Security Deposit Law - Your Security Deposit Rights 2024

What is a Security Deposit?

A security deposit is a refundable upfront payment that a tenant makes to their landlord when renting a property. It serves as a form of protection for the landlord against potential damages to the rental unit beyond normal wear and tear. 

Typically, security deposits range from 1-2 months of rent. So for example, if the monthly rent is $1,000, the security deposit would commonly be between $1,000 - $2,000. The exact laws governing security deposits, including maximum amounts, handling requirements, allowable uses, and return timelines vary by state.

In general, security deposits can be used by landlords to cover the costs of repairing or replacing damaged items above and beyond normal wear and tear when a tenant moves out. This includes things like holes in walls, broken appliances, stained carpeting, and other excessive damages. The deposit cannot be used to cover regular maintenance or minor cosmetic issues that occur naturally over time.

Deposit Limits By State

Security deposit amounts are limited in many states, though the exact laws vary. Some states cap the maximum amount a landlord can charge for a deposit, while others have no limits. 

Typical maximum deposit amounts range from 1-3 months rent. For example, Massachusetts limits deposits to just 1 month's rent, while California allows up to 2 months rent for an unfurnished unit. Some cities set even lower caps - Washington DC limits deposits to just 1 month's rent.

A few states like Texas and Wisconsin have no limits on security deposit amounts. Landlords in those states can charge any amount they see fit. However, some cities within those states may still impose caps. 

While most landlords collect an upfront deposit, some charge monthly fees instead. These recurring fees serve the same purpose as a security deposit by covering damages, but avoid requiring a large upfront payment. Monthly fees are legal in most states as long as they are disclosed properly in the lease.

By understanding the deposit limits and laws in your state, tenants can ensure landlords are following the regulations and not overcharging. The max amounts range widely, so check your local laws before signing a lease.

When Deposits Are Required

A security deposit is typically required before the tenant moves into the rental unit. This provides protection for the landlord if the tenant causes damage.

In most states, the full security deposit amount must be paid upfront before the tenant can receive keys and move in. However, some states allow the security deposit to be paid in installments. 

For example, in Massachusetts, landlords must permit new tenants to pay 50% of the deposit upfront, and the remainder within 30 days of moving in.

Requiring the full deposit in advance can pose a challenge for some renters, especially lower-income households. Payment plans allow tenants to spread out the deposit amount and make it more affordable to secure housing.

Return Timelines By State

Most states have laws requiring landlords to return security deposits within a certain timeframe after a tenant moves out, usually ranging from 14 to 60 days. The exact timeline depends on the state. 

Some key timelines by state:

  • California - 21 days 
  • Texas - 30 days
  • New York - 14 days
  • Florida - 15-60 days depending on notice provided
  • Illinois - 45 days
  • Pennsylvania - 30 days
  • Ohio - 30 days
  • Massachusetts - 30 days
  • Washington - 14-21 days 

If a landlord fails to return the deposit within the legally mandated timeline, they may forfeit the right to make any deductions and have to promptly return the full deposit amount. Late returns may also make the landlord liable for penalties in some states.

A few states like Iowa and New Hampshire have additional requirements for landlords to pay interest on deposits if they are returned more than a short grace period after move out. This serves as an incentive for timely deposit returns.

Tenants should be sure to understand the specific deposit return timeline laws in their state. It's also critical to provide proper move out notice according to lease terms and document the condition of the rental upon move out with photos and videos. This helps ensure the security deposit process goes smoothly.

Allowable Deductions

Security deposits are intended to cover any damages to the rental unit beyond normal wear and tear. Landlords typically cannot deduct from the deposit for minor cosmetic issues or routine maintenance that occurs through ordinary use of the property. However, they can charge tenants for excessive damages like:

  • Holes in the walls larger than a nail hole, excluding minor marks from hanging pictures or decorations
  • Stains or irreparable burns on carpet exceeding normal traffic patterns and soiling 
  • Missing or broken appliances like refrigerators, stoves, and dishwashers
  • Broken windows or doors
  • Damage to plumbing fixtures like toilets or sinks 
  • Pet odor, stains, or damage exceeding normal wear
  • Cigarette burns or smoke damage 
  • Missing fixtures like doorknobs, sink knobs, house numbers or mailbox keys
  • Large food or liquid stains on the floor or countertops
  • Bathroom mold and mildew buildup exceeding normal humidity
  • Garbage removal if tenants leave behind large amounts of trash

Most states do not allow landlords to deduct for minor cosmetic repairs like painting, steam cleaning carpets, or filling small nail holes, as those are considered routine maintenance between tenants. But significant property damage that requires replacement or extensive repairs can be deducted from the deposit.

Normal Wear and Tear

Landlords cannot deduct from the security deposit for minor damage resulting from normal use of the rental property. This is considered "normal wear and tear" and is an expected part of renting out a property.

