Landlords love to keep security deposits, so we’re here to present seven secret strategies to get your security deposit back!
I’m Nicole from Low Income Relief, where we help millions of people save money and get free stuff.
No matter how much you pay in a security deposit, it seems like it’s never enough. Landlords are always looking for ways to get more money from you. Here are some tips and tricks I use to get my deposit back.
It’s never too early to start trying to get your security deposit back.
You should start planning to get your deposit back before you even move into the property. It sounds crazy, but the more work you do before you move in, the easier it will be when you move out.
It is critically important that you take pictures and videos of the property before you move anything into it. This documentation gives you a point of reference when you move out, so that you can protect yourself from being blamed for pre-existing damage or issues.
I do a thorough walk-through of the property and take photos and video of every inch of every room. That way, I can prove that there was pre-existing damage when I moved in and I can’t be blamed for anything I didn’t do.
Get photos and videos when you move out.
Never leave the property without documentation. It has become increasingly common for landlords to refuse to do a physical walk-through with their tenants at the end of their lease. Our last landlord said, “Just bring us the keys and we’ll walk through it later and let you know what we find.”
That puts you in a dangerous situation, where you’re utterly dependent on their findings. Protect yourself and ensure that you can get your security deposit back by taking detailed photos and videos just before you leave the property, after all of your belongings have been removed and the building has been cleaned out.
These records can help you fight any issues that your landlord brings up later.
Know the law.
As you enter these complex negotiations with your landlord, it is critically important that you understand the state laws that govern security deposits. Knowing these rules can help you immensely, because they often prescribe penalties for landlords who do not comply. If the landlord refuses to return the deposit, especially if they refuse to explain why they aren’t returning it, the law may be able to give you some leverage.
The better you understand the law, the better you will be able to negotiate with your landlord.
Remind them of the timeline if they don’t comply.
Most states have rules about how long landlords can wait to return the deposit. According to Nolo, the rules generally range from 14 days to 60 days depending on what state you live in. Tennessee is the only state that does not have a statutory deadline. If you know the rules for your state, it can help you get your security deposit back.
Although I am not a lawyer, I like to review the law and then wait until the day after the landlord is required to either return the deposit or explain why they aren’t returning it. If I don’t hear from them, I send an email that simply states something like this:
“Dear landlord, state law requires the security deposit to be returned within this number of days. Please remit the payment immediately, or I may be compelled to contact a lawyer to exercise my rights in this matter.”
This is usually enough to get them to comply.
Make sure that you get an itemized list of charges.
Some state laws have specific rules about what landlords can deduct the security deposit for and how they have to account for those items. Many states require landlords to provide itemized lists of charges that are deducted from the security deposit.
This was true in our state. When our landlord claimed over $3,000 in “miscellaneous repairs,” I replied and let them know that bundling all the repairs under “miscellaneous” hardly counted as an itemized list. I demanded to see an actual itemized list of expenses.
Although the rental company pushed back and tried to avoid giving me the list, I reminded them that state law required it and offered to hire a lawyer to sort it all out. Eventually, they had no choice but to respond with an itemized list in accordance with the law.
Once you have an itemized list, the real work to get your security deposit back begins.
The list that the rental company sent me was both hilarious and pathetic. The rental company sent an itemized list that included absurd charges like a $820 carpet cleaning I knew they didn’t complete, about $100 for smoke detector batteries, $308 to replace missing lightbulbs that weren’t really missing and even a $77 charge to simply turn on the disposal and make sure it was working property.
My husband and I were absolutely baffled by most of their claims, because my videos showed we had left the property in good repair. We were confident that the company had not actually done these things, because the home had been a disaster when we moved in.
Anyway, we replied to their email with another email. We disputed almost every single item in their list. You can approach the dispute in many ways. For example, you can dispute the validity of the entire charge, you can dispute the amount of money that they are charging, or you can dispute whether or not the item counts as an actual billable repair. No matter how you approach it, disputing everything is the best way to get your security deposit back.
For example, the $77 disposal check was not something that could fairly be charged to the tenant. There was nothing wrong with it; they just flipped a switch to make sure it was still working. That was not something that could legitimately be billed to us, so the rental company dropped it without another word.
When I questioned the amounts they were charging for the carpet cleaning, lightbulbs and smoke detector batteries, the rental company backtracked hard. They said, “Oh, those are only estimates. We haven’t done any of the work yet, that’s just what we think it’ll cost.”
But… that’s not how this is supposed to work, so I reminded them that it was their responsibility to complete the repairs and return our security deposit within a certain amount of time, according to state law. And you know what? It worked.
Ultimately, it took about a dozen emails over the course of a month to get our security deposit refunded. However, it was well worth the effort! When the company finally relented, I responded with a simple thank you.
Of course, the outcome could have been very different. I’ve dealt with other companies on behalf of friends who are much more stubborn. In those cases, I recommend using social pressure to get your deposit back. Use public reviews on websites, including Yelp, Google and Facebook, to bring awareness to the issue. Get your friends to like, comment on and share your reviews.
If that doesn’t work, legal aid may be able to help. You can find a list of free legal aid resources in your community here.