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Know What Your Security Deposit Is

In many states, including California and New York, any money paid over your first month's rent is considered a security deposit and that the law considers any security deposit as refundable. So, no matter what your security deposit is called in your lease agreement (i.e. move-in fee, last month's rent, cleaning fee), it may be refundable. 

Take Pictures and Document Everything

The best way to protect your security deposit is to document the condition of your rental unit before move-in. You can do this by taking careful inventory of the condition of the rental unit using a renter's inspection worksheet. Be sure to record any existing damage and check all appliances to be sure they work.

Get your landlord to sign-off on your documented renter's inspection worksheet. Additionally, taking pictures or video of your rental unit is great way to protect your security deposit.

Request an Initial Move-Out Inspection

You can request an initial inspection of your rental unit with your landlord or property management company prior to your move-out to help identify potential deductions of your security deposit. The initial move-out inspection will give you a chance to identify damage and make repairs before you move out to help you get 100% of your deposit back.

In some states, your landlord is required to inform you of your right to an initial move-out inspection prior to your move-out. It is always important to schedule your initial move-out inspection to give yourself plenty of time to complete any necessary repairs.

Know What May Be Deducted

State law determines what your landlord may deduct from your security deposit under your rental lease agreement. In most states, your landlord is required to provide you with an itemized statement of the deductions taken out of your security deposit.

Deductions may include unpaid rent and repairs beyond normal wear and tear such as ripped carpet or damaged window fixtures. Additionally, some states allow deductions for the cleaning of your rental unit but only to make the unit as clean as it was when you first moved in. The easiest way to protect yourself from being charged for normal wear and tear is to document the condition of your rental unit prior to move-in.

If the Landlord Doesn't  Return Your Security Deposit

You have several options to help you get your security deposit back in full if you believe the amount of your security deposit refund is incorrect.

First, contact your landlord and tell them why you believe the deductions on your security deposit are inappropriate. Ask for an immediate refund of the amount you believe you are entitled to. If you make this demand over the phone or in person, be sure to follow up your request with a letter or email that states exactly what you asked for verbally.

If your landlord does not return the security deposit, you may suggest that the dispute be mediated by a neutral third person or agency. Check your state or local government to find a local dispute resolution group or mediation service to assist you.

Your final option is to take legal action in small claims court. It is important to understand that an outcome in small claims court is uncertain. If you take your claim to small claims court, you will be limited to the amount you may recover and you must represent yourself — no attorneys are permitted.

Securing the return of your security deposit doesn't have to be a painful process. You can ensure a quick and speedy return of your security deposit by knowing the law governing your deposit and following the steps above.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.

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