Pennsylvania Security Deposit Laws in 2024

Overview of Security Deposits in Pennsylvania

A security deposit is a refundable payment that a tenant provides to a landlord at the start of a lease to cover any potential damages or unpaid rent. In Pennsylvania, security deposits are capped at a maximum of two months' rent for unfurnished units. Landlords are required to hold security deposits in a separate escrow account, and cannot use the funds for their own operating expenses or commingle them with their own money. At the end of a lease, the unused portion of the security deposit must be returned to the tenant within 30 days along with an itemized list of any damages or costs deducted. Security deposits provide landlords with some financial protection if tenants leave damages behind or fail to pay rent, while also protecting tenants from excessive charges.

How Much Can a Landlord Charge for a Security Deposit in Pennsylvania?

In Pennsylvania, landlords are permitted to charge up to 2 months' rent for a security deposit on most rental units. This means if your monthly rent payment is $1,000, your landlord can require a security deposit of up to $2,000 when signing the lease. 

The 2-month cap applies specifically to unfurnished units. For furnished rentals, Pennsylvania does not impose a legal limit on security deposit amounts. Landlords renting out furnished apartments or homes can charge over 2 months' rent if they choose to.

Additionally, while some states allow landlords to charge "pet deposits" or "pet fees" on top of the regular security deposit, Pennsylvania prohibits this practice. Pet owners cannot be singled out with extra security deposit requirements. The maximum 2 months' rent deposit covers any potential damages caused by tenants with pets.

Returning the Security Deposit in Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, landlords have 30 days after the lease ends to return any unused portion of the tenant's security deposit. This timeline applies whether the tenant moved out at the end of the lease or broke the lease early. 

Within that 30 days, the landlord must send the tenant an itemized list of damages and repairs they intend to deduct from the deposit, along with a check for any remaining balance. The itemized list should detail all repairs and cleaning charges so the tenant can review the costs.

If there were no deductions, the full security deposit must be returned to the tenant within 30 days after they moved out. The unused portion of the deposit belongs to the tenant and cannot be kept by the landlord once the lease ends and keys are returned.

If the landlord does not return the unused portion of the security deposit within 30 days, they are in violation of Pennsylvania law. At that point, the tenant has several options to recover their deposit, including taking the landlord to small claims court. More details on legal recourse can be found in the "What if the Landlord Does Not Return the Security Deposit?" section below.

What if the Landlord Does Not Return the Security Deposit?

If a landlord in Pennsylvania fails to return a tenant's security deposit or provide an itemized list of damages and charges within 30 days after the end of the lease, the tenant has legal recourse. The tenant can sue the landlord in small claims court to recover the improperly held security deposit. 

In Pennsylvania, a tenant can file a lawsuit in magisterial district court without a lawyer to recover a security deposit that was wrongfully withheld. The maximum amount that can be recovered in magisterial district court is $12,000. Importantly, if the judge determines the landlord improperly withheld the security deposit in bad faith, the judge can award the tenant up to double the amount of the security deposit as a penalty against the landlord.

For the tenant to successfully recover their security deposit through a lawsuit, the landlord must prove that the costs of damages and repairs exceeded the amount of the security deposit that was collected. If the landlord cannot show adequate documentation and justification for withholding the security deposit, the judge will likely rule in favor of the tenant.

Therefore, if a landlord retains all or part of a security deposit in violation of Pennsylvania law, they may end up owing the tenant even more money as a result. This provides a strong incentive for landlords to properly return security deposits within 30 days after the end of a lease to avoid potential lawsuits and penalties.

Suing a Landlord for the Security Deposit in Pennsylvania

If a Pennsylvania landlord fails to return your security deposit or provide an itemized list of damages within 30 days after the end of your lease, you have the right to take legal action to recover your deposit. The process of suing a landlord over a security deposit in Pennsylvania is designed to be simple so that tenants can represent themselves without a lawyer. 

Here is how it works:

You can file a claim against your landlord in your local magisterial district court. These courts handle civil cases involving small sums of money, like security deposit disputes. The filing fee is low, around $50-100 in most cases. You don't need to hire a lawyer to file and argue your case in a magisterial district court. The rules of procedure and evidence are relaxed compared to higher courts.