Some examples of normal wear and tear that cannot be deducted from the deposit include:

  • Light scuff marks or nail holes on walls from hanging pictures
  • Faded paint or carpet from sunlight over time
  • Minor carpet stains or tracking from regular foot traffic
  • Chips, scratches, or dents on tile, wood floors, countertops, tubs, sinks, or other surfaces from daily use over the years
  • Worn out keys or locks over time
  • Loose hinges, drawer glides, cabinet handles, or door knobs from repeated use
  • Faded window treatments or curtains from sunlight
  • Worn out screens from weather and age
  • Cracked window seals causing fogging

Landlords also cannot deduct for repairs of appliances, fixtures, and systems that breakdown due to regular use over time. This includes things like garbage disposals, water heaters, furnaces, and other items that degrade and need replacement after prolonged use.

Normal wear and tear is different from negligent damage caused by tenants such as large stains, holes in walls, broken appliances, damaged floors beyond minor scratches, and other excessive damage above normal usage. Landlords can deduct reasonable costs to repair negligent damages above and beyond normal wear and tear.

Penalties for Improper Deductions

If landlords improperly withhold security deposits or fail to comply with the law, they may face penalties in many states. Some of the most common penalties include:

  • Forfeiting the Right to Deduct Damages - If landlords miss the deadline to return deposits or provide improper/insufficient documentation of deductions, they lose the legal right to keep any of the deposit money in many states. Even if damages did occur, the full deposit must be returned.
  • Double or Triple Damages - Many states allow tenants to recover 2-3 times the amount of the security deposit as a penalty if landlords wrongly withhold deposits in bad faith. For example, if the deposit was $1000, the tenant could recover $2000-$3000.
  • Attorneys Fees - Tenants who take legal action over deposit disputes can recover attorneys fees in most states if they prevail in claims against the landlord. This provides further motivation for landlords to comply with the law.

The exact penalties that apply depend on your specific state's statutes. But landlords should be aware that improper handling of deposits can lead to significant financial consequences in many jurisdictions.

Documentation Upon Move-In/Out

When renting an apartment or house, it is crucial to thoroughly document the condition at move-in and move-out to protect your security deposit. Here are some tips:

Photograph the entire unit

Take dated pictures of every room from multiple angles, making sure to capture any existing damage, stains, holes, scratches etc. Pay special attention to appliances, carpets, walls and fixtures.

Complete a move-in inspection report

Along with the photographs, complete a detailed checklist noting the precise condition of the entire property. Have the landlord sign it to acknowledge the pre-existing damage.

Conduct a walkthrough at move-out

Schedule a joint walkthrough with your landlord to point out the condition when vacating. Address any cleaning or repairs needed so you are not charged.

Take dated move-out photos

Take another complete set of photos after cleaning and emptying the unit to prove you left the property in good shape.

Get landlord agreements in writing

If there are any verbal agreements about certain issues or repairs, follow up in writing to create a paper trail. 

Keep copies of all documentation

Maintain thorough records of the signed inspection reports, photographs, written communications etc. These will be essential if disputing improper deposit deductions.

Proper documentation protects tenants from being blamed for pre-existing damage when moving out. It also provides evidence if the security deposit is unfairly withheld. Being diligent upfront will give you peace of mind and recourse if problems arise.

If a landlord improperly withholds a security deposit, tenants have several options for recourse:

Small Claims Court

Many disputes over security deposits can be resolved in small claims court. The process is designed to be fast and affordable without needing a lawyer. Tenants can sue for double or triple damages depending on state law if the landlord is found to have violated security deposit statutes. Gather documentation like the lease, move-in and move-out inspection reports, and communications with the landlord. 

Mediation

Some states and cities offer free or low-cost mediation services to resolve tenant-landlord disputes out of court. A neutral mediator helps both parties discuss the issues and aim for a mutual agreement. Mediation can be faster and less adversarial than going to court.

Withholding Rent 

Some states allow tenants to withhold a portion of the rent equal to the disputed deposit amount. Tenants should be cautious with this option and understand their rights first. Withholding rent could risk eviction unless done properly.

Going to court or mediation can help tenants recover improperly withheld deposits. But the best approach is thorough documentation and good communication with the landlord throughout the tenancy.

Advice for Tenants

When renting a property that requires a security deposit, it's important for tenants to understand their rights and follow best practices to ensure the full deposit is returned. Here are some tips:

Understand your state's security deposit laws

Tenants should research the deposit laws and limits in their state. This includes maximum amounts, handling requirements, return timelines, and penalties landlords face for violations. Knowing the laws can help tenants identify improper actions.

Document the condition thoroughly

Upon moving in, tenants should carefully inspect the property and document any existing damage with photos/videos and a signed inspection checklist if provided. Doing the same upon moving out is key to disputing improper deposit withholdings.

Request receipts and statements

Tenants should request a signed receipt when paying the deposit and ask the landlord to provide the account details where it will be held. Upon moving out, tenants should request a full accounting of deductions and receipts for repairs.

Conduct a final walkthrough

Scheduling a joint walkthrough on the last day allows tenants to point out the condition of the unit while still occupying it. Landlords can see there is no last minute damage.  

Consider paying the last month's rent

In some states, tenants may withhold rent if the deposit is not returned in full. Paying the final month upfront can help avoid issues.

Contact the landlord first

If there is a dispute about deductions, contact the landlord in writing within the timeline defined by state law and try to resolve it before going to court.

Each state has cheap and free legal resources to help tenants understand their rights and navigate the small claims court process if necessary to recover deposit funds.

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