By:  LINDSEY O'NEILL, ESQ.

For renters, one of the most common questions is how to get back the security deposit back at the end of the rental - and how much of it are we entitled to get back? The good news is that state laws usually spell out the answers - (1) the exact number of days within which a landlord must return the security deposit; and (2) what deductions can be made from the deposit. The bad news is that most statutes allow deductions from the security deposit for unpaid rent and for "damages" to the unit. The question then becomes what "damages" can be deducted.

 A few simple steps can help you obtain a timely refund of your security deposit:

STEP 1.  CONDUCT A MOVE-IN INSPECTION.

The general rule is that a tenant is not responsible for “normal wear and tear” of the rental. For example, if the dishwasher must be replaced because it has simply worn out, that's usually the landlord's responsibility and the tenant’s security deposit can not be used to buy a new one. However, if a tenant damages the dishwasher through carelessness or deliberate misuse, the tenant must usually pay for it.  Because "normal wear and tear" can be interpreted many different ways, disputes often arise. It is generally recommended that the landlord and tenant conduct an inspection upon move-in to document the condition of the unit. This way, when the tenant moves out, it will be easier to determine what items may actually have been damaged as opposed to what has simply worn out.

STEP 2.  DOCUMENT ANY DAMAGES TO THE UNIT FOR WHICH YOU ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE.

If an appliance malfunctions, notify the landlord so that the appropriate maintenance and/or repairs can be made.  Appliances may be covered by a warranty for only certain periods of time, so it is best to act quickly in the event of a problem.  This will help avoid any liability for damages at the end of the rental.  Also, if some third party causes damage to the property (such as a neighbor or other person not invited to the premises by the tenant), contact the landlord and document the situation.  Since memories fade, if you have documentation about someone else's damage to the property, this will aid you in obtaining the appropriate refund of your deposit.

STEP 3.  SEND THE LANDLORD A WRITTEN REQUEST FOR REFUND OF THE SECURITY DEPOSIT IN ACCORDANCE WITH STATE LAW.

If you haven't received your security deposit back from the landlord within the statutory period, you can send a letter (certified mail) to the landlord requesting return of the funds by a certain deadline. The letter should specify the amount of the security deposit paid, the date the rental agreement terminated and you vacated the property, and that the time for refund of the deposit has expired. It is a good idea to reference the security deposit statute in your state. If the landlord made any deductions to the deposit, ask for an itemization of those charges. Include the address to which you would like the security deposit returned. Ending the letter with a reminder of the penalties provided by law for failure to return the security deposit as required (including in most states the ability to sue the landlord and recover damages) usually encourages the landlord to act promptly.

Whether you are the tenant or the landlord, if you have a security deposit dispute, contact a landlord tenant attorney in your area to determine what legal rights and obligations are available in your situation.

Learn more about the security deposit laws in your state here.

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