When you go to file your claim, bring documentation to support your case, like:

  • A copy of your written lease agreement
  • Receipts for rent payments  
  • Photos documenting the condition of the unit when you moved in and when you moved out
  • Written notice you sent to the landlord listing damages and charges
  • A copy of the landlord's itemized deductions (if you received one)

Presenting this evidence will help the judge determine whether the landlord wrongfully withheld your deposit or violated the law. 

The hearing will take place within 60-90 days after you file. The judge will hear arguments from both sides and issue a decision on the spot. If the judge rules in your favor, they can award double the amount of your security deposit as damages. This provides motivation for landlords to properly return deposits within 30 days.

Suing in small claims court allows tenants to hold landlords accountable without needing to hire legal representation. Just be sure to bring strong documentation to support your case. The better evidence you have, the more likely you'll get your full security deposit back.

Holding Deposits in Pennsylvania

A holding deposit is a payment made by a tenant to reserve a rental unit and take it off the market while they complete the application process. Landlords in Pennsylvania are allowed to charge prospective tenants a holding deposit to hold a unit. 

The holding deposit amount is capped at 1 month's rent under Pennsylvania law. The holding deposit serves as a good faith payment by the tenant to show they intend to rent the unit.

Once the tenant is approved and signs the lease, the holding deposit must be credited to their security deposit or the first month's rent. The holding deposit cannot be kept separately by the landlord - it becomes part of the tenant's security deposit at the start of the lease.

If for any reason the tenant fails to sign the lease after paying the holding deposit, the landlord can retain the full holding deposit amount. The holding deposit guarantees that the unit will be held for the tenant for a certain period of time.

Requiring a holding deposit is a common practice for landlords in Pennsylvania to secure a tenant's interest in a unit. However, tenants should make sure the holding deposit is credited properly and not charged on top of the maximum security deposit.

First/Last Month's Rent and Deposits 

It is legal in Pennsylvania for a landlord to charge first month's rent, last month's rent, and a security deposit when a tenant moves in. However, the total amount charged cannot exceed two months' rent under state law. This means that if the monthly rent is $1,000, the landlord can charge:

  • First month's rent: $1,000
  • Last month's rent: $1,000  
  • Security deposit: $1,000

But they cannot charge any more than that, as the total of $3,000 would exceed the two-month cap.

It's important to note that under Pennsylvania law, the last month's rent payment is considered part of the security deposit. So in the example above, while the landlord collected $1,000 for the security deposit specifically, the full $2,000 for first and last month's rent counts toward the total deposit amount.

This prevents landlords from circumventing the two-month cap by collecting first and last month's rent upfront in addition to a full security deposit. By counting last month's rent as part of the deposit, Pennsylvania law limits the total amount a landlord can collect when a tenant first moves in.

Getting Your Full Security Deposit Back

Getting your full security deposit back requires preparing when you move in and move out of the rental unit. Here are some tips:

Document the Condition at Move-In and Move-Out

  • When you first move in, take date-stamped photos or video of the entire unit. Note any damages, defects, or issues. Ask the landlord to sign the documentation.
  • Do a walkthrough inspection with the landlord 24 hours before moving out. Document the condition just like at move-in.
  • Take pictures of any cleaning, repairs or improvements you completed. Show the unit is in the same or better condition.
  • Keep all move-in and move-out documentation in case of any deposit disputes.

Send Written Notice of Damages to the Landlord  

  • Provide the landlord with a letter indicating any damages or issues when you move out.
  • List details of each damage and estimated repair costs.
  • Send by certified mail and keep a copy for your records.
  • This shows the landlord you acknowledge any reasonable deductions from the deposit.

Clean Thoroughly and Repair Any Damages

  • Clean the entire unit until it is spotless - sweep, mop, wipe down surfaces.
  • Repair any minor holes, dents or scratches that exceed normal wear and tear.
  • Replace any burned out light bulbs, stained carpets, or damaged window treatments.  
  • Hire a professional cleaner if necessary to get the unit back to move-in conditions.

Following these tips will demonstrate you left the unit in good shape and make it easier to get your full security deposit refunded by the landlord.

