What Is a Security Deposit?

If you're renting an apartment or house, you may make numerous payments before you ever move in. You'll pay your first month's rent in advance, or if you have a week-to-week lease, you may only have to pay the first week's rent in advance. If you have a pet, your landlord may charge a refundable pet deposit or nonrefundable pet fee. And you'll typically have to pay a security deposit, which can vary according to its terms and amount, depending on the landlord-tenant laws in the state where you live.

What is a Security Deposit?
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What Is a Security Deposit?

A security deposit is a sum of money that you pay to a landlord or property management company, which offers some protection against damages that you may cause while living in an apartment or rental house. Other types of security deposits may also be required for a rental car or even a credit card. A security deposit for a credit card is the collateral that backs the credit limit for the account.

What Is Normal Wear and Tear?

Normal wear and tear is the natural result of responsible occupancy or aging of a property, which doesn't include damage because of neglect or abuse of a property. Most landlords ask for a security deposit before prospective tenants move into a property to cover any future damages that are beyond the scope of "normal wear and tear." A landlord and tenant often disagree on the definition of "normal" wear and tear, but typical examples include chipped paint, small scuffs or scrapes on floors and minor damage, such as broken hinges. Excessive wear and tear is damage that results from careless disregard for a property, such as holes in walls, cigarette burns or theft.

Can I Get My Deposit Back?

You can get your security deposit back if you comply with the terms of your lease for upkeep of the rental property, and if your landlord follows the law in the state where you live concerning the return of your deposit. State laws vary when defining how much a landlord can charge for a security deposit and how he can use your security deposit. For example, although a security deposit that's equal to one month's rent is a common rule of thumb, some states allow a security deposit that's equal to up to three months of rental payments. Other state laws impose no limit on the amount of security deposit a landlord may charge. The state where you live may also allow your landlord to apply some or all of your security deposit to cover back rent, unpaid utility bills and cleaning the property instead of solely using it to pay for repairs because of damage you caused to the property.

If you have a pet, you may also want to check to see if a pet deposit is truly a deposit, which you get back at the end of your tenancy if your pet has caused no damage, or whether the pet deposit is actually a nonrefundable fee.

How Long Does It Take for a Deposit to Be Returned?

Depending on your state's landlord-tenant law, as well as your landlord's compliance, you may receive your security deposit in as little as 72 hours, or you may have to wait up to 60 days. Short turnaround times are typically allowed in situations that require tenants to leave through no fault of their own, such as the existence of a hazardous condition or the condemnation of a building. State laws are specific about the length of time a landlord has to return a security deposit after a tenant vacates. In some states, you may be entitled to a speedier return of your security deposit simply by giving proper notice of terminating your tenancy. In other states, you are entitled by law to be present at the final inspection. You can find all this information by doing an online search for your state's security deposit statutes or by contacting your local housing authority.

Can I Get My Deposit Back if I Never Moved In?

You may be entitled to the full return of your security deposit if you don't move into a rental property. All the terms of a lease, including the security deposit, should be in writing. Some fees may be fully or partially nonrefundable; for example, money you pay a landlord to hold a property for you. If you change your mind, and the landlord has held the property in good faith, he may be entitled to keep all or part of the money because of the rent he may have lost from other potential tenants. But your rental contract must state that you paid a nonrefundable fee to hold the property instead of a security deposit – fees and deposits are not the same thing. Your local housing authority can answer questions about whether your state allows the return of a security deposit if you don't move into a property.