Tear Vs. Damage

One of the most common causes of disputes regarding security deposits is the issue of damage vs. normal use.

While landlords can keep the security deposit for repairs, they cannot keep it for what’s considered to be normal wear and tear.

Not surprisingly, most landlords and tenants have very different ideas about what damage and normal wear and tear look like.

To help clarify, here’s a list of things that can generally be considered normal wear and tear. In most cases, the security deposit should not be held for the following:

  • Faded or chipped paint
  • Scuff marks
  • Faded curtains
  • Faded, worn carpet, or furniture marks in carpet
  • General dust
  • Worn hinges
  • Hole in the wall from a missing door stop
  • Damaged pipes, unless damaged by the tenant
  • Burnt-out bulb in the refrigerator
  • Loose rails or banisters

On the other hand, if there are damages that are caused by the tenant or their guests, the deposit can be withheld and applied towards them.

Here’s a look at things that go beyond normal wear and tear. The landlords can generally apply the deposit towards issues like:

  • Stained carpet, or flooring with holes, tears, or burns
  • Large holes or excessively damaged walls
  • Broken windows
  • Damaged or missing window screens
  • Damaged or missing window blinds
  • Broken doors and locks
  • Appliances damaged by misuse
  • Clogged drains caused by misuse
  • Broken fixtures
  • Damage caused by pets

Generally speaking, damage must be assessed on a case-by-case basis, and a decision should be made with the law in mind.

Getting Your Deposit Back

As a tenant, there are a number of things that you can do to help ensure that you’ll get your deposit back.

Read the Lease

The first thing that you should do is to ensure that you’ve carefully read –and understand the lease. The lease will outline what’s expected of you in terms of maintenance, as well as the condition that you should leave the property in. It should also specify if there are any special measures that must be taken, such as having the carpets cleaned.  

Leave the Property in Good Condition

Generally speaking, if you leave the rental in the same condition that it was in when you moved in, and ensure that you pay the rent and remain current on any other bills, then you should get your security deposit back.

Document the Condition at the Time of Move In

It doesn’t hurt to document the condition of the rental at the time of move in, and again when you move out. At Renters Warehouse, our property managers will usually perform a walkthrough with tenants at the time of move in, noting any blemishes with a video inspection, but you can do this step on your own as well. It’s a good idea to photograph any stains, marks, or damages when you move in, and date the photographs. That way, if there’s any dispute at the time of move-out, you’ll have photographic evidence.  

Disputing Your Security Deposit Deductions

If you feel you have taken good care of the property and do not agree with deductions from your security deposit, there are steps that you can take to dispute the charges.

The first step would be to discuss the charges with your landlord or the property management company. Clearly state your case and request a refund. If you’re still dissatisfied, then there are additional actions you can take. Follow up your conversation with a letter sent by certified mail, keeping a copy for yourself. If this doesn’t resolve the problem, you could try third-party mediation. Some state and local agencies offer mediation services for landlords and tenants. Finally, if all else fails, you may have to file a lawsuit to get your security deposit back. Keep in mind, though, that your landlord can also file counterclaims for damages or violations of the lease.

While most of the time, landlords will handle the return of the security deposit properly, occasionally there’s an issue that involves a dispute. If you feel that you should get your security deposit back, don’t hesitate to reach out to your landlord or property manager, and present a clear case on why you believe that you’re entitled to it. A reputable landlord will be more than happy to hear your side of the story; and will strive to come to a peaceful and satisfactory resolution.

At Renters Warehouse, our dispositions department works hard to ensure that security deposits are handled in a way that’s fair and in compliance with the law. If you have any questions regarding any of our policies or the return of YOUR security deposit, don’t hesitate to reach out today.