What Landlords Can Deduct from the Security Deposit

Landlords in Pennsylvania are permitted to deduct fees and damages from a tenant's security deposit under certain conditions. The three main categories of allowable deductions are:

Unpaid Rent

If a tenant moves out with unpaid rent, the landlord can use the security deposit to cover those costs. This includes rent owed for the remaining period of the lease if the tenant breaks the lease early.

Damage Beyond Normal Wear and Tear 

Landlords can deduct from the security deposit to repair or replace any damages to the unit beyond normal wear and tear. This includes things like:

  • Holes in the walls
  • Carpet stains or burns 
  • Broken appliances
  • Missing fixtures
  • Stained bathtubs
  • Damaged countertops

Damage that occurs due to regular use over time, such as worn carpet, minor scuffs on the walls, and faded paint are considered normal wear and tear that landlords cannot deduct for.

Cleaning Costs if Tenant Left Dirty

If the tenant leaves the unit significantly dirtier than when they moved in, the landlord can use the security deposit to cover reasonable cleaning costs to restore the unit. This may include hiring professional cleaners if extensive cleaning is required.

Landlords cannot deduct for minor cleaning that is expected between tenants, such as vacuuming and wiping surfaces. The unit must be left filthy for cleaning deductions to be legal.

Illegal Security Deposit Practices

Some landlords in Pennsylvania engage in illegal practices when dealing with security deposits that tenants should watch out for. These include:

Charging More Than 2 Months' Rent

The legal limit for security deposits in Pennsylvania is 2 months' rent. Landlords cannot require tenants to pay more than this, even for furnished units or properties with pets. Charging any amount over 2 months' rent is illegal.  

Not Returning the Unused Portion Within 30 Days

Pennsylvania law requires landlords to return any unused portion of the security deposit to the tenant within 30 days after the lease terminates and possession of the property is returned. Failure to do so constitutes an illegal practice.

Not Providing an Itemized Damages List

If a landlord intends to withhold any part of the security deposit for repairs or damages, they must provide tenants with a written list of the itemized damages and associated repair costs within 30 days. The failure to do so is considered an illegal security deposit practice.

Tenants who experience any of these illegal practices can take their landlord to court to recover up to double their security deposit amount. It is advisable to send a formal letter requesting the deposit return or itemized damages statement before initiating legal action.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the holding deposit law in PA?

In Pennsylvania, a holding deposit is often used by landlords to hold a rental unit for a prospective tenant before they sign the lease. There is no specific state law regulating holding deposits; thus, the terms are generally dictated by the landlord. Typically, if the tenant proceeds with the lease, the holding deposit is either returned or applied toward the first month's rent or security deposit. If the tenant decides not to rent, the landlord may keep the deposit depending on the agreement.

Can a landlord charge you for cleaning in PA?

Yes, in Pennsylvania, landlords can charge tenants for cleaning costs if the cleaning is necessary to restore the rental unit to the same level of cleanliness as it was at the beginning of the tenancy. This charge must be justified, and it cannot be used to cover normal wear and tear. Landlords should provide documentation or an itemized list of cleaning costs if deducted from the security deposit.

How do I sue my landlord for a security deposit in Pennsylvania?

To sue a landlord for a security deposit in Pennsylvania, you can file a claim in small claims court, also known as the Magisterial District Court. The process involves filing a complaint and paying a filing fee. The amount in dispute must not exceed $12,000. It's recommended to bring all relevant documents, such as the lease agreement, move-in and move-out inspection checklists, correspondence with the landlord, and any photos or evidence supporting your claim.

What happens if a landlord does not return a security deposit in 30 days in Pennsylvania?

In Pennsylvania, if a landlord fails to return a security deposit or provide a written list of damages within 30 days after the termination of the lease and delivery of possession by the tenant, the landlord forfeits the right to withhold any portion of the security deposit. Additionally, the tenant may sue to recover up to twice the amount of the security deposit withheld.

What is considered normal wear and tear on a rental property in Pennsylvania?

Normal wear and tear in Pennsylvania refers to the deterioration that occurs naturally over time with normal use of the property, and without negligence, carelessness, accident, or abuse by the tenant or visitors. This can include minor scuffs on the walls, carpet wear from walking, faded paint, and other similar conditions. It does not include significant damage like holes in the walls, broken tiles, or stains on the carpet that are beyond what is considered normal usage.

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