Security Deposits: FAQ

In most states, a landlord has the option of requiring a security deposit.  Most landlords choose to require a security deposit in order to help ensure that the tenant takes care of the rental property and complies with the terms of the agreement.  Generally, a security deposit must be refundable and the terms should be specified in writing to determine on what conditions the tenant will receive the deposit back.  In most states, the landlord can make deductions from the security deposit for certain damages to the property or for unapid rent.  State law varies on the kinds of deductions that can be made to the property (but generally does not include normal "wear and tear") and the number of days in which the security deposit must be refunded and/or an itemized statement of deductions be provided to the tenant. 

Can my landlord keep my entire security deposit?

A security deposit is a deposit the landlord collects. After a tenant moves out, the landlord can apply the deposit to:

  • Unpaid rent owed
  • Cost to clean the unit
  • Cost to repair or replace items damaged by the tenant beyond normal wear and tear
  • Cost to store the tenant’s belongings

Many states set limits on how many months in rent or security deposit the landlord can demand. The landlord may, however, require deposit up to the mandated limits.

In general, once the tenant vacates the property, the landlord has 21 to 30 days to send the tenant a refund of the deposit minus any amount lawfully applied to back rent, damages to the premises, or costs for cleaning and storage.

The landlord must:

  • Provide an itemized list describing all deductions
  • Send the refund to the tenant’s last known address or to an address the tenant provides before or shortly after moving out. It is the tenant’s responsibility to provide a valid address. If the landlord’s attempts to send the refund to the address of record fail, he or she may lawfully be allowed to keep the refund after a certain period of time.

Can My Landlord Keep a Portion of My Security Deposit For "Wear and Tear?"?

A landlord normally may not withhold all or part of the deposit for the replacement or repair of items within the unit due to "normal wear and tear."  There is no precise definition for what constitutes "normal wear and tear," but it generally means the simple wearing down of an item as a result of the normal use or aging of the item.   One way the amount of "normal wear and tear" is commonly calculated is by determining the "useful life" of the item.  

For example if a particular type of carpeting is installed at the beginning of a rental and it generally has to be replaced every 10 years at a cost of $1000, but due to heavy wear or damage the carpeting has to be replaced after only 8 years, then the landlord may not charge the tenant the entire $1000 to replace the carpet.  Rather, the landlord would probably be able to charge the tenant only $200  - for the two years worth of life that would have been left on the carpet under "normal wear and tear" conditions.   

What is normal wear and tear?

The standard most state laws apply in determining when a landlord can lawfully use the security deposit to deduct the repair costs of tenant caused damage, is based on the damages exceeding those commonly accrued through everyday use.

The standard is subjective, however, so often a landlord and tenant may disagree on what damages should be deducted from the security deposit. If state law requires that the landlord provide an itemized list of deductions, the tenant can refer to this list for specifications about the damages.

A landlord’s failure to comply with the law can result in the landlord having to pay the tenant triple damages, penalties, interest and attorney fees.

What States Do Not Require A Landlord To Return A Tenant's Security Deposit Within A Set Period Of Time?

Neither Tennessee nor West Virginia have a law that requires a landlord to return a tenant's security deposit within a set time period.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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