Landlords have been requiring security deposits from tenants for decades. And for decades, tenants have been fighting to get their security deposits back. Over 21 million Americans move out of a rental each year, which means there are a lot of people that have had to fight.1 Given the scale of this problem, many tenants complained to state lawmakers. The result is that in every American state today, laws exist to help tenants get their security deposits back from their landlords.
Each state has their own unique laws around security deposits. A tenant in Oregon has different rights than a tenant in Arkansas. But there are some legal rights that tend to appear across the different states, which we detail below.
Tenants have the right to get their security deposit back within a certain amount of time.
A landlord cannot wait months and months to return a tenant’s security deposit. State laws tend to set strict deadlines from move out. In New York, a landlord has 14 days from move out to return the security deposit. If they don’t do this, then they lose their right to make any deductions. They have to give it all back regardless of any damage or unpaid rent.2 In Washington state, a landlord has 21 days from the vacancy date to return the security deposit. If they fail to do this, they have to give it all back, and might be liable for double the amount plus the costs of recovery.3
Tenants have the right to a written explanation for any deductions the landlord made from the security deposit.
In most states, a landlord can’t make deductions from a security deposit then just send the tenant a check for the amount that’s left. They must provide an itemized statement indicating the basis for any deductions. For example, this statement would say something like “$300 – To repair broken window in second floor rear bedroom”. It might also include a receipt showing that $300 was paid to a contractor to fix the window. This statement is important because it gives the tenant the information required to challenge any of the deductions.
Tenants have the right to not pay for “ordinary” damage to the rental.
Landlords are prohibited from making deductions from the deposit to fix “ordinary” damage to the rental. Ordinary damage is generally the natural deterioration that happens to a rental over time from normal use. Paint fades over time. Faucets start to leak. Carpets get worn down. The tile in the bathroom comes loose. State laws say that the cost of repairing this kind of damage falls on the landlord, not the tenant. Tenants have the legal right to challenge any deductions made for this reason. The security deposit can, however, be used to pay for “excessive” damage to the rental. If you’re playing golf in your bedroom and put a series of 2 inch holes in your wall, you’d have to pay to fix that.
Tenants have the right to not pay for damage done to the rental by vandals.
This one is pretty straightforward. If someone you don’t know throws a rock through your window, most states say the landlord must pay to fix it. The security deposit cannot be used to fix damage done by vandals.
Some tenants have the right to get their full deposit back when the landlord exceeded the state’s security deposit amount limit.
Some states have passed laws that impose limits on the amount a landlord can require as a security deposit. In New York, a landlord cannot collect a security deposit greater than one month’s rent.4 In New Jersey, a landlord cannot collect a security deposit greater than one and one-half times the monthly rent.5 When landlords violate these laws, the tenant frequently has the legal right to get their full deposit back regardless of the damage to the rental.
Some tenants have the right to get interest earned from their security deposit during their rental period.
Some state laws require that landlords place their tenants’ security deposits in bank accounts that earn interest. When the tenant moves out, the landlord is required to give that interest to the tenant. This is the case in New York and New Jersey, among other states. If the landlord fails to hand over this interest, the tenant can sue for it.
Across the 50 states there are many other legal rights that tenants have when getting their security deposit back, but these are the big ones.
So here are some key takeaways to understand.
- State laws gives tenants powerful legal rights that they can enforce when getting their security deposits back from landlords.
- The first step to enforcing these rights is to send the landlord a physical letter citing the correct laws and demanding the money back. Drafting and mailing such a letter isn’t easy to do alone.
- Juris helps people enforce their legal rights and get back their security deposits! We’ve made drafting and mailing these kinds of letters easy, fast, and low cost. We’d be happy to help.
- Table A-4. Geographical Mobility by Tenure: 2018. https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/geographic-mobility/historic.html?kbid=93121